9/11 Relatives Visit Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan -- Four Americans who lost relatives on Sept. 11 walk down a dusty street in Kabul and are shocked by the devastation. Years of fighting in previous wars have wrecked parts of the city, and now the Americans are witnessing the civilian destruction caused by U.S. bombing raids.

Kelly Campbell, whose brother-in-law died in the Pentagon on 9/11, talks with children whose house had been blown up by an errant U.S. bomb. Photo by Reese Erlich.

The four were part of a delegation organized by the San Francisco-based non-profit group Global Exchange. They investigated the impact of U.S. bombing and have now established a fund to help civilian victims of the war.

The delegation visited one house in southern Kabul where a US bomb killed four adults and four children. Neighbors say there are no military targets nearby. Indeed the house belonged to a Northern Alliance commander, the Mujahadeen group allied with the U.S.

The commander lost his 21-year-old son. His wife explained that their 6-year old boy was so traumatized by the explosion that he cries constantly.

Derrill Bodley, a delegation member and music professor from Stockton, lost his 20-year-old daughter when United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. He feels a strong bond with the commander's wife.

"My daughter was the same age as her son," said Bodley. "It's the same kind of pain."

Delegation members spoke with dozens of victims of US bombing. They say that while the U.S. military claims it has mostly dropped smart bombs that hit precise military targets, in fact more Afghan civilians have now been killed from U.S. bombing raids than Americans died on Sept. 11.

Over 3700 Afghan civilians died from U.S. attacks through Dec. 3, according to a study by Prof. Mark Herold of the University of New Hampshire. He based the figures on verified media accounts of civilian deaths and says the figure is probably too low because the media can't visit some parts of Afghanistan.

Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, talks with children who lost their brother in a U.S. bombing raid. Photo by Reese Erlich.

The U.S. has no official figures on the number of Afghan civilian casualties and has no plans to investigate the issue, according to a high ranking, western diplomat. The U.S. "is looking at the broad picture," said the diplomat, "trying to get Afghanistan out of its cycle" of war and poverty over the past 20 years.

Interestingly enough, some civilian victims of US bombing also want to look at the broader picture.

In another south Kabul neighborhood Shems Rhaman Shemsi describes how a U.S. bomb probably intended for a nearby Taliban checkpoint hit his neighbors' homes instead. Two houses were destroyed and four people killed. But Shemsi said he's not angry at the US government.

"It was a mistake by the U.S.," said Shemsi. "We're happy that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are gone. I feel so thankful to Mr. Bush because he sent us some peace keepers in Kabul."

Delegation member Eva Rupp, who lost her stepsister on Sept. 11, said many Afghan bombing victims shared that sentiment.

"All the people we've met, even those who have lost little children, are hopeful for the future because the Taliban are gone," said Rupp. "With tears in her eyes, a woman said, 'yes I've lost my five-year-old daughter. But the Taliban are gone. I'm really glad the US bombed us.'"

Global Exchange Director Medea Benjamin said the Taliban was so hated by Afghans that they are understandably grateful to anyone who helped get rid of the despotic regime.

Kelly Campbell walks in the rubble in front of a house bombed by the U.S. Photo by Reese Erlich.

But Benjamin argues that the U.S. isn't really interested in helping the people of Afghanistan. She says the Bush Administration is using the war against terrorism to aggressively expand U.S. military bases throughout the region and eventually secure a pipeline through Afghanistan for the benefit of UNOCAL and other big U.S. oil companies.

"I think we're getting ourselves deeper and deeper into a very negative relationship with the Muslim world," said Benjamin. "We're expanding our territory. If as a result of this, there is a pipeline going through Afghanistan, UNOCAL getting wealthy on oil from Central Asia, this will only fuel the resentment towards the U.S."

Afghans have high expectations that the U.S. will bring peace and stability to their war-torn land. But security remains tenuous. Food aid convoys come under regular attack by local warlords.

Kabul resident Shemsi complains bitterly about criminal looting at night in his poor neighborhood. A neighbor suspects off-duty Northern Alliance soldiers are committing the crimes.

The soldiers have stolen hundreds of civilian cars for their own use. Obeidullah Shanawaz, a wealthy farmer on the outskirts of Kabul, even knows the name of the commander who stole his Land Rover but has been unable to get government authorities to take any action.

The Northern Alliance troops now controlling Kabul, admitted the western diplomat, "are precisely the ones who tore this town apart" in the past. Any attempt to bring real security will require "a large force and a long-term commitment" by western troops.

The American people may oppose such a commitment, particularly if significant numbers of American soldiers are killed, according to Global Exchange delegation members. Eva Rupp notes that the U.S. permanently stationed large numbers of troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War.

"The presence of troops in Saudi Arabia is what upset so many people here [in Afghanistan] and caused them to hate the U.S.," she said.

While the future of US troop commitments remains unclear, delegation members say they have a long-term commitment to help U.S. bombing victims. They will be pressuring the U.S. government to provide compensation to those victims, as the US has done previously in Lebanon, Panama and Grenada.

Freelance reporter Reese Erlich traveled to Afghanistan on assignment for public radio networks in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

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