US jittery at symbolic meetings of grieving families

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 15 January 2002 01:00 GMT

Americans who lost members of their families in the 11 September attacks will arrive in Kabul to meet Afghans whose loved ones were killed by US bombs.

Americans who lost members of their families in the 11 September attacks will arrive in Kabul to meet Afghans whose loved ones were killed by US bombs.

The meeting is seen by the grieving Americans as a step towards building something good out of profoundly shattering events. But they also bring with them a message of reconciliation that has provoked apprehension inthe State Department and among US diplomats in Afghanistan.

The four American visitors will spend eight days in Afghanistan, not just meeting families but also learning about the devastation that has befallen this poorest of poor nations. They will meet Hamid Karzai, the leader of the interim Afghan government, as well as Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, who is due to arrive on Thursday. They say they will forcefully put across their view that America should now engage in reconstruction and not revenge.

The visit has been organised by Global Exchange, a human rights organisation whose founding director, Medea Benjamin, is travelling with the visitors. He asked: "The people of the US have shown tremendous compassion for the families of the victims of 11 September. Shouldn't our hearts and helping hands also go out to those Afghans who are every bit as innocent as the victims of 11 September? Don't we, as citizens of a wealthy nation that unleashed deadly force against Afghanistan, have a moral responsibility to help the innocent victims?''

The visitors will represent families who suffered in the different attacks on 11 September. Derrill Bodley, a 56-year-old professor of music, lost his daughter Deora on United Airlines flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Deora's stepsister Eva Rupp will accompany him. Rita Lasar, 70, a retired businesswoman, lost her brother Abe Zelmanowitz in the attack on the World Trade Centre. Kelly Campbell, 29, who co- ordinated environmental campaigns, lost her brother-in-law Craig Amundson in the Pentagon attack.

Ms Campbell is making the trip on behalf of Craig's widow, Amber Amundson, who is at home looking after their two small children. Mr Amundson had a distinguished career in the US army, but he liked to say that his job was to maintain the peace rather than wage war. His widow said: "I have heard angry rhetoric by some Americans, including many of our nation's leaders who advise a heavy dose of revenge and punishment. To those leaders, I would like to make clear that my family and I take no comfort in your words of rage. If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband."

Ms Rupp, who works in Washington DC at the Department of Commerce, had been close to Deora since the age of five. She said: "I am going to Afghanistan because I hope to build more understanding between Afghans and Americans.''

Mr Bodley, a professor of music at the University of the Pacific at Stockton, California, composed a piece of piano music which he called "Steps to Peace for Deora". He was asked to perform this later at the White House and a recording of the piece was presented to President George Bush.

The heroism of Abe Zelmanowitz was praised by the President during a speech honouring the victims at the National Cathedral. Mr Zelmanowitz was on the 27th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Centre when it was hit by the first plane. He could have escaped, but he chose instead to stay with his friend, a quadriplegic who could not have fled. His sister Rita said: "I am sure Abe would have wanted me to come. He always believed it is our duty to help those in need."

The first family the visitors will meet will be the Amiris at their tiny, cramped flat at the Old Makroyan suburb of Kabul. Abdul Basir and Shakila lost their five-year-old daughter, Nazila, during an American air strike on the morning of 17 October. She was playing with her younger brother and sister in a building 20 yards from their home when it was hit by a bomb. The pilots may have been trying to blast an army base a mile away. The Amiris do not know, no one has bothered to explain to them what went wrong. All their savings went on the funeral, they now live hand to mouth, facing eviction because of unpaid rent. "I am very glad the Americans are coming to see us," said Mr Amiri, a 34-year-old former police officer sacked by the Taliban because he refused to enforce their punitive policies.

"An innocent life lost is a terrible thing, wherever it is. The life of my daughter was precious, but so were the lives of all those who died in America.

"The terrorists did something evil, and then a pilot dropped a bomb which killed Nazila. I do not know why Allah allows such things to happen, perhaps they feel the same way about their God. We can only grieve for each other."

Three-year-old Shwata and Sohrab, six, were with their sister when the bombs landed. They managed to get away, but they were there 90 minutes later when a bulldozer scooped out Nazila's little body from the rubble. They both have nightmares and constantly cry and ask their mother for her. "She was such a beautiful little girl, my Nazila, people used to stop me on the street and say how beautiful she was," said Mrs Amiri, 33, stroking a faded photograph of her daughter.

"I would like to show the Americans this photo of her 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.''

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