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One in sorrow


When Derrill Bodley looked at the face of the Afghan mother, he felt an instant connection. Some sorrows, like some joys, are universal and require no words.

The 56-year-old music professor from California had lost his only child, his big-hearted daughter, on Sept. 11 when a hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed over southwest Pennsylvania. The dark-eyed mother before him had lost her firstborn, a son and the family breadwinner, when a U.S. bomb crashed through their home in late November. Her house, says Bodley, “was nowhere near a military target.” Both victims were 20 years old.

“I looked at her eyes, and she looked at mine and I know that she saw I felt what she was feeling. Grief. Utter grief.”

Apart from sharing the cruel fate of burying a child, the lives of the two parents are dissimilar. She faces financial uncertainty. He does not. Photos and poignant biographies of his daughter, Deora, have helped Americans understand the significance of his loss and evoked remarkable generosity from friend and stranger. Her son’s death remains an obscure detail in a faraway war.

Bodley met the bereaved mother during a recent trip to Kabul, Afghanistan. From Jan. 16 to 23, he and three other family members of Sept. 11 victims toured the war-torn city, visiting Afghans whose loved ones died as a result of U.S. bombing. In addition to Bodley, participants in this unusual pilgrimage of compassion and reconciliation were Rita Lasar, whose brother Abe Zelmanowitz died in Building One of the World Trade Center; Kelly Campbell, sister-in-law to Craig Amundson, killed in the Pentagon attack; and Eva Rupp, stepsister to Deora Bodley.

The victims-to-victims delegation was organized by the San Francisco-based human rights organization, Global Exchange.

The delegates are now asking the U.S. government to establish a compensation fund for innocent civilians affected by U.S. bombings. The idea, they say, was inspired by a similar U.S. government fund, created for Americans who lost family members in the 9/11 attacks. They want to share the wealth of compassion they received with their Afghan counterparts. They also want accountability for the bombing of Afghan civilians.

‘We owe it to them’

“The U.S. government should take responsibility for the direct effect [of bombing] on these people’s lives,” said Kelly Campbell, in a news release announcing the proposal for the compensation fund. “We owe it to them to do what we can to help them rebuild their homes and give their children health care and an education so they can get on with their lives.”

For the delegates, the arduous journey to Afghanistan was an expression of their desire for peace and reconstruction rather than war. On Oct. 7, the day the U.S. air war began, Lasar, a 70-year-old retired businesswoman from New York, attended a peace rally in Manhattan’s Union Square and spoke against retaliation.

Kelly Campbell, 29, a coordinator for environmental campaigns from Oakland, Calif., traveled on behalf of her sister-in-law, Amber Amundson, widow of Craig Amundson and the mother of two small children. Craig, a distinguished military officer, entered military service for the purpose of maintaining peace rather than waging war, his wife said. Amber Amundson and Craig’s brother Ryan became outspoken critics of military action almost immediately after the attacks. Ryan said that he and his sister-in-law Amber “have decided that we will do all we can to spread the message of peace. This is what my brother would have wanted, and it is something he has taught everyone in our family.”

Two days after his daughter died, Bodley, who teaches music at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., composed a song in her memory titled “Steps to Peace for Deora,” which he later performed at the White House. Bodley gave President Bush a CD of his composition but said the president “didn’t get that message. He thinks the steps to peace are waging war.”

The Kabul trip was the brainchild of Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange. Founded in 1988, Global Exchange’s stated mission is the promotion of “environmental, political and social justice around the world.” The organization sponsors people-to-people tours to numerous countries including Colombia, India and Mexico and is now initiating trips to Afghanistan. Benjamin said she, her 21-year-old daughter Arlen, and two members of Global Exchange traveled throughout Afghanistan in late November to assess the impact of the U.S. bombing campaign. “We found all these people had been hurt by U.S. bombs,” she said, yet her efforts to report her findings to the American media were completely ignored.

Frustrated, Benjamin began contacting family members of Sept. 11 victims and inviting them to go to Afghanistan. New Yorker Lasar was among the first to say yes. For her, Benjamin’s invitation was an answer to prayer.

‘Not in my brother’s name’

“Once we started our bombing -- which I had hoped would not start as soon as it did -- I wanted to do something. But I didn’t know what. I knew people somewhere in the world were going to be hurt and killed. I just didn’t want that to happen. Not in my brother’s name.”

Abe Zelmanowitz, Lasar’s youngest brother, was on the 27th floor when the first plane struck. Although he easily could have left the building, he chose instead to remain with his friend, Ed Bayea, a quadriplegic, until help arrived for both of them. The friends died together. Zelmanowitz was 55 years old.

In remarks made during the National Cathedral Prayer Service on Sept. 14, President Bush praised Zelmanowitz’s choice saying, “eloquent acts of sacrifices” were part of our “national character.” His compliment disturbed Lasar, who feared her “brother’s death was going to be used to justify the killing of innocents.”

