January 26, 2021

September 12, 2011

NOTE from CM: I was scheduled to fly to Kyrgyzstan in central Asia a week after September 11, 2001, to visit our friends and missionaries, Andy and Damaris Zehner. Because of flight restrictions imposed after the attacks, I had to wait until mid-October. When I arrived and traveled around Naryn and nearby villages with them, a common topic of conversation was what had happened in New York City and the U.S. invasion of nearby Afghanistan on Oct. 7. I clearly remember several encounters during which they had to explain (and defend) the U.S. position, especially the Afghan war, as both Americans and Christians.

When I decided to focus on remembering 9/11 this week, the Zehners were the first people who came to my mind. Today, Damaris offers a unique view from abroad on those sad and chaotic days.

• • •

September 12, 2011

When we lived in Kyrgyzstan, a more or less Muslim country in Central Asia, email was tricky. It could take a long time to get an internet connection, so we wouldn’t check email or news more than once a day. Even being able to check it once a day was a treat. When we first moved there in 1998, we were without a connection for several months.

I was up early on the morning of September 12 and successfully opened email. There was a strange letter from my mother in the D.C. area, lamenting the “terrible news” and mentioning that my sister, who had been at meetings at the Pentagon, was staying with her until she was able to fly home. I gave a sigh of impatience, because my mother often reacted excessively to the littlest thing. But I checked the on-line newspaper just in case.

For once my mother was right. What horrifying pictures. At that time no one knew how many people might be dead or injured or even what was going on or why.

Later that day I went to the little store near our house, as I did most days. The storekeeper, my neighbor, helped me quietly but said nothing about the attack. While she was getting my things, a man came in and saw me. “Are you American?” he gasped.

I tensed up. We had lived in Kyrgyzstan for over three years, and while most people were neutral towards us and a few were friendly, we had faced a lot of hostility as Americans and Christians. We had had windows smashed, rocks thrown at us and our children, and policemen refuse to help and tell us just to go away. What was this man going to say now?

“I’m so sorry! You have my deepest sympathy! It’s terrible, what’s been done to your country!” He shook my hand. Fighting tears, I thanked him.

The news grew more precise about how many people had been killed and who the killers were. For the next week or so everyone in town greeted us with respectful compassion and showed nothing but disgust at the Muslim extremism being revealed. For the first time these disadvantaged people saw America as vulnerable and in need of pity, and they gave it freely. They suddenly perceived us as people who might be suffering in a way they could understand and asked about our family and friends and their safety.

But then the United States began to make plans for a counterattack. Sympathy gave way to argument with the Kyrgyz people we met. Our mission organization sent emergency evacuation instructions to everyone in the field. We organized our documents and essential belongings in case we needed to make a quick getaway, as we were instructed, but without much thought that we would. According to agency policy, we were to head for the nearest border, which in our case was China. There was a chance that we would have trouble from our Muslim neighbors but an absolute certainty that we would have trouble at the Chinese border. It was a tense time.

A member of the Secret Police, the old KGB, came to our house. I was the only one home, and I was worried and defensive as I let him in and asked him to sit down. Was he going to ask us to leave the country? Treat us as spies and terrorists (which had happened with a local policeman)? I was listening so hard to what he was saying and planning so hard how to justify myself that I couldn’t understand him at first. “I want you to report to me,” he was saying.

“What?” I snapped. “What do you want us to report?”

“Let me know if anyone treats you badly because of your country’s actions. You’re guests in Kyrgyzstan, and it’s my job to make sure that you are safe and well-treated. Will you tell us if you’re harassed in any way?”

Stunned, I assured him I would. But we never were. Chaplain Mike came to check on us shortly after, bringing magazines and newspapers that I could hardly bear to look at. He left, and life returned to normal.

We had more stones thrown at us during the four years we remained in Kyrgyzstan, but we were able to work and enjoy some friendships. However, we never again experienced the sympathy and solidarity that were shown us after September 11. We Americans were once again rich and powerful in their eyes.


  1. I remember everything that day- as if it was yesterday. I was at my customer’s site (financial regulatory agency for wall street, right outside of DC) having traveled from Pittsburgh the day before. I was enroute to their site from my hotel room when the first plane hit the tower. Odd, I thought, and remember thinking it was probably a piper cub or some other small plane. As I got into work a co-worker motioned me over and we were talking about the details, and when I had heard it was a jet airliner, we began to talk as if maybe it was something more than an accident.

