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Shared Grief After 9/11: Sister of WTC Victim Meets Afghan Who Lost 19 Family Members in U.S. Attack

StorySeptember 10, 2021
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On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we revisit a conversation we hosted in January of 2002 between Masuda Sultan, an Afghan American woman who lost 19 members of her family in a U.S. air raid, and Rita Lasar, a New Yorker who lost her brother in the World Trade Center attack. Lasar would become an active member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Masuda later wrote the memoir, “My War at Home.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Democracy Now! was on the air in our downtown firehouse studios at DCTV, Downtown Community Television, when the World Trade Center was attacked. We were the closest national broadcast to ground zero.

AMY GOODMAN: The latest news we have is that there have been widespread attacks that include at least three commercial jet crashes — we now believe perhaps four — three commercial jet crashes into significant buildings. In the first attack, a plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan shortly before 9:00, followed by another plane into the second tower about 20 minutes later. Both towers later collapsed. About an hour later, a plane crashed into the Pentagon, part of which later collapsed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was just a part of our many-hour broadcast. We just didn’t go off the air on that day for at least six hours. We were just doing radio at the time. Democracy Now! closely followed the fallout from the 9/11 attacks, both at home and abroad. And I warn our listeners and viewers: The images are graphic. This is about violence.

Today we go back 20 years and revisit a remarkable conversation that I had with two New Yorkers: Rita Lasar and Masuda Sultan.

Rita Lasar lost her brother Abe Zelmanowitz on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center. He worked at Blue Cross Blue Shield. He refused to leave until emergency workers came to help rescue his best friend Ed, who worked next to him. He was a paraplegic. They died along with so many others. A few days later, President Bush invoked Abe’s story in a speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, calling him a hero. His sister Rita wrote a letter to The New York Times urging Bush not to bomb Afghanistan. She wrote, “It is in my brother’s name and mine that I pray that we, this country that has been so deeply hurt, not do something that will unleash forces we will not have the power to call back,” she said.

And that’s exactly what happened a few weeks later. Untold thousands have died in the two decades since then — in Afghanistan, among them, the family of Masuda Sultan. She was an Afghan woman living in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks. She soon got word that 19 members of her family had been killed in a U.S. bomb attack in Afghanistan. They had moved to a farmhouse outside Kandahar to escape the U.S. attacks. It was there that they were bombed.

When Masuda Sultan and Rita Lasar met in our studio in January 2002, Masuda had just returned from Afghanistan, where she had met with surviving members of her family. We began the conversation with the report she did for Democracy Now! as she made her way from Afghanistan to Pakistan while investigating the bombing. Rita and Masuda sat and listened to the report we replayed for them. Masuda had just returned. We were playing the tape of her in Afghanistan as she traveled, calling in from a dirt road.

MASUDA SULTAN: We went over there last night. I had heard that there was some devastation. My family — I have some cousins that live in Kandahar, and the extended family is about 55 people. They lived right near some Taliban-controlled compounds and buildings, and they anticipated that once the U.S. bombing campaign started, they wouldn’t be safe any longer where they were. They decided to move out to some farmland they had, about 15 miles outside of Kandahar city, and were staying there in order to stay safe.

One evening at about midnight, while they were sleeping, they heard some loud noises outside and realized that their area was being bombed. Some rockets hit nearby, and they decided they had to leave their rooms. As they were running outside of their rooms, some of them were wounded by rockets, some of them were being shot at. They described this scene where they were running with their kids in their arms, dodging bullets left and right, while they saw balls of fire falling down to the earth. They had no idea what was going on, and they were just running in any which direction for their lives. Some of them came under an area that was covered, and some of them heard word of their loved ones falling to the ground, as they were —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Masuda Sultan who’s describing how her family members were killed by the U.S. bombs that fell on the farmhouse they were taking refuge in outside of Kandahar. She’s speaking to us from Afghanistan.

MASUDA SULTAN: There were women and children running for their lives, being shot at by a helicopter hovering over their homes. And these people were not Taliban supporters. They weren’t al-Qaeda fighters. They were simple Afghans trying to stay safe in their own country. The events of September 11th really made me angry, but seeing these people and what they went through makes me angry, as well. You know, they say that in war — they say that you have to break a couple of eggs in order to make an omelet, but when those eggs are your family, what can you do?

AMY GOODMAN: How many members of your family were killed in the bombing?

MASUDA SULTAN: Nineteen members of that extended family were killed. There were many women and children in that 19, and we were shown some of the pictures, as well, and we met the children that became orphans or that lost their mothers. One of them was a little girl that was a year and a half old, and she had been drinking breast milk, and they were having trouble with her getting used to the powdered milk. But it’s just — when you see the faces of those little children, and they tell you the story of how their mother died on their lap, with the blood flowing out of their head, and they ran, and they — they ran for their lives, it just — it breaks your heart. It breaks your heart to know that this is the collateral damage of war.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Masuda Sultan calling in to Democracy Now! from Afghanistan at the end of 2001. She had returned to her native country because she learned that 19 members of her family had been killed in the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan soon after the September 11th attacks.

