Filmmakers: Jamie Doran and Najibullah Quraishi
Twenty-eight-year-old Sadiqullah worked as a cook in a hotel in Afghanistan’s Pech District when US drones targeting Taliban fighters hit the area.
“Lots of people who were in the restaurant were all killed in front of his eyes,” explains veteran Afghan journalist and filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi.
Six years later, Sadiqullah continues to replay the horror of that attack in his mind. Seated on a woven cot in the courtyard of his family’s home in Jalalabad, Sadiqullah exhibits the acute symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trapped in a cycle of mental distress and beating his chest and weeping.
There are many others like Sadiqullah; over 60 percent of the population suffers from a mental health problem.
Generations of Afghans have been devastated by nearly four decades of conflict.
Afghanistan is the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world with over 1,000 known attacks from 2008 to 2012. According to US Central Command figures during this period there were also over 36,000 armed drone flights – an average of 25 a day.
The impact of drones has been particularly catastrophic in Taliban-controlled areas, yet there is little information about these strikes, who was killed or how this constant threat affects the communities targeted.
Many foreign soldiers returning to the West devastated by war have been diagnosed with PTSD. But for the people of Afghanistan, where there is no escape from the conflict, there is little help for people who need psychological care. Afghanistan only has a handful of regional government hospitals, but many people do not even know they exist or realise that many of their services are free. A social stigma associated with mental illness also discourages many from seeking help in the first place.
Living Beneath the Drones follows journalist Quraishi, who has reported on the war in Afghanistan since 2001, as he uncovers his country’s dire mental health situation and the impact and trauma caused by conflict and the newest weapon of war – drones, which constantly fly overhead.
Quraishi meets Dr Mohammed Nader Alimi, a psychologist who helped establish the country’s only specialist mental health hospital, and sees thousands of patients a year. He treats civilians, soldiers, and even Taliban fighters.
The film includes critical commentary from Peter Singer, a US expert on robotics warfare and drones, and remarks from retired US Air Force General David Deptula, who introduced the drone programme to Afghanistan and claims it is the safest form of modern warfare.
But even when they do not strike, the drones’ very presence terrifies and the uncertainty of not knowing whether they could attack at any moment has exacted a steep psychological price.
Quraishi speaks to drone attack survivors and their families. He uncovers one of the darkest channels for psychological treatment. Some families, desperate to help their relatives, take them to religious shrines. But patients there are treated more like criminals and they are shackled in cells. The shrine guardians, with little knowledge of Islam and no medical training, claim to “cure” people with charms and prayers.
Living Beneath the Drones is a dramatic look at people’s stories, a powerful and urgent examination of mental health in Afghanistan and the reality of imprisonment by the omnipresence of drones.