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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Afghan Journey Eases a Father's Pain

War: Derrill Bodley, who lost a child on Sept. 11, could share in the grief left by the U.S. bombing.

January 22, 2002|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — Derrill Bodley's search for solace after his daughter's death Sept. 11 took him thousands of miles from his comfortable Stockton home--to the rubble of Afghanistan.

As he waited for hours in a chilly office in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week to secure a seat on a United Nations plane bound for Kabul, the Afghan capital, he reflected on how the events of Sept. 11 mean different things to different people.

"To me, it was a wake-up call to try to understand what the right thing is to do, and to do it," he said.

By the time the 56-year-old, a music professor at Sacramento City College, flew out of Kabul on Sunday after an emotional four-day tour, he knew what the right thing was and was embarking on a new life course.

While he was in Afghanistan, Bodley found his own grief ebbing. He hugged the father of a 5-year-old girl who had been killed by an errant U.S. bomb, and tapped out, on the tiny Casio keyboard he'd brought along, an accompaniment to a haunting song sung by children at a local orphanage.

It was a trip he almost didn't make.

The invitation, aimed at uniting families of Sept. 11 victims with victims of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, came around Christmas, just after Bodley had been treated at a hospital for stress-induced symptoms.

His only child, Deora, 20, a junior at Santa Clara University, was killed on United Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.

Bodley's stepdaughter, Eva Rupp, 28, had been urging him to accompany her to Kabul. She had traveled on a previous trip to Cuba organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights group, to study the impact of the U.S. embargo on the economy there.

Persuading people to go on this latest trip wasn't easy. Most victims' families were too frightened to fly at all, let alone go all the way to Afghanistan, said Medea Benjamin, Global Exchange's founding director.

Three people dropped out, dissuaded by relatives who said they couldn't bear the prospect of another death, given that bandits still thrive in Afghanistan while a fledgling United Nations-supported government tries to end the country's lawlessness.

There were hints, too, that such a trip might be unpatriotic. After all, the U.S. is still bombing Afghanistan, trying to drive out the remnants of the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Rita Lasar, 70, whose younger brother, Abe Zelmanowitz, died in the World Trade Center, and Kelly Campbell, whose brother-in-law Craig Amundson, 28, was killed at the Pentagon, decided to take the risk.

Bodley wavered. Lasar, whose brother died because he remained at the side of a paraplegic colleague at the trade center, urged Bodley to join her on the trip. Her first question hadn't been whether it would be safe but whether she could smoke.

Since Sept. 11, she'd gone from smoking a few cigarettes a day to chain-smoking, an unconscious desire to hurt herself, she surmises, to somehow share in the pain her brother must have felt. It's the same reason, she thinks, that although she didn't want her sons to take a cross-country flight or drive through the tunnels from New Jersey to New York, she wasn't afraid to fly halfway around the world to a dangerous place.

A tough-talking New Yorker with a coarse voice, Lasar telephoned Bodley and told him that if what she'd read about his daughter was true, Deora would have wanted him to go to Afghanistan.

Never a reader of horoscopes, Lasar happened to see hers as she downloaded a crossword puzzle that day.

"Your fellow traveler is not too sure where the journey will lead and whether he can do it," the horoscope read, "but with a little encouragement from you, it will come off."

Lasar, who had run a small electronics factory with her late husband, was going because she feared that others would die in her brother's name.

"They cited him as a hero to justify collateral damage," she said. "You know, from the kind of deed he did, that's the last thing my brother would have wanted. By mistake or not, the lives of other innocent people have been taken. I didn't want others to die in his name, and I thought if I could come and get the attention of the American people, I could help."

The trip was put together in less than two weeks, and on Jan. 12, the pilgrims left for London. After stops in the United Arab Emirates and Islamabad, they arrived in Afghanistan on Jan. 15.

As their vans swerved to avoid bomb craters on the hourlong ride from the Bagram military airport south to Kabul, the evidence of Afghanistan's 23-year trajectory of tragedy was overpowering. There were tank skeletons, minefields and, every few miles, checkpoints manned by soldiers of unknown allegiance with Kalashnikov assault rifles mounted on makeshift tripods.

The twisted wreckage of a mosque reminded Lasar of the remains of the World Trade Center.

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