It was such a beautiful morning. The sun streamed into my kitchen window as I sat drinking my first cup of coffee. I listened to the radio, looked at the tops of the buildings, the blue cloudless sky, and exhilarated in the beauty of the day.
Suddenly, the program was interrupted by a newscaster saying a plane had just hit one of the buildings of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, about a mile from where I sat. I remember thinking, how strange it was that the pilot could hit such a conspicuous target. I live on the 15th floor of a high rise, but my view looks north, so I ran to my friend’s apartment on the other side of our building. From her window I saw the second plane hit the south tower.
It was then that it hit me: my brother works in one of those buildings. I ran back to my apartment, turned on the TV and watched the horror along with the rest of the world—the towers burning, falling, filling the area with smoke, the debris scattering, crowds running in panic, and the burning smell which wafted onto my terrace.
My brother’s name was Avrame Zelmanowitz. Everyone called him Avramela. When the first plane hit his building, my other brother Jackie called him and begged him to leave, since he worked on the 27th floor and could easily have escaped. True to form, Avrame said he was staying with his friend, who could not leave because he used a wheelchair. They would wait together to be rescued by the firemen.
Jackie screamed at him to leave.
Avrame said goodbye and hung up.
He and his friend died together.
It’s hard to describe what it was like for the next few days. I looked out of my window onto the major artery in lower Manhattan leading to what is called “hospital row.” I tried to identify ambulances bringing victims of the disaster screeching their alarms, but none appeared. There were none to be taken to hospitals.
My sons Matthew and Raphael live in California and New Jersey, and I panicked at the thought that they would become victims if they came to be with me, either in the air or through a tunnel.
Finally, on the Friday after that day of horror Raphael came to be with me and we went out for a meal. When we came home, a good friend of his called to ask if we had watched President Bush make his speech to the nation at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where he mentioned my brother’s act.
It was then that I knew my country would use my brother’s death to justify the killings of innocents just like him thousands of miles away, and I was devastated by the thought. The New York Times published my letter the following Tuesday in which I prayed that “my country would not unleash forces it would not be in our power to call back.” In the weeks that followed I was asked to speak on Democracy Now. On October 6 I spoke at the first peace rally organized by United For Peace and was told just as I began that we had started bombing Afghanistan.
In December, I got a call from a woman I had never met, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, asking me if I wanted to go to Afghanistan to meet with families whose loved ones had been killed by our bombs. For the first time since September 11th I felt that some sanity was returning to my life. I said yes.
At this time several family members who had lost loved ones on 9/11 had gotten together through published letters and essays they had written for a peace walk from Washington D.C. to New York City. Their message was not in our name and opposition to the war in Afghanistan. They were David Potorti, Barry and Ryan Amundson, Kelly Campbell and Amber Amundson. Colleen Kelly met them when they reached New York. Through this meeting they began to outline the ideas that would eventually create September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows The organization was founded on February 14th 2002.
I had already embarked on the trip to Afghanistan in January. I had always seen war on television. Now here I was in a devastated country, whose landscape was a testimony to what war really means. I met people who greeted me with warmth and gratitude for both caring about them and for freeing them from the terror of the Taliban. This amazed me, for I thought they would blame me for their devastation, as they thought I would blame them for the death of my brother.
I spent 10 days visiting families whose members had been killed by U.S. bombs. They took me into their homes and treated me like family. I went to schools which had recently opened again in half-bombed out buildings, orphanages filled with children without parents, hospitals without medicine, and met the American acting ambassador and a woman activist who was going to join Afghanistan’s newly forming government.
I saw tent cities filled with farmers and their families whose land was rimmed by cluster bombs, making it impossible to stay on their land. I was awed, overwhelmed, and determined to return home to lobby my government to provide them with civilian compensation such as 9/11 families had received.
At the airport on our arrival back home we were met by those who had walked from Washington, D.C. to New York City and thus began the process of forming our Peaceful Tomorrows group.
I’ve traveled to Japan to be the keynote speaker at two conventions, one in Fukuoka and the other in Hiroshima around the week of August 6th, the anniversary of that city’s devastating annihilation by the atomic bomb in 1945. I met Hibakusha (survivors of that bombing) and was inspired by their dedication to the cause of removing all nuclear weapons from our planet. Their voices and actions continue to motivate me and my work.
In the United States, I’ve traveled around the country talking to people about my wish to turn the crime of 9/11 into an opportunity to redirect our efforts towards more peaceful solutions rather than war.
I’ve met with so many people who understood and agreed with me, and with others who thought I was naïve. But I needed to say and do what I felt and hope that someday the world would agree with me.
For me, the beauty and significance of Peaceful Tomorrows is this: that there are people who lost someone they loved to violence, and did not respond to that loss seeking revenge but rather turned their grief into a force for peace. I have met people from around the world who have experienced the loss I have and are actively spreading this message. They are the Japanese Hibakusha, the Palestinian/Israeli Parents Circle, Families of the London subway bombings, of the Bali bombings, of a group of Guernica/Dresden survivors, and so many others. They continue to inspire me and give me hope for peaceful tomorrows.