We’re going to miss our break today as we move forward. A few months later, in January 2002, we were joined by Masuda Sultan, just returned from Afghanistan, and another New Yorker. We were joined by Rita Lasar for the first time. Rita Lasar, at the time 70 years old, lost her brother Abe Zelmanowitz on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center. They sat and listened to Masuda’s report in Afghanistan — she had just returned from there — when we talked to Rita and Masuda to talk about what happened on that morning of September 11, 2001, to her brother.

RITA LASAR: I was listening to the radio, and the newscaster broke in to say that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings, and I thought, “Gee, what an accident.” And I live on the 15th floor and ran to my neighbor’s house, and she has a clear view of downtown Manhattan. And I looked out her window and saw the second plane hit the second building. And it dawned on me: My brother works there. My brother’s in that building. And I sort of went crazy.

And then, I went about the day doing what all those other people did, calling every hospital, trying to find out if he had been brought to a hospital. I went down to the hospitals to see if his name was on a list. And then I realized he had died. And because he had stayed behind to stay with his quadriplegic brother — I’m sorry, friend, who couldn’t get out, although he was on the 27th floor and he could have saved himself, he died.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know that? How do you know that story?

RITA LASAR: He was on the phone with my other brother and my sister-in-law, and he said, “Don’t worry, we’re waiting for the firemen to come, and as soon as they come, they’re going to help Ed and me get out of here.” Ed was in a wheelchair and could not move. But by the time the firemen came, the building collapsed, and it was too late.

And then President Bush mentioned him in the National Cathedral speech and cited him as being a hero. And I realized that my government was going to use my brother as justification for killing other people, and that had a tremendous impact on me. I didn’t want that to happen, not in my brother’s name. And so I wrote a letter to the Times, which they printed, asking our government to please be cautious and not do something they couldn’t take back.

And then I was asked to speak at a peace rally, and I did it. And just before I went on, I was told they had started bombing Afghanistan, and I realized something I had never realized before. I had heard the term “collateral damage” all my life. It was always used about people far away from us. And I realized now what it meant, because my brother was collateral damage, in a war that he didn’t want and Masuda’s people didn’t want. And I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.

And then I got a call from this wonderful woman from this marvelous organization called Global Exchange, and she said, “Would you like to go to Afghanistan and meet people like you who have lost their families?” And I thought, “That’s perfect,” because Masuda and I are the same. There’s no difference between us. My family member died, I’m grieving, and her family — God, I don’t know how — how you survived, just hearing about yours. But we’re the same people. And so, I’m going to Afghanistan. I’m going to see the people who have been left behind while their families died, with three other people who have lost family members, either in the plane that went down in Pennsylvania or the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. And we’re going to come back here, and we’re going to try to get the American public to open its heart and its wallet for your people, the way they have done for us, and try to get our government to understand that bombing is not the solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Masuda, you’ve never met Rita Lasar before. You’ve just come back from Afghanistan, where Rita is headed to right now. You’ve had a week of reflection, and you’ve come back, well, to ground zero. You left from ground zero, and you’ve come back. What are your thoughts now? And if you could talk about how it was for you to meet with your family members?

MASUDA SULTAN: First of all, I want to express my condolences to Rita. I did before, but I think your brother is a hero, and you’re a hero for continuing his legacy. And it’s amazing to me that someone who’s lost so much isn’t as revenge-hungry as some of the other people that seem to want to, you know, go start bombing whoever, wherever. You know, a lot of this is about revenge, I feel, because — especially having seen the faces of the people there and realizing that these are the farthest things from the enemy that we could find. Granted, the American bombing campaign has been, I think — even with the death toll in my extended family and some of the other cases, I don’t think that the U.S. government intended to bomb, you know, to carpet bomb the area. But I’m still — I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on. On the one hand, I think the United States government didn’t intend to do some of this. On the other hand, I can’t believe they did it, and who would make such a stupid mistake. And to be honest, I’m still a little confused about things.

AMY GOODMAN: Your family left an area in Kandahar, where you come from, and actually took refuge in a farmhouse so that they would not be bombed.

MASUDA SULTAN: The irony is the saddest part of all of this. In Kandahar, they lived right next to Taliban-controlled buildings. And they knew, they anticipated that the United States was going to bomb those types of areas, so they left the city and fled to, really, a desert. We took that same trip, and it was about an hour and a half to two hours outside of the city of Kandahar. And it was literally the middle of nowhere. We actually got lost getting out, and it took us about three hours to find our way back to the main road. The irony is that they left that area thinking they would be safe in this desert, because there’s no — you know, no Taliban there, and ironically, that’s where they were hit.