    Then the second plane hit – we all just stood around the TV screens dumb founded. People walked out of their offices and just stood. For me it was personal – I grew up on Long Island through the 60’s and early seventies before moving to Pittsburgh in 74 – and I watched those towers being built. Now I was wondering if they were going to come down.

    Then things began happening in rapid succession – the Petagon was hit – the mall was on fire – rumors started flying – looking out the window they were putting up barricades around our building – no one was to leave.

    A girl I knew comes running over saying a plane went down outside of my town – Pittsburgh – what the heck was happening here – I would later learn that my ofice building in Pittsburgh was evacuated since we housed the air wardens and the plane that had crashed was being tracked over pittsburgh before it went down.

    We all watched the towers come down – we all uttered collectively a gasp, some cried – I was in shock, thinking about my wife and kids in Pittsburgh. I finally was able to get a hold of them by early afternoon – all circuits were clogged – it was a tearful reunion of sorts – even if it was over the phone. Soon after (and I later learned against company orders) I got in my car and drove home – no one was going to do anything for days. I remember praying on the 4 hour drive, thinking of my family, those who died, the relatives I still had in New York. And I remember, days after, how eirrily quiet it was – with no air traffic in the sky.

    My cousin was at the base of one of the towers when it was hit. He as with a client and they ran and ran and ran… he survived though he watched some around him get hit with dibree. It took him several months before he could go back into the city.

    I will always remember…

  2. Damaris,

    Thank you for sharing your unique view at a time I believe could have been very scary as a Christian in a muslim dominated landscape. From what little I understand of Kyrgystan, there are many cultural muslims there, especially away from the cities, and maybe less of the radical form, but once the invasion of Afganistan began I assume things probably became more tense and guarded.

    I am assuming too that maybe you also received some pressure from the russiona orthodox in the cities, which may have seen your presence as a threat as well.


    • Aside from two or three elderly Russian ladies, with whom I couldn’t communicate, the Russian Orthodox church had no presence in our part of Kyrgyzstan. The church was more active in the capital, but I’ve never yet heard of any objections they made toward other religious groups working in Kyrgyzstan, although it may have happened. Certainly the Orthodox church there is not the cultural power that it is in Russia.

      • Did you eventually pick the Kyrgy language?

        • I was pretty fluent in Kyrgyz and can still speak it respectably, although I don’t get much practice. But it wasn’t eventually — we had to learn it fast or we wouldn’t eat or shop or work!

  3. The older I get, the less I support war in any form. Thank you, Damaris, for sharing this and reminding us that there are always two sides to every story. Thank God you all are still safe & now I’ve got some new missionaries to pray for by name ! 🙂

    • I appreciate prayer, CJ, but I can’t claim it as a foreign missionary any longer. We’ve been back in the States since 2005.

  4. “But then the United States began to make plans for a counterattack. Sympathy gave way to argument with the Kyrgyz people we met.”

    Exactly. We squandered that capital in Afganistan in 2001, the same as we wasted the “peace dividend” after the fall of the USSR by invading Iraq in 1991. And now Libya in 2011. Did I leave anybody out?

    How could people in Muslim countries possibly trust us? And why would some of them not resort to terrorism?

    • Ted we agree on a lot of things, but I still believe we had a right to go into Afghanistan. Iraq in 2003 was different, and I saw that as one of the most unjust, wasteful, unneccessary wars in US history. I think Iraq showed the elitism and arrogance of W. The biggest crime I thought about Iraq was that it distracted us from Afghanistan. Iraq was where we spent out “credit” and good will from September 11. Not only did we “spend” it but we overdrew the bank account, and the home equity line of credit!! 😉

    • My personal thoughts on your comments (note that these are subjective and I do not claim to be well versed here or relying on any supportive data).

      Not worried about what the muslim population as a whole thinks of our actions – though each faction has their own agenda. Until the Muslim community addresses its radical sects and comes out against the violence, the US will do what it needs to do and operate from a position of strength to deal with these sects, not diplomacy.

