NYT article: Sharing Grief to Find Understanding

KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 16

Rita Lasar was padding around her East Village apartment after breakfast when the news crackled over the radio. About 7,000 miles away, in Kabul, Amin Said had finished dinner and was listening to the radio when he heard.

For Mrs. Lasar, the horror came quickly, with the realization that her brother was in the north tower of the World Trade Center and had refused to leave a colleague who used a wheelchair.

For Mr. Said, it struck two months later, when a wayward American bomb plowed into the side of his house here, killing his brother and sister-in-law, married just six weeks earlier.

Today, from opposite poles of the conflict, Mrs. Lasar, a 70-year-old American woman, and Mr. Said, a 36- year-old Afghan man, met in Kabul and found common ground in their sorrow.

“We didn’t mean to hurt you the way we did, but now we have to help you,” Mrs. Lasar said as she entered the Said home, where new walls and windows had erased the bomb’s destruction.

Clasping her hands and drawing her into a sun-filled room of cushions and carpets, Mr. Said told Mrs. Lasar: “He was your brother, but he was also my brother. We are all brothers and sisters.”

Standing with head bowed, Mr. Said called for a moment of silence to honor the dead: Abe Zelmanowitz of Brooklyn and Iqbal and Zarlash Said of Kabul. Far from home, in a land where American bombs continue to fall, Mrs. Lasar put her head in her hands and wept.

“I don’t want to see you sad,” Mr. Said said softly in Dari, the native language of ethnic Tajiks. “I don’t want to see tears in your eyes.

You should be happy because we are together.”

And for the next hour, they were.

Mrs. Lasar is one of four Americans bereaved in the September terror attack who arrived here on Tuesday to meet with Afghans bereaved in the American bombing campaign.

The visit was arranged by Global Exchange, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco. Although some encounters seemed contrived, not least because of saturation coverage by a hungry foreign media contingent, there were genuine moments.

“We respect you because you came to our house,” Mr. Said said, “and also because you have gray hair, like my mother.”

Mrs. Lasar shot back, “I’m probably old enough to be your mother, if not your grandmother.”

Swapping photographs and stories, Mrs. Lasar and Mr. Said found out that their younger brothers had had one thing in common: outsized personalities that drew people to them.

Iqbal Said, his brother said, was something of a prodigal son, having traveled around Central Asia for 18 years before returning to Kabul for his mother’s funeral last year.

A friend persuaded Iqbal, then 34, to settle down and find a bride. The friend suggested he meet a striking young woman from a neighborhood family. Iqbal agreed, and soon he was romancing Zarlash with English poetry scribbled on postcards.

Abe Zelmanowitz never did find a bride, although Mrs. Lasar said it was not for lack of prodding from his family.

“My brother and I pressured him to get married until the day he died,” she said. “And my parents? Oh, my God.”

Mr. Zelmanowitz, 55, lived with his brother Jack and his family in Brooklyn, where he became a second father to his nieces and nephews. An Orthodox Jew, he would walk three miles each way to visit his parents on the Sabbath.

Friends remember him for his razor wit and deftness with language. And, Mrs. Lasar said, he was immensely loyal, not just to his family but to his colleagues at Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, where he worked as a computer programmer.

The morning of Sept. 11, he was on the 27th floor of the north tower, well below where the plane crashed. But his colleague, Edward Beyea, was quadriplegic and could not be evacuated without help from firefighters.

Despite desperate phone calls from his brother begging him to leave, Mr. Zelmanowitz said he would not abandon Mr. Beyea. Together, they waited for rescuers who never came.

President Bush celebrated Mr. Zelmanowitz’s heroism in his address at the National Cathedral in Washington after the attack. But Mrs. Lasar said it was no surprise to anyone who knew him.

As she recounted this story, Mrs. Lasar passed around a photo of herself with Mr. Zelmanowitz. Amin Said’s surviving brother, Makhtar, gazed at the photo, as did their sister, Bibi Mosona. As is typical in Afghan society, Mrs. Mosona had entered the room only to serve tea, but she was determined to share her memories with her female guest.

She showed Mrs. Lasar a bolt of cloth on which her brother Iqbal had embroidered a delicate pattern. He made a living as a tailor; his speciality was embroidery. The cloth was his last bit of handiwork, and it had holes where shrapnel from the bomb tore through it.

When Mrs. Lasar asked about Iqbal’s wife, it was Mrs. Mosona who answered: Zarlash Said was a mathematics teacher and a partner to her husband, who spoke four languages and wrote poetry.

When the story-telling was finished, Mrs. Lasar and her hosts talked about the violence that had brought them together. Amin Said said he understood why the United States had bombed his country.

“This action was taken to destroy a very cruel terrorist force based in Afghanistan,” he said. “It was not just to compensate for the death of people with more people.”

Mr. Said said he forgave the pilot who dropped the errant bomb. He said he suspected the military was trying to hit a nearby house where a senior Taliban official was known to be hiding.

For her part, Mrs. Lasar has deep misgivings about the continued American bombing of Afghanistan. She said she would like to meet Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who plans a stop in Kabul, to express those doubts.

“In my brother’s name, I would respectfully request he make a real effort to help individual Afghan people,” Mrs. Lasar said.

Here, perhaps, was where the differences between the Afghan family and their New York guest became apparent. Mr. Said, whose last home was destroyed in fighting between rival mujahedeen forces, sounded fatalistic about the likelihood of more violence in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Lasar said she was still struggling with the idea that civilians could end up as casualties of a war they had not sought.

“My brother became collateral damage of this conflict,” Mrs. Lasar said, as she bade Mr. Said a somber farewell. “The Afghan people became collateral damage of this conflict.”

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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