The delegates flew into Kabul from Peshawar, Pakistan, on a United Nations plane. Several of the delegates said their eight-day stay in the capital was an overwhelming immersion in destruction. The country has endured 23 years of war, Bodley said, leaving “tremendous devastation.” According to his description, the road into Kabul from the airport is littered with rusted tanks, sandbags encircling landmines and bomb craters 2 to 3 feet in diameter. “Entire districts of the city were in ruins like ghost museums,” he said.

The trip’s itinerary, planned by Global Exchange, included visits to a hospital, a school and a tent city sheltering farmers unable to return to their fields because cluster bombs were everywhere, said Lasar. Most memorable, however, were the house-to-house visits with families affected by the U.S. bombing.

For Rupp, 28, a federal employee with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Kabul trip was her first encounter with traumatized children. During one visit, she met a 6-year-old wearing diapers. The boy seemed to have “regressed to the age of 1-and-a-half to 2 years old, and he had this expression on his face that was just so strained, so tense.” The trauma he observed -- “family members dismembered by bombs -- was similar to what people in New York would have seen and been affected by,” Rupp said.

The visits evoked conflicting feelings. She met Shakila Amiri, who was both grief-stricken over the death of her 5-year-old daughter, Nazila, killed by a U.S. bomb, and relieved at the removal of the Taliban. “The Taliban is not a regime that I would want to support,” Rupp said. “They were incredibly repressive, guilty of horrible things. I don’t know if we could have gone about this a different way. But when you’re sitting looking at a person who lost an innocent child, it’s so hard to say, ‘Yes, we did the right thing.’ ”

‘The terrible things men do’

The circumstances of Nazila’s death were described in detail in the New Zealand Herald, a daily newspaper. The child was killed Oct. 17 while playing in a building 20 yards from her home that was struck by a U.S. bomb, according to the newspaper. The pilot may have been aiming for an army base a mile away. Shwata, 3, and Sohrab, 6, were with their sister but managed to escape harm. Both, however, saw the bulldozer remove their sister’s body and both still suffer nightmares.

Amriri, who spoke with the New Zealand Herald in advance of the Americans’ visit, said she wanted to show her visitors photos of her daughter “and try to explain how sad we feel. Maybe they will talk about the people they lost. It is a long way for them to come and also very kind of them. We all suffer because of the terrible things men do.”

Bodley said, “We saw families that had lost several members to U.S. bombing.” Arifah Rahman lost her husband and five of her eight children to U.S. bombs, according to Lasar. “She was as distraught as any human being I thought I would see.”

Lasar, who witnessed the second plane crash into Building Two of the World Trade Center and subsequently kept her living room blinds “drawn for weeks,” said her job now is to get the U.S. government to recognize the plight of people like Rahman. While in Kabul, she comforted the bereaved mother and accompanied her to the gates of the American Embassy. The two women handed a list, bearing the names of Rahman’s dead children, to a U.S. Marine and asked that it be given to U.S. chargé d’affaires Ryan Crocker.

On Jan. 29 and 30, Rupp and Benjamin, who accompanied the family members to Afghanistan, visited 16 Congressional offices to discuss proposals for an Afghan compensation fund. Delegates are requesting approximately $20 million from the U.S. government, according to a Global Exchange news release. That figure is based on estimates of 2,000 claims at an average compensation of $10,000 per claim.

The Congressional meetings went “amazingly well,” said Benjamin. “There was this sense that this is the right thing to do.” The conversations included ways to fund the request by adding it on to the supplemental appropriations for 2002 or the appropriations bill for 2003, she said. With either process, money would not be available for a year. To expedite matters, the delegates could take their request directly to President Bush, who could immediately allocate an amount for an Afghan compensation fund. Congressman Tony Hall, D-Ohio, expressed interest in facilitating such a meeting although his senior aide Deborah DeYoung said, “I am not sure we’re going to be the point people on this one.”

Millions, not billions, for Afghans

In fact, political will for establishing the fund remains to be seen. In a news release, touting bipartisan support for the project, Global Exchange said Congresswoman Carrie Meek, D-Fla., and Congressman John Cooksey, R-La., had told the Kabul delegation they would “sponsor a resolution supporting the creation of an Afghan compensation fund.” But aides in both offices told NCR that their representatives had no such plans.

For Bodley, the discrepancy in funds for American and Afghan victims is staggering. He calls U.S. contributions to Afghanistan “m money” (millions) as opposed to the “b money” (billions) given various funds established for the victims of Sept. 11. At the International Conference for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan held in Tokyo Jan. 21 and 22, the United States pledged $296 million of a total $1.8 billion pledged by other countries. The United States amount is “one third the amount pledged by Japan, which had nothing to do with the war,” said Bodley.

He is hoping for a grassroots campaign to assist with the rebuilding of Afghanistan and he has confidence in the generosity of the American public. This summer, he plans to return to the war-beleaguered country. If a compensation fund is established, someone would have to document what happened when the bombs fell. Bodley is willing to take on that job. He is, in fact, willing to take on almost any job to help repair Afghanistan. “Give me a hammer and saw and I’ll hammer and saw all day long,” he said.

In her conversations with family members of Sept. 11 victims, Lasar said she never heard expressions of anger. “I think we have no room for anger. We are grieving. We are sorrowful. We need to find a way to make this situation whole again.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002