KABUL, Afghanistan — Derrill Bodley’s search for solace after his daughter’s death Sept. 11 took him thousands of miles from his comfortable Stockton home — to the rubble of Afghanistan.
As he waited for hours in a chilly office in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week to secure a seat on a United Nations plane bound for Kabul, the Afghan capital, he reflected on how the events of Sept. 11 mean different things to different people.
“To me, it was a wake-up call to try to understand what the right thing is to do, and to do it,” he said. By the time the 56-year-old, a music professor at Sacramento City College, flew out of Kabul on Sunday after an emotional four-day tour, he knew what the right thing was and was embarking on a new life course.
While he was in Afghanistan, Bodley found his own grief ebbing. He hugged the father of a 5-year-old girl who had been killed by an errant U.S. bomb, and tapped out, on the tiny Casio keyboard he’d brought along, an accompaniment to a haunting song sung by children at a local orphanage.
It was a trip he almost didn’t make.
The invitation, aimed at uniting families of Sept. 11 victims with victims of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, came around Christmas, just after Bodley had been treated at a hospital for stress-induced symptoms.
His only child, Deora, 20, a junior at Santa Clara University, was killed on United Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.
Bodley’s stepdaughter, Eva Rupp, 28, had been urging him to accompany her to Kabul. She had traveled on a previous trip to Cuba organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights group, to study the impact of the U.S. embargo on the economy there.
Persuading people to go on this latest trip wasn’t easy. Most victims’ families were too frightened to fly at all, let alone go all the way to Afghanistan, said Medea Benjamin, Global Exchange’s founding director.
Three people dropped out, dissuaded by relatives who said they couldn’t bear the prospect of another death, given that bandits still thrive in Afghanistan while a fledgling United Nations-supported government tries to end the country’s lawlessness.
There were hints, too, that such a trip might be unpatriotic. After all, the U.S. is still bombing Afghanistan, trying to drive out the remnants of the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Rita Lasar, 70, whose younger brother, Abe Zelmanowitz, died in the World Trade Center, and Kelly Campbell, whose brother-in-law Craig Amundson, 28, was killed at the Pentagon, decided to take the risk.
Bodley wavered. Lasar, whose brother died because he remained at the side of a paraplegic colleague at the trade center, urged Bodley to join her on the trip. Her first question hadn’t been whether it would be safe but whether she could smoke.
Since Sept. 11, she’d gone from smoking a few cigarettes a day to chain-smoking, an unconscious desire to hurt herself, she surmises, to somehow share in the pain her brother must have felt. It’s the same reason, she thinks, that although she didn’t want her sons to take a cross-country flight or drive through the tunnels from New Jersey to New York, she wasn’t afraid to fly halfway around the world to a dangerous place.
A tough-talking New Yorker with a coarse voice, Lasar telephoned Bodley and told him that if what she’d read about his daughter was true, Deora would have wanted him to go to Afghanistan.
Never a reader of horoscopes, Lasar happened to see hers as she downloaded a crossword puzzle that day.
“Your fellow traveler is not too sure where the journey will lead and whether he can do it,” the horoscope read, “but with a little encouragement from you, it will come off.”
Lasar, who had run a small electronics factory with her late husband, was going because she feared that others would die in her brother’s name.
“They cited him as a hero to justify collateral damage,” she said. “You know, from the kind of deed he did, that’s the last thing my brother would have wanted. By mistake or not, the lives of other innocent people have been taken. I didn’t want others to die in his name, and I thought if I could come and get the attention of the American people, I could help.”
The trip was put together in less than two weeks, and on Jan. 12, the pilgrims left for London. After stops in the United Arab Emirates and Islamabad, they arrived in Afghanistan on Jan. 15.
As their vans swerved to avoid bomb craters on the hourlong ride from the Bagram military airport south to Kabul, the evidence of Afghanistan’s 23-year trajectory of tragedy was overpowering. There were tank skeletons, minefields and, every few miles, checkpoints manned by soldiers of unknown allegiance with Kalashnikov assault rifles mounted on makeshift tripods.
The twisted wreckage of a mosque reminded Lasar of the remains of the World Trade Center.
After the Soviet Union’s decade-long occupation of Afghanistan ended in 1989, warring internal factions destroyed whole sections of Kabul: Roofs are gone and only adobe walls remain, if that. Women carrying children and still shrouded in blue burkas, some in high heels, beg money from foreigners. Giant, crudely fashioned scales weigh firewood; goats and donkey carts share the streets with Toyotas.
Natural beauty and human resilience
The beauty of the place astounds: Barren mountains are set against a backdrop of soaring white-capped peaks. Colorful turbans, caps and shawls reflect a plethora of ethnic groups. A child flies a kite — among the first things banned when the Taliban took power — while another blows a foreigner a kiss.
“The faces are yearning,” said Bodley. “At other times, the human spirit finds a way to laugh and smile. Human beings are pretty resilient.”
