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Sisters in Arms: Kristina and Myrna both lost siblings in the September 11 attacks, but instead of baying for revenge, they set out to Afghanistan on a mission of peace
5 July 2002
Kristina Olsen sits on the stairs of a guest house in Kabul and remembers her sister. Laurie Olsen was a passenger on American Airlines flight 11 which was flown into the World Trade Center's north tower on September 11. "Not a day goes by that I don't think of her," she says with her head in her hands. Especially not here, on the quest for understanding that has brought her to Afghanistan. Many American families who lost loved ones in the September attacks supported their president's decision to bomb Afghanistan. Some kept their counsel.
Olsen, a nurse from Massachusetts, is one of a number of people who not only opposed the reprisals but, as time went on, felt a growing need to make their opposition public. Her trip to Afghanistan to meet the innocent victims of America's revenge strikes is the most controversial step in her journey so far. She says she came to Kabul "to learn about Afghanistan, but also because I didn't want suffering to be perpetuated".
Along with Myrna Bethke, pastor of a New Jersey Methodist church who lost her brother on September 11, she is part of an inter-faith delegation to Kabul which also includes Christian, Jewish and Muslim Americans. They came to build bridges with Afghans who have suffered from the "war on terrorism".
None had visited the country before. They began with a two-week round of visits to schools, hospitals, aid agency offices and camps for displaced people. The high point was undoubtedly meeting Afghan women who had suffered under US bombs. "Afa lost her husband, two children and five other family members. She showed us what was left of her house, which was nothing but rubble, really. The worst thing, she told us, was having to go down to the mosque and identify her loved ones - essentially just pieces of them," says Olsen.
The group held a memorial service with Afghan families at the mental health hospital in Kabul, where many survivors come for counseling. An altar was built out of pieces of rubble, with flowers on top, and photographs of some of the dead, including Olsen's sister. Olsen says she found it "very moving and beautiful and healing to see my sister's picture there. They all offered compassion and condolence."
The events of September 11 made her wonder why people in the prime of their lives would kill other people in so dramatic a way. "I found the answer in our government's foreign policy. We have a record of being insensitive and exploitative. We consume 60% of the world's resources, and I could understand how that could elicit anger. I don't pretend to know the answer. Maybe it's taking responsibility for our end of things and not blaming the rest of the world," she says.
Like Olsen, Myrna Bethke found the memorial service very moving. The presence of TV cameras at their first meetings had created an artificial atmosphere. "I couldn't get a read on how Afghans really felt to receive Americans like us. Was there a connection between us? Was there a sense of shared grief? I wasn't sure," she says.
She was struck by the importance of flags as a response to grief in American and Afghan culture: "There was this parallel between the flag raised by rescue workers at ground zero in New York and the green flags we saw at the cemetery for each of the bombing victims."
The group held two further meetings which were more successful. Under the Taliban Afghans had no television, so people did not always understand what had happened on September 11. "I know they knew that something awful happened, but not exactly what it was. Now I've learned that their losses have been much greater than ours," says Bethke.
There has been no exact count of Afghan casualties from American bombs, but at least 3,500 are estimated to have died so far and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. As many as 20,000 more may have died of hunger and cold after fleeing Kabul, Kandahar and other cities because international food convoys were suspended.
Olsen's first reaction to the Twin Towers atrocity was, she says, a sense of lost innocence. "Now I know what people in other countries feel. We were so comfortable and sheltered. Around the world people die terrible deaths on a continual basis, and it's routine."
The visit to Kabul strongly confirmed the two women's initial instinct that most Afghans were innocent, and that more people would die unnecessarily if the US responded with air strikes. "When the bombing started, I felt shut down. It was just awful. It was bad enough to lose my sister in that way but for it to be in vain was much worse," says Olsen.
Did she never feel any desire for revenge after Laurie's death? "I did feel a kind of nebulous anger sometimes. I remember rolling up the windows of my car one day and letting out a primal scream. It was just the feeling that I would never be able to spend time with her again," she replies. "But most of the time I feel a sense of deep humility and vulnerability, and an urge to look more deeply into the issues beyond what we were all experiencing on a personal level."
Bethke says she is not sure what America's reaction should have been, but she is convinced that Bush's eventual response was wrong. "I was very saddened when our government bombed Afghanistan. I had hoped we would find another way," she says.
The two women belong to a group of families who lost relatives on September 11 and criticize the war on terror. Called Peaceful Tomorrows, it now has 70 members.
The initiative to send members of bereaved American families to Afghanistan came from a California-based human-rights organization called Global Exchange. Among other campaigns, it calls for the US government to pay compensation to the Afghan bombing victims. But Medea Benjamin, one of its founders, got little support for the idea until she managed to enlist September 11 family members to give the campaign moral authority.
A first mission to Kabul by family members in January coincided with a visit there by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state. He had been scheduled to meet them but cancelled when he realized what their agenda was. Undeterred, they wrote to the White House requesting a meeting with the President. "We waited for a couple of months and finally got an answer from his scheduling office. They turned us down, saying he was tremendously busy and had had many similar requests," says Kelly Campbell, whose brother-in-law was a US serviceman, killed when the Pentagon was struck by one of the hijacked planes. "We kind of doubt that. Many requests? From families of September 11 victims who want compensation for the families of our sister victims?"
Global Exchange is suggesting an average grant of $10,000 for each Afghan who has lost a relative, home, or possessions in the bombing. Conservatively, it estimates that about 2,000 families would qualify and come forward, making a total of $20m, which is just two-thirds of the cost of a single day's bombing.
Thirty-eight US Congressmen have signed a letter calling for $20m to be set aside for Afghan victims in the budget. Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican who met victims on a recent visit to Kabul, supports the idea. "In every war mistakes are made and decent, honest people admit mistakes were made and make reparation," he says.
Two days after the two women on this second delegation returned to the US, they heard of the latest casualties of the bombing campaign - the 30 civilians killed earlier this week at a wedding party in Oruzgan province. They feel much closer to the victims than they did last winter. "When I learned about the bombing, my heart sank. I was wondering if something had happened to someone I knew," says Bethke. "At that moment I realized that Afghanistan is no longer a remote place for me, but one that I am connected to and where people's names and stories are known. I am deeply saddened by the events and hope the US will assist the victims, and all the other victims of the war, in every way possible."
Olsen says: "During our trip to Afghanistan, we heard heartbreaking stories of errant US bombs wreaking havoc on families. I don't want suffering and violence to be perpetuated in the name of justice for my family. The killing of civilians must end."