On Wednesday, she met Iraqis in Baghdad who also lost loved ones in an attack - but in 1991, when U.S. warplanes struck an Iraqi bomb shelter during the Gulf War. Olsen and three other American relatives of Sept. 11 victims traveled to Baghdad to protest a possible U.S. war with Iraq and to promote peace through personal contacts with Iraqis.
The activists heard fear and anger that the United States would strike again, talking for two hours with Iraqis such as Fikra'a Shaker, 46, who lost her parents and sister in the shelter bombing. "They asked us what we wanted, and we said we wanted peace," Shaker said after meeting the Americans. "But if Bush attacks us, we are ready to offer more victims."
The United States accuses Iraq of hiding weapons of mass destruction, and has threatened war to topple President Saddam Hussein.
Olsen and the other activists met with Iraqis amid the blackened walls, tangled wires and twisted steel rods of the wrecked shelter, which Saddam's government preserves as a monument. Iraq says 403 civilians, including 52 children, died when two U.S. missiles hit the Amariya shelter on Feb. 13, 1991. U.S. officials said at the time they believed the structure was an Iraqi military command center. "It's devastating. The concrete and the wires reminded me of Ground Zero," said Olsen, a nurse from Newburyport, Mass. whose sister Laurie Neira died in the attack on the World Trade Center.
She and the other visitors - Colleen Kelly of New York; Terry Rockefeller of Massachusetts; and Kathleen Tinley, a math and chemistry student at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. - belong to Peaceful Tomorrows, a group founded by relatives of Sept. 11 victims.
Peaceful Tomorrows members made similar trips last year to Afghanistan, whose Taliban government collapsed under a U.S. military campaign launched because it had harbored Osama bin Laden. "Suffering is universal and it connects us all," Olsen said. "I hope some sort of healing has come about as a result of us listening to the people here."
The Americans and Iraqis spoke through interpreters, holding hands and hugging as some wept. While Olsen said the Americans were made to feel welcome, there were signs of the tensions between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Americans "want war, we want peace. If it's war, we are ready for it," said Joweida Kazem, 70, in tears after meeting the Sept. 11 families. Kazem lost her three teenage daughters in the shelter bombing.
U.S. forces bombed the shelter during the Gulf War that drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Iraq, which invaded Kuwait in 1990, remains under U.N. sanctions. It blames the sanctions on the United States, and says sanctions are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, primarily children and infants.
Getting the sanctions lifted is contingent on Iraq's proving it does not have weapons of mass destruction or programs to make them. Iraq denies possessing banned weapons and says it is giving full cooperation to U.N. inspectors in the country since November. A skeptical Washington has stepped up preparations for war, with weapons and thousands of troops pouring into the Gulf region.
After talking with the Iraqis, the visiting Americans held a candlelit anti-war vigil outside the shelter with another group of American and German peace activists. Olsen, standing with fellow activists around a banner declaring "Peaceful Tomorrow For All," performed a song she wrote in memory of her sister. "Being kind is all that the sad world needs," she sang, strumming a guitar.Tinley, whose uncle Michael E. Tinley died in the World Trade Center, said the experience of meeting the Iraqis had touched her. "People don't have to die like this," she said.