      That being said my thoughts on the following:

      Afganistan – Should have gotten in, gotten to those leaders that we could, and then hit other leaders with specific hits – no occupation (lessons learned from Soviet occupation).

      Iraq – supported it initially – realized in hindsight that it was another Yugoslavia and going in destablized the area and allowed Iran to become a greater threat since there was no one in the region to oppose them.

      Libya – no reason to be in there at all (since we know little of the rebels looking to take power).

      My thoughts – even if some may think misinformed (and I would look to reevaluating my opinion if I were presented with convincing information). I will admit to being a conservative and a hawk – but open minded….

    • Eagle and Radagast,

      Afghanistan 2001 did seem appropriate at the time, but it was on the heels of Iraq ’91, which was unconscionable–and then Iraq ’03, merely a change of Bushes, and now Libya. Does anyone see a pattern emerging? What’s next? Pakistan? And how can we afford it financially, let alone in the animosity of the world?

      And the USSR invasion of Afghanistan should have been a clue as to the outcome, as should have been our own involvement in Vietnam…

      Is there a link between the current recession/depression and cost of the war(s)? Or a link to the wars and continued terrorism?

      Now, those are merely practical concerns, to say nothing of the moral and spiritual concerns. Simply put, What Would Jesus Do? And whom would Jesus torture in the process? Real questions, not just bumper stickers.

      Grenada. Now that was a success. And the Falklands, for the UK. Short, sweet, and popular. And cheap.

      Ah, of only Ronnie and Maggie were in charge these days… 😉

      • Ronnie :)…

        I thought Iraq 91 was the defending of Kuwait who had no army against the agressor Iraq… if I remember rightly the first Bush stopped things before we crossed the border…

        Agreed on the USSR/Afganistan lessons learned (or not)….

        Recession/depression and the Wars? From my perspective may a contributor but I think it ahad more to do with changing global players, where global companies are choosing to get their resources from, and greed by all of the tier 1 countries (I’m starting to sound like a liberal).

        Ideally I agree with you about war in general. Realistically everyone would have to play by the same rules. And they don’t. I don’t ever see a need to philosophically side with a group that encourages their followers to blow themselves up in order to inflict damage. Notice I did not say faith tradition. So the philosophy I follow is from Teddy (Roosevelt) “Speak softly and carry a big stick”.

        Granada was a success… jsut watch Clint Eastwood in Heart Break Ridge : )

        • “I thought Iraq 91 was the defending of Kuwait who had no army against the agressor Iraq… if I remember rightly the first Bush stopped things before we crossed the border…”

          We never needed to cross the border. US planes performed 100,000 bombing raids from the air and many of the targets were civilian. Twenty years later people still try to make me feel proud for this.

          But I find myself disagreeing with a lot of good people, and after twenty years I realize that it’s not an argument I’m winning. We can still be friends.

      • 1. We already are at war in Pakistan, our government just refuses to talk about it.

        2. Last year I heard a former U.S. ambassador say that he thinks we will have to invade Pakistan within the next few years, and that he anticipates an occupation longer and more difficult than Afghanistan. Terrifying.

        And I’m glad you recognize what the ’91 Gulf War was really like, so many forget the consequences of that simply because few U.S. troops were lost.

        • Thanks, Marie. I’m afraid our lack of understanding and lack of conscience about the ’91 war has made it easy to keep going in that direction. My greatest fear and frustration is with believing Christians. Eagle mentioned this in his Sept 6 post Reflections on Disappointing Reactions.

      • Ok Ted and Marie,

        I don’t want to beat a dead horse but yet I am doing so… and I know we won’t agree but maybe you can share something I am not aware of…

        From my understanding Iraq invaded a defenseless country (no standing army), Kuwait. We, as part of a coalision pushed them back out. In the process of us pushing them back they blew up lots of oil fields. Yes, we bombed accross the border but we stopped progressing at the border and did not cross into Iraq. At any time Saddam could have called it quits, he is culpable in his decision making.

        Now I guess we could say we did it for oil. I am not that cynical. We may have done it to keep a balance in the region, that I agree more. I just believe there are ramifications to people’s decisions.

        North Korea is a good example. The decisions of its leaders has left the population in a state of starvation.

        So, if you happen to read this please tell me what piece of the puzzle I am missing…


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