Sharif Ahmed Chowdhury remembers telling his daughter Shakila Yasmin once that when they - her parents - would grow old and pass away, she and her brother would have to pray for their departed souls.
"She quickly replied, 'what if you have to pray for us Abba!'"
A pause, an exhale. A cracked voice. Twenty years later, the 78 year old Chowdhury still tears up speaking about his daughter, Shakila, one of the six Bangladeshi-Americans - including her husband Nurul Haque Miah - who were killed when planes hit the World Trade Centre Twin Towers on 11 September, 2001.
Shakila Yasmin would have turned 46 years old on 20 August this year.
"And I pray for her now, every waking hour, just like she said I might have to," Chowdhury said.
From the moment the first hijacked plane crashed into the North Tower, black smoke began to rise and take over New York city's skyline, etching 9/11 in history as one of the darkest days in America.
The series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by planes - hitting the North and South Towers (Twin Towers) and Pentagon; and a failed attempt by terrorists which plummeted the fourth plane to the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board - became a defining moment for geopolitics and invasions of the 21st century.
Over 70 nationalities and 32 Muslims were among the 2,977 victims who died on the fateful Tuesday. Among those fallen, 2,753 people were killed at ground zero, in the Twin Towers, including the six Bangladeshi-Americans.
A newlywed couple
Yasmin and Miah met at a friend's wedding in Virginia in 1995. Five years later, they got married and Yasmin moved in with her husband in Brooklyn, New York from Lorton, Virginia.
Soon, the Management Information System (MIS) graduate started working as a computer assistant in the same company as Miah, who had been working as an audiovisual technologist at Marsh and McLennan company for many years.
Nurul Haque Miah, born in Mymensingh, migrated to the US in 1985. He was the oldest to his five siblings and quite popular among his friends. Miah was known to be intelligent, outgoing and possessed excellent leadership skills.
The newlywed couple was usually seen coming in and leaving office together, "they would also go out for lunch with each other," said Habib Shaheen Tarafder, a Bangladeshi-American, now a New Jersey resident and also a former Marsh and McLennan company employee.
"She seemed quiet, to me, although I sat on the same floor as Shakila, I was closer to Nurul who worked on the 93rd floor," Tarafder added.
The company's rented office space between 93rd and 100th floors was where some of the first victims of the attack are thought to have died. The first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, crashed into floors 92 to 99 of the North Tower, killing everyone on board and scores of people inside the building.
When Chowdhury first heard the news he had a flashback of his daughter's face, smiling and beaming with joy as she pointed to the Twin Towers and said, "Abba, look! That's the building where I work!" He saw on television the same building, burning, on that Tuesday morning. He stood transfixed, with muscles surrendered to panic and shock, at his Lorton home in Virginia.
It took some time to process what he was seeing. After multiple calls with his son-in-law's family located in New Jersey at the time, and heavier panic setting in, Chowdhury took off for New York with his family in the car.
"Nurul Haque Miah, I heard, was actually at the lower levels when the plane hit," said Tarafder. "He was coming down but he was seen to turn back, for his wife I suspect. The elevators closed immediately. Everyone took to the stairs," Tarafder added.
Nurul Haque Miah, 36 years old at the time, did not come down.
A witness and survivor's guilt
Tarafder was a witness to the fall of the towers, not a victim, solely because of a series of mishaps in the morning which got him late for work that day.
Tarafder's express bus used to pick him from the front of his apartment in Forest Hills, Queens and drop off near the World Trade Center, but instead, it drove past him on that day. The bus was scheduled for every 12 minutes. But the next bus did not come.
Frustrated, he hailed a taxi to take him to the nearest subway station. And just as he sat on the taxi's backseat, a bus appeared. "But it was too late to go back out for the bus," he remembered.
If things went right that morning, Tarafder would have reached his desk by 8 am on the 97th floor of the North Tower, placing him at the heart of the first plane crash.
But he was outside the building, among the onlookers, just a few blocks away from the towers as per the police's instructions, unable to move, eyes locked up on the tower, disbelief and fear pumped his heart fast.
"Small moving dots," Tarafder recalled. He did not understand what it was, but then, his heart sank.
"They were people, choosing to jump and die a quick death instead of a slow burning death," he said.
"We had company phones, a subscription to AOL, for team correspondence. Cellphones became jammed so we could not place calls, but text messages were flooding in," Tarafder said.
Susan, a fellow Marsh and McLennon colleague, messaged, "It feels like we are in an oven. There is no way to go down, too much smoke, we can't even see. Going up to the roof."
But they realised their fate. Susan's last message read, "I don't think I will survive. Tell my family I love them. Goodbye from me."
Tarafder stood in the same place for hours. He finally started to make his way to his Forest Hills apartment around 4 pm. He walked back. There were buses and subways running in a limited capacity, he recalled, but "I was too afraid to get in them. In fact, I was scared of walking on the bridge. What if this collapses too!" he remembered thinking.
Tarafder knew many others who worked in the building, besides his colleagues. He frequently used to go to restaurants in the basement, the mall downstairs. He had his bank there too.
