“So how did you end up in Belgium?” I ask, just trying to make small talk as we wait for our friends to get their sandwich orders. Mohammad and I have only just met during the lunch break for our intensive Dutch Language course. The only thing I know about him is his name and that he is from Pakistan.
“I’m seeking asylum,” he informs me, his tone flippant. Mohammad gave the statement the weight of a snowflake and it lands on me as an avalanche. I don’t know for certain, but I have pretty good idea that the reason he’s seeking asylum is largely influenced my country’s military presence in Pakistan. To say I feel uncomfortable doesn’t quite capture the nuance of emotions running through me. No previous experience has given me a reference on how to proceed after such a response.
“How do you like Antwerp?” I ask, awkwardly trying to move past his previous answer.
Mohammad shrugs. “I don’t hear bombs,” his voice is soft and casual.
What does a Midwest girl from the suburbs say to a statement like that? “Well, that’s good,” hardly seems like an appropriate answer, but staying silent seems rude. Should I apologize for actions of my government? I am no official representative of the United States so my words don’t mean much, but would that help? Is an apology even what he wants to hear? Would that seem insincere or rude? What does he want to hear? I can’t navigate the casual nature of his response.
I search for something to say but Mohammad breaks the silence by asking, “Do you I know how many civilians are officially recognized as having been killed by the CIA drones in Pakistan?”
Immediately, I bite down on my lower lip and carefully consider my answer — no, I don’t. I feel guilty for admitting this, even to myself, but the events taking place in Pakistan and Afghanistan are not something that often register with me. It’s not fair or just, but it’s the truth. I have read lately that the United States recently changed the definition of a “combatant” to include any male of military age in a strike zone, but that’s about all I know about the current situation. I intently inspect my shoes as I try to find the words to answer.
“I don’t know, but I can say that whatever number we give is probably a lot lower than the reality,” I tell him, truthfully but diplomatically.
“Your government claims there have only been 3,600 civilian casualties. But really more than 36,000 civilians have died as a result of the bomb blasts,” Mohammad’s voice is calm and without accusation, as if he expected my ignorance. At this moment, I wish I could have used the fact that I am living in Belgium as an excuse for my inattention to the United States Drone Policy, but I know I turned a blind eye to the American military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan a long time ago. He continues to inform me about his knowledge and experience on the matter and I listen attentively but responding neutrally. Eventually we head back to class, but the conversation floats uneasily with me in the back of my mind.
After class I go back to my small student room and spend hours researching what Mohammad told me in our conversation, trying to resolve the uneasiness created in me by that conversation. I read more about the American presence and Pakistan and Afghanistan and the wide discrepancies in the official death toll, but the information available is frequently contradicting. Some organizations quote one number and other international rights organizations quote a much higher number. I feel like I am more aware of the situation, but I am not certain I am more informed. When I turn off the computer four hours later, the only certain thing that I am certain of is that I do not believe that drone strikes are an ethical military tactic.
Mohammad told me that in Pakistan America is portrayed as the country’s “frienemy” but, when you meet you meet an American it’s a totally different story. I did not have the courage then to ask which story I told — I hope it was a friendly one.
This post was largely inspired by two different articles: Drone strikes: tears in Congress as Pakistani family tells of mother’s death and Malala and Nabila: Worlds Apart. The conversation I share in this post happened in the summer of 2012, but the impact of Mohammad’s story stays with me to this day. I am quite frankly embarrassed and saddened by the attendance of the United States Congress at this congressional hearing. This is not an issue that should be ignored.
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