Bodley and the other visitors’ exhausting schedule over the next four days was packed with tragedy and pain: meetings with land mine victims, children injured by U.S. cluster bombs, children abandoned when their mothers remarried and deposited them at orphanages.
On the sixth floor of a concrete building with no heat and no lights in the stairwell, Bodley cried with Abdul Basir, who lost his 5-year-old daughter, Nazilla, to an errant U.S. bomb. It fell near their apartment building late one fall morning, collapsing a concrete vestibule that crushed her.
The two men showed each other photos of their daughters and shared their memories.
“This has been going on for 30 years,” Basir said. “The two weeks of bombing upset my daughter so much. She had headaches. She had toothaches.”
Said Bodley: “My body grieved for 2 1/2 months. The body can fix itself, but you never forget the grief.”
“Everybody loved her,” Basir said of Nazilla. “We’re in the same boat.”
Added his wife, Shakila, weeping: “I wish the U.S. government would bring peace here. Our wartime government is in a bad way. Our children are in a bad way. There are no proper playgrounds or schools. Whatever help you could give, we’d be grateful.”
A few women in burkas waited outside, thinking that the commotion came from a relief group handing out money. They were there for their share.
No one can say how many Afghan civilians have been killed or injured by U.S. bombs. Some aid groups estimate at least 500; other researchers put the toll in the thousands. But no one in Kabul seems angry at the United States. They were grateful for help in getting rid of the Taliban.
“We know [my daughter’s death> was an accident here,” Basir said. “The attack on the U.S. was deliberate.”
He confided to Bodley that, somehow, he still thinks his daughter is alive.
“Me too,” Bodley said of his. “She talks to me.”
Bodley played for him a CD of a melody he wrote for his daughter. It’s called “Steps to Peace.”
The music just flowed through Bodley as he sat at the piano two days after Deora’s death.
“It’s like she wrote it for me,” he said. “This is the song my daughter gave me, telling me to do the right thing.”
Mourners in U.S. recall a ‘helper’
At three memorial services in the United States, pretty Deora was described as a “helper,” someone who taught second-graders to read at a school near Santa Clara University, where she was a psychology major.
Bodley quoted Deora’s mother, his former wife, Deborah Borza, as saying: “She spread her light, and all of us have a piece of her.” Deora had written in her journal on an unspecified date: “People ask what, people ask why, people ask where, people ask how, I ask peace.”
Deora wasn’t supposed to be on Flight 93 bound for San Francisco, but she was so eager to return home to see her boyfriend after visiting friends on the East Coast that she rushed to catch a flight that left an hour earlier.
Bodley found omens in Afghanistan that he was doing the right thing. On his CD is a song his father, who was choir director for half a century at University of the Pacific, wrote years ago about four girls making paper flowers.
In a center for street children the group visited in Kabul, little girls were making paper flowers.
And then there was the music.
With the Casio keyboard he bought for $30 in Islamabad, Bodley jammed at a radio station with a well-known Afghan vocalist and sitar and tabla players. He recorded the session for a world music class he’ll teach when the semester opens this week at Sacramento City College.
In some jottings on the eve of his return trip to the U.S., he wrote about his transformation.
“We usually measure transformation over days, weeks or years — years because we think in terms of a lifetime,” he wrote. “I think I’ve had a four-day transformation.”
Seeing how much pain people endure in Afghanistan put his own grief into perspective.
“Things seem to fall into place when I see the tragedy here,” he said.
He’s already planning to go back. He will be appearing with a choir in France and Spain in July but hopes to journey to Afghanistan for the remaining six weeks of his summer break to help wherever he can.
Lasar, who is scheduled to depart Afghanistan later this week, says she may never leave.
“I’m going to devote the rest of my life to getting these people whole,” she said.
Thinking of ways to raise funds
Bodley is thinking of a campaign to raise money for Afghanistan on the order of the millions Americans gave to the families of those killed Sept. 11. He recalled that one day, on his 45-minute drive to work, a radio station raised $60,000 for the victims, and he’s thinking of similar strategies.
Americans would do more if they were less insular, he said.
“If we knew, I think we would care, and I think true caring would make what people need to do obvious,” he said.
“We’ve been asked in the U.S. to go back to normal. Normal isn’t the same. Our normal ended Sept. 11. If we go back to the same normal, there will be another possibility of another Sept. 11.”
Bodley also plans to ask other relatives of victims of Flight 93, who keep in touch via an e-mail newsletter, for donations. He has received an advance on a settlement from the airline and some financial help from the Red Cross.
Much of the money he gets from his daughter’s death, he says, will go to relief projects in Afghanistan. He won’t say how much, but at Deora’s memorial, he quoted Scripture: “Lay ye not treasures here on Earth.”
“It’s not just giving a dime,” Bodley said, “but giving until you feel it. That’s what I’m doing.”
Valerie Reitman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer