Citizens International

The US Killed my Brother with a Drone. I Want to Know Why

By Mohammed Al Qawli 

Americans must demand an end to drone strikes on innocent civilians

December 09, 2013 “Information Clearing House – “Al Jazeera” – I am writing today as a grieving brother, haunted by questions about Ali al Qawli’s death and the complicity of the United States and the Yemeni governments in bringing it about.

My brother Ali died on Jan. 23, 2013. He was an elementary school teacher at the Khaled Ben Waleed School in the Juhana province of Sanaa, Yemen — an area with a limited number of schools and teachers. The day after my brother died, the teachers’ log had a glaring blank space next to his name. The students waited patiently. Ten minutes passed, then 30 minutes and finally an hour. The principal walked into the classroom and said, “Mr. Ali will not be coming in today.”

Ali had stood in front of his classroom every day, rain or shine and amid heavy clashes that erupted near Yemen’s capital because of demonstrations calling for political and social change beginning in 2011. His students relied on him. Since he started teaching in 2000, my 34-year-old brother hadn’t missed a single day of work. But after 13 years of uninterrupted teaching service, a U.S. drone strike took his life.

It was 8 p.m. when I heard the news. I was sitting with friends drinking tea and chatting when I received a phone call from a relative in the village of Sanhan who said a Toyota Hilux SUV similar to the one my cousin Salim drove had been hit by a U.S. drone. The sounds of drones had been filling our skies for a week. Now they had taken the lives of Ali and Salim, who was 20 years old and working part time as a driver to support his family while he went to college. Ali was in the car with Salim when he gave two alleged members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, a ride. Ali and Salim had nothing to do with these groups — but by the logic of counterterrorism, they all had to go.

At the scene, I stood motionless, frozen by shock. Slowly, as if in a nightmare, I picked up parts of my brother, his body charred and scattered across the ground. Ali’s love of life couldn’t save him. My love for him couldn’t save him. He was burned, broken, dead. I burst into tears at the sight, and then I fainted. It all felt like a bad dream. It still does.

Ali was an optimist. His sense of humor was a powerful antidote to the ongoing clashes, power outages and poverty in Yemen. Ali loved reading and reciting verse by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. With his beautiful personality, he taught and enriched the lives of hundreds of children and young people in his village. Everyone was devastated by his death. Imagine the pain and sorrow I felt and still feel when my brother was ripped from my life. It is the same pain that is felt by our mother, our father, Ali’s wife, their three children and all those who knew and loved him.

An educator opposed to terror

Ali believed in reform. He was one of the first in our village to join the Yemeni revolution in 2011. Participants organized protests that called for equality, an end to political corruption and the resignation of President Ali Saleh. Ali pitched a tent in Sanaa’s Change Square and encouraged family members, colleagues and friends to join the movement. I remember our father begging him to return to the village, fearful that he would get hurt, but Ali insisted on carrying on. He believed in the revolution and refused to leave. When asked why he spent day after day protesting against the government, he often said, “the Yemeni people want to enjoy freedom and democracy.” So when Saleh stepped down in early 2012 and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi took over, Ali was excited. He supported Hadi because he believed that it was the best way to get Yemen out of its suffering. 

Ali did not know that the same president he voted for a year before would end up charring his body and tearing it into pieces in Sanhan, 20 kilometers southeast of the capital. He did not know that the same president who called for change and justice would also graciously welcome U.S. drones, praising the targeted killings as the U.S. dropped bombs on innocent people in his country. He did not know that this president would hold his body hostage in the hospital, refusing to hand over his remains to his family until members from our village ended their protests, stopped their blockades and silenced their demands for an investigation of the drone strike.

Our father, our mother, my brother’s widow and their three young children are living a daily nightmare. My brother was a schoolteacher when he was “accidentally” killed, and the only thing the Yemeni ministry ever acknowledged was that “Salim and Ali Al Qawli did not have any knowledge of or contact with the individuals who asked for a ride, but they happened to die alongside (them.)”

I have been waiting for almost a year now for an apology and for meaningful answers as to why my brother had to die, but no one in the U.S. or Yemeni government has ever contacted me or claimed responsibility for their actions.

I’d heard that the United States of America was sending support to Yemen, but for a long time I did not know what that meant. Now I can see it firsthand. I have received U.S. gifts and U.S. aid, wrapped in a body bag. These explosive fragments kill Yemenis, destroy their spirits, burn their bodies and only further empower the militants. The U.S. and Yemeni governments killed a young man who strongly opposed terrorism and tried to bring change through education — the very same things they purport to want themselves. I want to know why.

Ali al Qawli the schoolteacher has left us, but his tremendous legacy of love, passion and hope remains. I hope that the American people will demand an end to the illegal extrajudicial executions happening in their name. I hope they will stand against the violent actions of their Nobel Peace Prize–winning president and join us in demanding that the U.S. government stop its blind killing of hundreds of innocent people. Most important, I hope they will represent the best ideals of their country’s founding and help end this injustice committed in their name.

I may live thousands of miles from the United States, but I hope that when Americans hear about drones, they will share my brother’s story and the stories of countless other civilians who have died in the name of counterterrorism. We must ensure that both courts and governments stop the killing and do not make a farce of the principles they purport to uphold. 

Mohammed Al Qawli is an educational consultant at the Ministry of Education in Sanaa, Yemen and the former director of the Ministry of Education in Khawlan province. His brother, Ali Al Qawli, was killed in a drone strike in January 2013.