Return from the Other Ground Zero

Manhattanite Rita Laser lost her brother, Abe Zelmanowitz, on Sept. 11 in the collapse of the World Trade Center. When President George Bush later eulogized him, singling Zelmanowitz out for staying to help a quadriplegic friend rather than fleeing to safety, Laser feared her family would become double victims of violence.

To find solace, the septuagenarian traveled halfway across the world to visit war-scarred Afghanistan with a delegation of victims’ family members organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights group. The Americans spent 10 days during January in Afghanistan meeting victims of the U.S. bombing campaign, local schoolchildren and American diplomats. For Laser, the trip to the other “ground zero” was a way to make sense of her brother’s death.

At a homecoming reception sponsored by New York’s Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC) and the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan, Laser told supporters, “I found a second home in Afghanistan…The people who greeted us were devastated by 23 years of war. They were the most generous people I have ever met.”

Laser, who became something of a mini-celebrity on the tour, explained her new fondness for the Afghan people. “I feel closer to the people over there than to people here. They did not blame us. They do not like Al-Qaida. They care for us because we could listen to them.”

In a brief video clip of the Afghan tour, Laser breaks down after seeing some of the rubble near Kabul that resembled steel bars left standing at New York’s “ground zero.” In tears Laser exclaimed, “This is Ground Zero Two. Oh, my God. I can’t believe this. How can this happen?”

Kelly Campbell, a 29-year-old environmentalist from Oakland, Calif., lost her brother-in-law, Craig Amundson, in the Pentagon attack. American pilots began bombing Afghanistan the same day she went to Amundon’s memorial service in Iowa. She found herself thinking about whole new families of victims half-way across the world.

“It was a very difficult day for me,” she told 50 people at the Al-Baraka restaurant on Manhattan’s East 55 St. “I just wanted to think about Craig. Other people with other stories would be hurt that day. We in America were not hearing the stories of the people being hurt by U.S. bombs. Their lives are just as important…just as important as Craig’s life.”

During the Afghan tour, Campbell visited schools and fondly remembers the young children who were just able to return to school. She read from a letter from one of the children who sent greetings to schoolkids in America and asked for young Americans to “not be afraid of us, we are with you.”

Campbell concluded, “They know what it is like to lose people to violence. The other message is not to forget us.”

Global Exchange is now pushing for an Afghan war victims fund. The delegation has gone to Capitol Hill asking for money to supply health care and therapy for civilians bombed by American jets. So far, independent estimates tally between 1,500-4,000 Afghan civilians killed since the bombing started on Oct. 7.

While in Afghanistan, Global Exchange representatives collected depositions from victims and families of victims killed or injured by American military actions.

Afghan-American Masuda Sultan, founder of the Young Afghan World Alliance, lost 17 relatives during a U.S. bombing raid on Oct. 22. According to a Human Rights Watch news release, 35 people died in the isolated village of Chowkar-Karez north of Kandahar as a result of American military action.

Both Sultan and HRW say there was no evidence of Taliban or Al-Qaida forces in the area to justify those attacks. According to HRW investigators, air attacks started at 11 p.m. and villagers started running out of their homes. Aircraft soon returned and fired on those civilians. The bombing and gunfire lasted for about an hour.

On Oct. 30, 2001, Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, stated, “This is the second instance in less than a week in which we’ve documented substantial civilian casualties from U.S. bombing raids. The Pentagon has got to do more to avoid these deaths.”

Speaking at the WESPAC reception, Sultan stated that 75 villagers died in that raid. She first heard of it when she was traveling in Pakistan and later got the bad news confirmed by friends in Afghanistan.

“We are still looking for answers,” she said.

Campbell observed, “It was not the people of Afghanistan who did this [the Sept. 11 attacks> to us. These people shared with us the sorrow for Sept. 11. They were sorry for what happened to us.”

Global Exchange founder and trip organizer Medea Benjamin says the American military has inflicted heavy damage on Afghan society during its war against the Taliban and Al-Qaida. She estimates that there have been four times the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan as there were in the enitre NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo.

“Why was the U.S. using cluster bombs that when unexploded are considered the same as landmines? They hurt civilians more than anything else,” she asked.

HRW estimates there are 5,000 unexploded “cluster-bomblets” lying around the fields and plains of Afghanistan.

Now may not be the best time to seek American aid for Afghan war victims. Public support for President Bush’s “war on terrorism” remains extremely high and there appears to be little public sympathy for those innocents caught in the crossfire of the American assault on Osama bin Laden & Co.

“A victim is a victim,” says Benjamin, “no matter where they live.”

-Robert Nixon

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