He remembers Mohammad Salahuddin Chowdhury, 38 years old at the time, who worked at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the North Tower. "You know how us Bengalis are, we see each other, and immediately talk about our 'desher bari,'" Tarafder added.
Chowdhury, a physics masters graduate, was working as a waiter at the restaurant to support his pregnant wife and six year old daughter, a temporary source of income for a better life ahead.
Three Bangladeshi-American Marsh and McLennon company employees were killed that day; Yasmin, Miah and Mohammed Shahjahan.
Shahjahan, 41, was a computer administrator in the company. He used to live with his wife in Spring Valley, Rockland County, New York.
"A second life," said Tarafder, now a 55 years old IT specialist and consultant. He explained further, "in the last 20 years, particularly right after 9/11, I wondered why my life was spared? It did not make sense. When most of the colleagues in my team experienced horrible death, why was I chosen to live ? What was I supposed to do with my borrowed life? For all these years, I did not find the answer."
Tarafder is one of the two members of his 12-person team who remained alive post 9/11. The company lost 330 employees altogether.
Post 9/11: Victims or perpetrators?
Overnight, the news of the 9/11 attacks made Osama Bin Laden a household name. He was identified as the main perpetrator, after Al Qaeda, a terrorist organisation he led, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The United States retaliated hard and fast. In less than a month, in the same year, the US invaded Afghanistan with the objective of toppling the Taliban government who had reportedly provided safe haven to Al Qaeda. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq falsely claiming that the Saddam Hussein-led government of the country was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, even though Iraq or Iraqis had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
Immediately after 9/11, a large portion of Americans and many Westerners directly and indirectly blamed Muslims for the attacks. Many continue to do so till this day. If nothing else, 9/11 permanently redefined the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, making the loss and trauma of people like the Chowdhurys and Tarafders even more tragic.
In the weeks following the attacks, there was a spike in hate crimes targeting the American Muslim communities.
"My parents, we, tried to move forward with the conviction that we are the victims not the perpetrators," said Fahim Chowdhury, Yasmin's younger brother. Having lost a sister to the 9/11 attacks, he became well aware of the political climate outside.
The local mosque, Adams Center in Sterling, Virginia, where the Chowdhury family goes to, was vandalised following 9/11 attacks.
"We did not face any direct Islamophobic attacks, however, I have heard of several incidents," Fahim, now 41 years old, explained, "there were cases of mosques being vandalised and Sikhs being targetted because they were thought to be Muslims for their turbans."
"I remember calling an old colleague of mine in Ohio," said Tarafder, "this was post 9/11. And this person said 'did you have anything to do with the attacks?'."
Even if that was meant as a sick joke, Tarafder said, "it deeply hurt me, I never called him back again."
Closure for 9/11 deaths
On 12 September, 2001, when Shakila Yasmin and Nurul Haque Miah's families reached New York city from New Jersey, they found no answers.
"We went to their homes, we looked at hospitals and even streets, anywhere we could think of," said Shakila's father, Sharif Chowdhury. But there was no information.
The family stayed in the city for one week and also got called in for DNA testing. "We went to their house, to look for their brushes or something that will be useful," recalled Shakila's brother, Fahim Chowdhury.
When the family arrived in Virginia, the father got a call from the Department of Health. "There is no evidence, but please know that they are no more in this world," said the person on the phone.
"When Shakila was born on 20 August, 1975 [in Bangladesh], the country was going through a strife," recalled Sharif Chowdhury. The country was under curfew, he said, because of the assassination of Bangabandhu five days earlier.
"I was, at the time, stuck in Comilla for work," he remembered. And through a lot of trouble, he made it to Dhaka in time for his daughter's, his first child's birth.
"Shakila was born at a difficult time…." he reiterated. And died a very difficult death.
The Chowdhury family used to be on the move, changing home addresses because of the father's work as a sub-divisional agriculture officer in sugar mills. Dhaka to Rajshahi, Dhaka to Ishwardi, Dhaka to Faridpur, Shakila Yasmin was no stranger to rural Bangladesh with their residences located near to sugar mills.
In 1992, the family moved to Virginia. Subsequently, Yasmin got her citizenship in 1998. Always active in school and college, she also had creative interests like painting, photography and singing.
By 2001, she got married, secured a job in the Financial District in New York, and had already moved to Brooklyn from Virginia.
"Life was good," her father recalled. "There was a time when we were visiting, and she was elated to show us the car her husband got her for her birthday," Chowdhury added. "At 2 am, she came to me and said, let's go to the beach!."
Ultimately, in 2005, the only remains that were found on the site of Shakila Yasmin are five of her bones, and as for her husband, four of his bones, were handed over to the families.
The remnants of their existence were reduced to bones, "a heartache I could not bear," said Chowdhury. "We had a burial, more symbolic than literal," the father said.
Time, perhaps, does not heal all wounds.
"My wife, Shawkat Ara Sharif, and I moved back to Bangladesh in 2012, and frequented Virginia on a regular basis to visit my only child now, my son," said Chowdhury. However, when the pandemic hit, Chowdhury's son refused to let him go back to Bangladesh. "So it's going to be two years soon that I am spending my days with my grandchildren, aged 15 and 6," he said.
