On 11th September 2001, Phyllis Rodriguez’s son Greg was killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The following year Phyllis met Aicha el-Wafi, whose son Zacarias Moussaoui had been charged with conspiracy in connection with the atrocity. Aicha had travelled from France for a private meeting with families who had lost loved ones in the 9/11 attack. In 2006 Zacarias Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Returning from an early morning walk along the Bronx River, the porter in my building told me there’d been a fire at the World Trade Center. I hurried upstairs and turned on both the TV and the answering machine. I was listening to a message from Greg saying there had been a terrible accident at the World Trade Center but that he was all right, when I saw on television the second plane crash into the second tower. At that point I knew that this was no accident. But even so I rang family and friends and said, ‘he called, he’s OK’. I assumed he was out of the building.
Later that evening, when there was still no word from him, I suspected the worst – but still I refused to believe it. In fact I didn’t take it in until the following evening when it was officially announced that he had perished along with 3,000 others.
We were all devastated, and what made everything so much worse was the knowledge that the US government would use our son’s name to take military action abroad. Before Greg died I’d felt a distant empathy for all those parents in the world who had lost children, but now there was deep understanding. We were all the same.
The day I met Aicha was the day that changed my life, because it changed my direction emotionally. It was the beginning of my learning that someone like Aicha, who has suffered so much, could still be emotionally generous. It brought out the generosity in me and I felt better for it. Since then I’ve learnt that one way to heal is to bridge the gap between ourselves and the ‘other’.
A Moroccan Muslim woman living in France and a secular Jewish woman living in the US are no different when it comes to suffering. It was an accident of history that brought us together, and it is an accident of history that means Zacarias is now in prison and my son died in the World Trade Centre. It could have been the reverse.
When Greg was killed I thought, I will never forgive the people who murdered my son, but I have come to see forgiveness as more than a word; it’s a context, a process. I don’t forgive the act, but trying to understand why someone has acted in the way they have is part of the process of forgiving. Forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible.
Since 2005, when Zacarias pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges against him, I knew Aicha would be coming to America. I decided I wanted to give her as much support as I could beforehand. So we started speaking on the phone. I couldn’t speak a word of French at that time but somehow we managed. Later I continued supporting her in her campaign for the rights of her son, in the hope that someday he will be transferred to France to serve out his sentence.
Zacarias is an admitted member of al-Qaeda, but there’s no evidence that he knew anything about the attacks on the World Trade Center. He pleaded guilty either because he felt it would get him more humane conditions of confinement, or because he was in no fit state to make any rational decisions. When I watched Zacarias at the trial my heart was broken because I could not look at him as a stranger. I saw him as the son of my friend Aicha.
Meeting Aicha gave me strength and took away my anger and bitterness. It has also helped me to forgive myself, because a mother always feels guilty when things don’t go right for her children.
On 13th September 2001 my daughter called me to tell me that Zacarias was on television. I couldn’t recognise my son – the picture was horrible. I knelt down in front of the TV and yelled, ‘it’s not true, it’s not my son; it’s not possible!’ They were suggesting he was connected to the terrorist attacks, but he had been in jail in the States since August for visa violation. The media came straight to my house and didn’t leave for a week. I was beside myself. I couldn’t eat or sleep. Friends said I wasn’t to blame, but I said, ‘how can I not feel responsible for something he may have been involved in?’ The hardest thing was not knowing. Then, on 25th October, I received a letter from Zacarias saying, ‘I am an Islamic extremist, but I had nothing to do with the attacks’.
From then on I decided to speak out for his rights. There has never been a shred of evidence to suggest that he was involved with the terrorist atrocities in New York. However, when I thought of the people who had died and of their families, I knew my suffering was not the same, and I wanted to give my condolences and apologise.
While I knew my son was not directly responsible for the attacks, extremist thinking like his had created a climate of hate. The evening before meeting the families I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep, but my French human rights interpreter encouraged me by telling me I was doing the right thing. The next morning we took the subway and my heart was beating double-time as I walked down the hallway. Then I entered the room where all these family members were waiting and my eyes landed on Phyllis – something like a magnet drew me to her. We fell into each other’s arms and cried for a long time. I felt her heart beating as fast as mine. Then everyone introduced themselves; we showed pictures, we talked, and after that things were almost normal. Although of course nothing was normal. It was painful and wonderful at the same time.
Although I am not responsible for the choices my son has made as an adult, I still feel guilty because I gave birth to him. I so wish that Zacarias hadn’t got involved with al-Qaida, but he fell into the hands of crooks. In Bin Laden he was looking for a father figure, because his own father was violent with him and then abandoned us. I would have liked him to be loyal to France. I love France because French people welcomed me when I arrived from Morocco at the age of 17, but Zacarias was subject to racist abuse all his life. He was called a ‘dirty Arab’ and made to feel like a stranger in his own country.
I feel anger, love and compassion for Zacarias. A part of me is dead; buried with my son who will have to spend the rest of his life in jail for things he didn’t do. He was manipulated. At home he used to play word games, and in court he played word games too. Unfortunately this time it was his life that was at stake.