AMY GOODMAN: When you went to the Marine base in Kandahar and asked them why they bombed your family, what was their response?

MASUDA SULTAN: The marine that I spoke to told me that they hadn’t — that that particular group, the Marines, had only been in Kandahar airport after the incident, so he didn’t have information for me. He told me that I should speak to the State Department. Privately, some of the marines did express their condolences.

And what shocked me was what I sensed, coming from them, was a sort of confusion about why they were there. I asked one of them why they were in Kandahar, I think which is a valid question. “Why are you willing to risk your life here?” And he said, “We’re here to oust the Taliban.” And I looked at him and said, “But the Taliban have been in power since 1996. Is that — you know, do you feel comfortable being here to oust the Taliban? Doesn’t it sound kind of odd?” And he really couldn’t answer my question, and I could sense the discomfort he felt. And it’s scary that there are people that will fight, you know, in the name of something they don’t really understand. I love the United States. I grew up here. I came here at the age of 5, and I feel, you know, as American as anyone else. And I would fight for my country, gladly. But I don’t know if the mission is really clear and if the intent is honorable.

AMY GOODMAN: Masuda, after the World Trade Center attacks occurred on September 11th and then all of the information or non-information started to come out, and it became clear that the U.S. was making Afghanistan a target, what were your feelings at the time?

MASUDA SULTAN: When September 11th happened, and I watched those buildings collapse, and I thought about all those people in there, like Rita’s brother, I was angry. I was angry, just as any New Yorker. And my immediate feeling was, “Who are the jerks that did this, and what are we going to do about it?” And I went down there that first week and actually got through some police barricades and watched what was going on and volunteered for a few hours. But my immediate reaction was anger and shock.

But that same day, I sensed that something like this was not going to go unpunished. I mean, I would want to figure out who did it, too. I realized that Osama was probably in some way responsible and that the United States was probably, you know, going to do something about that. And guess what: Osama’s in Afghanistan. And that day, I started making phone calls, on September 11th, to family here in New York to tell them to also call some family back in Afghanistan to sort of alert people to the fact that this may happen. And some of them didn’t think that it would go that far, and they said, “Oh, you’re being — you know, you’re being too cautious.” And as time and the events sort of unfolded, that’s exactly what happened.

And something like this probably shouldn’t go unpunished, but “who do we punish?” is really the question, and “how do we punish them?” And I don’t think that what the United States is doing in Afghanistan is really what they set out to do. In the beginning, I was actually hoping that if they got the perpetrators in Afghanistan, that the people of Afghanistan would finally be freed. They were also held hostage by the Taliban and al-Qaeda for the last number of years. They suffered at the hands of these people and now, again, are suffering at the hands of these people, who have come and essentially — in my view, al-Qaeda has invaded Afghanistan, has taken control, and is now using it as their war zone. And again, it’s sort of what happened when the Soviets invaded, and it was the — it was a proxy war. I mean —

AMY GOODMAN: And your family members are not alive to enjoy the freedom, if there will be.

MASUDA SULTAN: Some of them have survived. It was really difficult to — I was asked by a lot of people there, both my family and other people that had lost possessions and people in some of the bombings, what the United States was going to do about it. And I thought about, you know, how September 11th funds were everywhere and how great that was and how much the American people opened their hearts to the victims of September 11th, and then I thought about — and the United States government, as well. And then I thought about: What about these people who, you know, for some reason or other, got caught in the middle of all of this, lost lives, lost children, lost property? Who do they ask, you know, for help? Who do they turn to?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it seems like Rita Lasar has taken up that banner with a few other people. Unfortunately, your message doesn’t get out very much in the mainstream media. The stories of people like your brother, heroes at the World Trade Center, are heard. But when you then take the next step and say, though, you do not think that war is the answer, that’s not the part of the story that we hear. A New York Times photograph showed people who walked from Washington to New York saying, “Not in our name,” and the photograph just said, “People who were mourning their loved ones at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.”

RITA LASAR: We’re hoping, by going to Afghanistan, members who have lost their loved ones, and showing that we understand that the people in Afghanistan, as well as we, are mourning and hurting and are innocent, just as my brother and I are innocent — we’re hoping that this will get more coverage than it has. And we’re hoping that, just as Masuda said, the September 11th fund was a generous — more than generous acknowledgment of our loss, that there will be an equal Afghanistan fund from the American people and from our government to help those people.

AMY GOODMAN: Rita Lasar and Masuda Sultan, speaking in Democracy Now!'s studios in January of 2002. Rita died in 2017. She lost her brother Abe Zelmanowitz in the World Trade Center attack. She would become an active member of the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Masuda Sultan was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan. She lost 19 members of her family in a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan soon after the U.S. attacked in October 2001. She would later write her memoir, My War at Home. Reporters packed into our little studios, just blocks from ground zero, to see this momentous meeting. I'm Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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