Another pause. Longer, this time. Muffled words, and then tears. "But my daughter, my daughter, the Almighty took her away before she could live her life to the fullest, my daughter," the bereaved, broken father said.
Tarafder still cannot work or live in high rise buildings.
"I do not know who in their right mind will rent office space in the Freedom tower [now known as One World Trade Center] that was built on the ground zero site. I wouldn't go, even if offered millions," he added.
In late 2001, after Marsh and McLennon noticed the difficulty most of its employees faced working in their midtown high rise branch in Manhattan, they relocated to a 3-storey building in New Jersey in January 2002.
"When that happened, I moved to New Jersey," he said, "a fresh start. New York became a memory of too much destruction."
Tarafder still lives in New Jersey. He has a wife and two children. He left Marsh and McLennon in 2010 as an Assistant Vice President. Ever since, he freelanced as a consultant for various companies but never stayed too long with a company.
"There is this restlessness, inability to get attached to a job," he explained. In 2018, he founded a small data management firm in Dhaka, where he recruited 15 software engineers and is currently working with PDI healthcare in New Jersey with this team.
After 9/11, Tarafder started to believe that being granted "his second life" is a sign that he were to move back to his homeland.
"I made extensive plans to move back to Bangladesh, twice in fact. Once in 2003 and again in 2010," said Tarafder, "for reasons I would like not to disclose, I stayed back."
Tarafder is once again planning to make the move. He said he will have to wait for another year and a half till his daughter goes off to college.
Families like Chowdhury and Tarafder continue to try to make sense of their loss and trauma even 20 years after the 9/11 attacks.
While it is a personal tragedy for them, for the rest of us, it is very much one of the defining moments of the 21st century.
The Iraq and Afghanistan invasions irreparably destabilised the Middle East, as one nation after another – Egypt, Syria, Yemen – plunged into war and disarray over the years.
The US may have been able to temporarily rein in Al Qaeda after years of wars, but terrorism today is a much bigger problem than it was in 2001, spreading around the world in its various manifestations – whether it be in the form of the brutal savagery of ISIS followers or the growing menace of White Supremacists in the West.
No country was spared its aftereffects, including Bangladesh, where security forces for years battled the various local versions of international terrorist organisations. We now live in a world where security, surveillance and terrorism have taken centerstage, a byproduct of that fateful September morning.
The 20th anniversary of the attacks, meanwhile, also coincided with the full US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban in power.
"Afghanistan has been a country in conflict for many decades, but it is good that the US has left," said Sharif Ahmed Chowdhury.
Many view the withdrawal of the US troops as a "good" development, but what they do not condone is how the withdrawal happened, why it took so long and what purpose did the US serve in Afghanistan.
The Chowdhury family usually goes to New York to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary.
"It's actually not that bad, because the authorities block off the ground zero, or at least some part of it, for the families of the victims," said Fahim Chowdhury. If they fail to go, they watch the memorial on television. "We still try to get together, and watch the names being read out," Fahim added.
This year, they have planned to stay in Virginia in front of their television sets.
In Memoriam: 6 Bangladeshi-Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks
Shakila Yasmin, 26
Nurul Haque Miah, 36
Mohammed Salahuddin Chowdhury, 38
The Dhaka University physics graduate, migrated to the US in 1987, where he studied real-estate and also obtained a diploma in Computer Science. Initially, he worked in Baltimore but eventually moved to New York and started working in the famous Windows on The World in the North Tower restaurant as a waiter. Salahuddin had a 6-year old daughter at the time of the attacks, and his wife Baraheen Ashrafi was pregnant with their second child. Salahuddin was not supposed to work on that Tuesday morning. His second child was born two days after 9/11.
Mohammad Shahjahan, 41
He lived with his wife Mansura at Spring Valley, a neighborhood in Rockland County, New York. He was a computer administrator in the professional service provider and insurance brokerage firm Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. (MMC).
Shabbir Ahmed, 47
He migrated to the US from Bangladesh in 1981. He loved his job at Windows on the World North Tower restaurant, where he was working for 11 years. Ahmed was married to Jeba and the couple had three children. Ahmed fulfilled his dream of sending all of his children to college. The family's home is at Marine Park, Brooklyn, New York. When the first plane crashed into the tower, Ahmed was at work with 89 other coworkers, reportedly serving 76 guests; none of the people survived.
Abul Kashem Chowdhury, 30
He was a second generation Bangladeshi-American, son of a former Bangladeshi diplomat. He resided in New York with his family of his wife, parents, a brother and two sisters. A College of Staten Island graduate, Kashem was working as a senior assistant analyst at the Cantor Fitzgerald L.P. at the time of the attacks. Kashem was on the 103rd floor. He even called his brother Abul Qaiser Chowdhury after the first plane hit the tower, but the communication was tragically cut short.
Disclaimer: The brief descriptions for the officially recorded Bangladeshi-Americans, other than Yasmin and Miah, who were killed in 9/11 attacks were collected from an online blog authored by M Tawsif Islam and a The Daily Star publication authored by Syed Muazzem Ali and CNN.