Afghanistan Memories

As we approached the Bagram Air Base, outside of Kabul, it seemed to me that I was landing on the surface of the moon. There appeared to be nothing but rubble and light brown dust as far as the eye could see. A pall came over me. I did not believe that it was possible to feel more sadness and disorientation than I had been experiencing since my brother perished in the World Trade Center on September 11th, but here I was, in a country I had never imagined feeling connected to, experiencing the same shock as I had on that fateful day.

As I walked down the staircase of the UN plane that had brought me there, I realized that the symmetry between the events of September 11th and October 7th was almost complete. The drive to the city revealed more destruction and devastation than this privileged American had ever imagined. This was not a picture book landscape or a television documentary. This was the reality of war.

In the car to the city, our guide pointed to a collapsed building, and told me that it had been a mosque recently bombed by my country. I asked if we could stop the car, for there before me was a sight identical, except in size, to what I had seen at Ground Zero a few days earlier. The metal frame of the mosque was sticking out of the structure at the exact angle the metal frame of the North Tower, the building my brother had died in, had protruded.

It was then that I fully understood why I had chosen to make this journey. I was to be a witness to the sorrow, horror and suffering of the innocent people who were being made to pay for the September 11th attacks.

On the night we arrived in Kabul, after stopping at the guest house we would call home, Medea Benjamin and I rushed to the Intercontinental Hotel. One of the networks had given us a room there, so that I could be present for an interview early the next morning. There was a reason for our haste: Kabul was under total curfew, requiring us to arrive before it took effect. Guards along the way stopped our car, first to see if we had arms or other dangerous items, and then to see if they recognized the driver who was transporting these strange passengers.

I had been traveling for three full days to get here, and had slept in three different airports without showers. In Islamabad, Pakistan, I had finally slept on a bed, but it was not easy getting used to armed guards in the lobby and the entrance of the guesthouse. In short, I was completely worn out. When we arrived at the Intercontinental, the men behind the desk spoke no English. But they did manage to convey the fact that there was no room for us– no room, in fact, for anyone.

I decided–or rather, it was decided for me in consultation with Medea–to start crying. So I did. I was so uncertain of what we could do: they would not let us sleep on the couches in the lobby; we could not leave after curfew. A new man emerged from the office behind the desk and reported that there was one room–“high up,” he said, with no heat or water–and this was in bitter cold January. I thought he had meant no “hot water,” but he had said what he meant–no water of any kind.

There was no elevator, not here or anywhere in Kabul. We walked up six flights of hard marble stairs–testament to the fact that the city had once been a thriving, rich metropolis–and down a dark hall–the electricity was out–into the coldest room I had ever known. One of the men brought us a bucket full of cold water for the toilet, which did not flush. Tired, worried, and miserable, I opened the door to our “room’ and walked down the hall.

The rooms were all marked with the names of media, and I knocked on the door for CNN. The people who answered knew who I was—one of four visiting Americans who had lost loved ones on September 11th–and that we were a “big story.” They were so kind to me, giving me a space heater (to use when the electricity worked), water to drink (with the warning to “never drink tap water here”) and some extra blankets. I took these back to our room and we tried to sleep. And we did– sort of.

The next morning we sat at a table in the dining room, drinking tea and watching the ministers, who were slowly returning for the purpose of forming a new government, as they sat at the tables around us and talked. My network interviewers arrived and whisked me away, looking for footage that would add color to their segment. As I marveled at the paper flowers for sale among half-demolished buildings, I was told we were on Chicken Street and was invited to make a purchase while the camera rolled.

I reached for my pouch around my neck, holding my passport, return airline tickets and the $500 I had brought with me. But it was gone. And I panicked. Then I remembered that I had put the pouch under my pillow for safe keeping the night before–on the top floor of the hotel. My companions calmed me down and sent someone to the hotel to find it. I knew it was lost. I am a New Yorker. An American, I knew that a passport in Afghanistan would be almost priceless.  But the man returned with my pouch, and nothing had been taken. And I learned that my luggage, which I had also forgotten, was being held for me at the desk.

While everyone has stories about the challenges of traveling in a foreign land, the real story of my trip to Afghanistan is of the people I met.

Everyone we encountered knew about September 11th–everyone. In a school for the deaf they had even invented a special sign: hold up you left hand and move the fingers of your right hand horizontally toward your left palm until they touch. I still get shivers remembering the first time I saw the teacher for deaf kids explain to them who I was. I kept thinking to myself, “how many Americans know anything about Afghanistan?”

We visited the Aschiana Streetchildren’s Center, a humanitarian agency that took children off the streets, fed them a daily meal, and taught them arts and crafts so that they would not have to beg. The children were so beautiful and so sad. But they were also children, and so they laughed, and sang, and gathered around to watch and to hear these strange Americans. After we had been there a few days, we were recognized wherever we went, and the children would call out to us, “Hallo, how are you, we love you.”

American forces had dropped many cluster bombs in the military campaign. Each contained 202 “bomblets” which explode separately. Deminers in the area told us that up to 30% of the bomblets did not explode on impact—remaining as unexploded ordinance and a danger to the population. At first, they looked like the food packets the U.S. had also dropped from the skies, and those running to get the food would sometimes be maimed or killed. After a while, the colors were changed, but little children–who are not always easily managed by adults–would stray and play in the fields where the bomblets lay ready to explode. A doctor who managed both the detonating of unexploded bomblets and the hospital treatment of victims told us that at least ten children a day were so harmed. He described his own children’s fear when he returned to his home each evening, and how the noise and flashes of bombs falling all around had terrified them.

I met the brothers of a young man who had recently married for love, a very rare occurrence in a culture where marriages are arranged. He and his new bride were asleep in their bed when a bomb came through the window and killed them both. They told me about their brother: he was an artist and a poet and had married a young woman very much like him.

We sat on a carpet on the floor, drinking tea and eating nuts and raisins brought by their sister, who handed me an embroidered parrot that her brother had made. She said how sorry she was for my brother, and we embraced and cried together. It was only after I left their house that a reporter told me it was almost unheard of for the woman to have stayed in the room and spoken to me. She was that moved by the presence of an American woman who had come all that way to say how sorry she was for the death of their brother.

My trip to Afghanistan changed my life. Never will I be able to turn my eyes or back away from the innocent victims of governments unable to resolve conflict through means other than bombs: bombs that kill innocent people, just like my brother Avrame.

Excerpted from September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief Into Action for Peace.

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