Nabila Rehman was 10 years old in October 2012 when a U.S. predator drone fired two missiles near her home in North Waziristan, killing her grandmother and leaving her and seven others injured. Today, she lives in Bannu—just one among the hundreds of thousands displaced by the Pakistan Army’s offensive against the militant threat in the country’s tribal areas.
Three years after the drone strike that left her injured, Nabila can’t stop reliving the day that changed her life. She was chopping vegetables with her 68-year old grandmother, Mamana Bibi, outside their home when the missiles struck. “I heard two loud bangs,” she says, “I tried to run but when I saw the blood on my hands, I lost consciousness.” When she awoke, her grandmother was dead, she had shrapnel in her right hand, and her brother had suffered shrapnel wounds to his left leg, which required two operations to remove.
The family had to take out a loan to pay for the surgery, forcing their father, Rafiq Rehman, to sell his land to pay off the debt.
Since that day, both Nabila and her elder brother Zubair have suffered psychological trauma. Nabila told Newsweek that clear, blue skies now terrify her because drones find it harder to navigate through clouds. Zubair told media in Washington that he no longer felt safe outside. “I don’t feel like going to school. It’s really destroyed my life,” he added. Fleeing North Waziristan after the military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 has helped; the constant buzzing of drones overhead has disappeared and allowed them a measure of peace.
Nabila, Zubair, and their father traveled to the U.S. in 2013 and addressed a press conference with House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee member Alan Grayson. Rehman said he felt, as a teacher, that he had to educate America on the collateral damage of their drone strikes. The experience left him disappointed. “We wanted an opportunity to explain that we are innocents, but not even the congressmen we met could explain why we had been targeted.”
Prior to the drone strike, Nabila hoped to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a teacher. But after her experience in the U.S., she says she would prefer to become a lawyer who helps the disenfranchised. Unfortunately, the disruption caused by Operation Zarb-e-Azb has delayed her education indefinitely.
“I wish I could go back to school,” she says, while working in a rice field. “The schools in Bannu are too far away [from her residence].” Her 40-year-old father echoes her aspirations. “I really wanted to give Nabila an education,” he says. “She has a craze for it.” Unfortunately, paying off his children’s medical debts has left him with little money for such “luxuries.” The former teacher can no longer afford to hire a car to drive his children to school.
Perhaps because of their similar ages, or the timeframe in which they were both injured, Nabila often finds herself being compared to Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel laureate who was targeted by the Taliban for advocating girls’ right to education.
Yousafzai was flown to England shortly after she was attacked and has been based in the U.K. over persisting threats to her life from the Pakistani Taliban.
“This is such a strange world,” says Nabila. “Both Malala and I belong to the restive regions of Pakistan, but while the West has showered her with affection, nobody has done anything for us.”
Despite the disparity, the family doesn’t begrudge Yousafzai her success. Nabila hopes Malala’s efforts help improve educational opportunities for girls globally. However, her father says it exposes the hypocrisy of activists across the world. “Malala was attacked for advocating the right to education,” he says, “but when a girl from Waziristan is hit by a U.S. drone no one cares.”