Editor’s Note: Faisal bin ali al Jaber is a Yemeni civil engineer whose innocent family members were killed by U.S. drones. He is suing the U.S. government in a landmark federal court case, seeking only two things: the truth and an apology. He is represented by international human rights organization Reprieve. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
In April this year, in the wake of the deaths of an American, Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto, in a U.S. counterterrorism operation, U.S. President Barack Obama made an historic announcement, in which he said the following: “I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni.
“I profoundly regret what happened,” Obama continued. “On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families … I directed that the existence of this operation be declassified and disclosed publicly. I did so because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth. And I did so because even as certain aspects of our national security efforts have to remain secret in order to succeed, the United States is a democracy committed to openness in good times and in bad.”
President Obama was admitting to killing two innocents in one of his drone strikes. Never before had he apologized for an attack.
Like a lot of Americans, my family and I watched the President’s speech at home. But while many praised him for his forthrightness, we do not share that view. His speech shocked us. No, it was worse: his speech broke our hearts.
As I watched, I thought of my dead relatives, names that so far as I know have never crossed the President’s lips: Waleed and Salem bin Ali Jaber. A little over two years ago my family and I were forced to collect their remains after a drone attack on our hometown of Khashamir killed them both.
Like Warren and Giovanni, Salem and Waleed were innocent. America was not their enemy. Waleed, a young policeman, kept our townspeople safe. Salem, my brother-in-law, had preached a sermon against al Qaeda’s hateful ideology just days before the U.S. killed him.
I will never forget the moment I saw what was left of Salem and Waleed. The drone left them almost unrecognizable. We identified them from their clothes and scraps of matted hair. Khashamir was not a war zone. It was a quiet town until Obama sent in his drones. The strike hit near the wedding celebration of my eldest son. After we buried the dead, we started to ask questions. How did this happen? Why?
A year and a half ago I traveled 7,000 miles to America seeking answers, and hoping for an apology. But the President’s response to my questions was a wall of silence. It seems the Obama Administration has known for years how Salem and Waleed died, and what a terrible mistake it was. Yet the President refuses to admit it.
Instead of an official apology, a few months after my visit, members of my family were handed $100,000 in sequentially-marked U.S. dollars in a plastic bag. A Yemeni security service official was given the unpleasant task of handing this over. I looked him in the eye and asked how this was acceptable, and whether he would admit the money came from America. He shrugged and said: “Can’t tell you. Take the money.”
What is the value of a human life? The secret payment to my family represents a fraction of the cost of the operation that killed them. This seems to be the Obama administration’s cold calculation: Yemeni lives are cheap. They cost the President no political or moral capital.
This is short-sighted and wrong. Salem preached again and again that violence was not the answer. After his death, I sought to follow his example. But how can I persuade the younger generation to seek peaceful change when the message from the U.S. President was, and is, that the slain innocents of Yemen will go unnoticed and unmourned?
To the families of Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein I offer my empathy and my heartfelt condolences. I know that Obama’s apology by press conference does nothing to bring back their loved ones. I know their hearts are rent. Like mine, I know they always will be. But to those safe at home who have not suffered our losses, I ask you to remember not just Lo Porto and Weinstein, but also the hundreds of innocent Yemenis — largely nameless to the U.S. public — who have suffered the same fate.
Imagine that your loved one was wrongly killed by the U.S. government, and the White House would not apologize. Imagine they would not even admit their role in the death of your family members.
I remember earlier remarks from the President after we lost Salem and Waleed. At that time he spoke in generalities about dead innocents like my loved ones. He claimed that their deaths “will haunt us as long as we live.” Yet the President’s actions have not lived up to his words. The impression he gives ordinary Yemenis is that our blood can be bought with secret cash. The reality is that it is we who will be haunted for as long as we live — by Obama’s drones, by the sight of our charred loved ones, by our communities shattered.
We pressed the President to break his silence. We waited, and hoped for justice. But nothing came. So we are now taking our case to the U.S. courts of law, in a case called Jaber v Obama. We simply want the truth and an apology. We will not rest until it is ours.