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9-11 First Responder Megan Bartlett Reports Back from Afghanistan

by Wynde Priddy

Ten days after September 11, 2001 as anti-Muslim propaganda and hate-mongering came to a deafening crescendo, New York City's first responders were being called heroes. George W Bush showed up in New York to rally the exhausted and grieving relief workers by speaking of retribution and war on Afghanistan. It was in this atmosphere that an emergency medical technician (EMT) named Megan Bartlett began organizing a group called Ground Zero for Peace, made up of first responders who worked in the World Trade Center rubble. The group now has eight vocal members, and some other private members who feel they cannot publicly support the organization because of job security and harassment issues. She and her group have no union support, and no company within the first responder work force has offered endorsement.

Megan works for Metro Care Ambulance Corporation, the largest private ambulance company in New York City, and in the days and weeks following the attacks, she felt increasingly uneasy about the demonizing of the Afghan people. "We decided to take it upon ourselves to bridge the differences between these two groups--or what we were being told were the differences," Megan recently said of her new group, That chance presented itself in May 2004 when Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to foster international solidarity, offered to send Megan to Afghanistan to meet and work with first responders in the capital city of Kabul, to see how they work and live. Megan and other members of Ground Zero for Peace had been writing to Afghan first responders and cultivating relationships with them since 9-11, and Megan accepted the opportunity.

On June 29, 2004, at the Musicians Local 802 Union Hall in midtown Manhattan, Megan gave a two-hour presentation and slide show covering the 10 days she spent in Afghanistan--saying she wanted to describe through her pictures and memories "what US policy looks like in Afghanistan." When she arrived in the airport near Kabul, Megan related, she was struck immediately by the lack of infrastructure and the widespread destruction evident all around--the grim legacy of a generation of civil war, fueled by both superpowers. There were active landmines everywhere, some marked with red paint. She later learned that those landmines play a gruesome role in the lives of the children who play in the rubble. School curriculum--for those children who can go to school--centers around landmine education. Left over from the Soviet invasion, the landmines kill local Afghans nearly every day--whether playing children or members of de-mining crews. The UN Mine Clearance Program calls Afghanistan the most heavily mined country in the world, with a staggering 9.7 million landmines. There are also said to be nearly 9,000 unexploded cluster bombs in the area surrounding Kabul--the legacy of US bombardment.

In spite of severe poverty, Megan said she found the Afghan people to be most welcoming, offering her over and over what they couldn't afford for themselves. Everyone she met there had either been injured in one of the wars of the last 30 years or had lost at least one immediate family member. The society was armed to the teeth. Her pictures showed a greater prevalence of people with weapons than could possibly be considered safe, but Megan made clear that she is unwilling to pass judgment on the decision of the people to arm themselves, "It's really difficult to get an average Afghan to give up their weapon when they know that everyone in the entire country is still armed," she said. Many women still wear the traditional head-to-toe covering, in constant fear that the Taliban will return to power.

The presence of warlord militias even in communities just outside Kabul are another daily menace. Said Megan: "Given what we hear on the news, I thought these people would be in hiding. I thought I wouldn't see anyone that was associated with the Taliban and I thought I wouldn't see anyone who was associated with a warlord, but they're very much in power and active."

The people's response to Megan personally was kind and welcoming, but their response to America in general was one of outrage. One Afghan first responder asked Megan a question via letter that summed up the impression many Afghans have of the United States: "Are all Americans killing machines?" Another woman asked Megan during her trip about the "surgically accurate" bombs that the US claims to use, wondering if the weaponry was being intentionally used on civilian villages.

Megan's most striking realization while working alongside her Afghan counterparts was that while she had experienced only one "September 11" in her lifetime, "an Afghan EMT my age would have worked nothing but ground zeros."

One of the many problems that she learned of in Kabul is the lack of topsoil in the area, which makes it nearly impossible to plant gardens for food, or to bury the dead--of which there are many. The environmental degradation is severe and most of the people are unemployed or underemployed with little hope of providing for themselves.

When Megan asked her Afghan friends what they wanted most from the United States after all the destruction, the resounding answer was the rebuilding and reopening of the local school, which they said was damaged in a US airstrike. Megan said they feel that education is the only way to improve their situation and provide hope for the future of the country. "The U.S. bombed three other schools in Afghanistan and the countries that built those schools have already rebuilt them without asking for US money," she added.

Megan closed by emphasizing again the increasingly common issues faced by first responders in places as seemingly disparate as New York and Afghanistan--and what drive her to activism. "Under the rule of law we have the human right to violence-free workspaces. Now does it matter to me if I'm talking about an Afghan first responder or a US first responder? No it doesn't. Under the rule of law we both get the same thing. One of the only ways to create a violence-free environment is to create policy that eliminates the violence."


Global Exchange homepage

ISAF Information Page

The Deadly Pipeline War by Professor Marjorie Cohn (Jurist Legal Intelligence, December 2001)


Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, July 10, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Reprinting permissible with attribution.