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A Life on the Edge Ends in Afghanistan

By Rachel Zelkowitz Posted: 01/28/2008
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Former Emory professor David Hesla was scanning the headlines one afternoon in January when he knew immediately something was wrong. A short story had appeared on the homepage of The New York Times, reporting that there had been an attack on a hotel in downtown Kabul the morning of Jan. 14, resulting in the deaths of several Westerners.

Hesla looked at the time: 3 p.m. His son, Thor Hesla (’84C), was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kabul, and it was already 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 15 in that city. The literature professor, who looks like an older, more grizzled version of his son, said he knew Thor would have called or e-mailed his family to let them know he was alright.

“I was saying to myself, ‘This couldn’t happen to me, this happens to other people,’” Hesla said. But when he called Thor’s older sister, Maren, she confirmed that Thor was killed in the attack.

Hesla’s son had always lived dangerously, sometimes saying that he did not expect to die in bed. Thor’s favorite activities — mountain climbing, rugby and skydiving — certainly did not suggest a person who valued caution. In that sense, Thor’s decision to go to Afghanistan was not at all surprising, his father said.

He had arrived there in October of last year, after spending almost four years working on a development project in Kosovo, Albania.

In what he called his annual “Big Letter” to friends and family, Thor described life in the war-ravaged city with his characteristic dry wit.

“If it weren’t for the pollution and the dust, and the threat of death by suicide-bomber, I.E.D., rocket, or land-mine ... if it weren’t for those considerably [sic] negatives, Kabul could be a city of Astonishing Beauty,” he wrote, adding that the city rests in the cradle of the Hindu Kush mountains.

The gorgeous vistas often contrasted with scenes from inside the city. In that same letter, Thor described watching one man walk down the street wearing nothing but rags and seeing other young men peer at him with murderous rage.

In a separate e-mail, Thor told his long-time friend Howard Yellin to “think of my life as a series of moves from Green Zone to Green Zone.” Armed guards were everywhere, he said — at their offices, the restaurants where aid workers were cleared to visit, even at the housing compound, where Thor would squeeze his burly frame into a twin-sized bed that sloped on either side.

Working out at the gym in downtown Kabul’s Serena Hotel provided some respite from these scenes, one of Thor’s coworkers wrote on the memorial website. Thor had always been athletic — his father recalled him chinning himself on the kitchen doorframe, hoisting his massive body by his fingertips.

The morning of January 14, Thor headed to the Serena Hotel for his routine workout. Shortly thereafter, at least one armed insurgent fought past the security guards at the hotel and shot at people inside the hotel, while a suicide bomber blew himself up at the front entrance to the building, CNN reported. Afghan police and U.S. troops were dispatched to the scene to assist the wounded and apprehend the killers, but Thor died of gunshot wounds.

The attack at the Serena Hotel was the biggest coordinated assault by the Taliban in several years. The target of the attack, the Norwegian foreign minister, escaped unharmed, but six other Westerners, including Thor, were killed.

News of his death quickly spread around the world and there have been memorial services held in Atlanta and Kosovo, with another one scheduled in Washington, D.C., what friends termed Thor’s “adopted city” later this month.

Though an English and philosophy major, Thor was heavily involved in Democratic politics. He managed campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley and Congressman David Wu of Oregon. He was an avid rugby player while at Emory. His father remarked that rugby and politics held a similar attraction for his son.

“It’s a game, it takes hard work, you make good friends, and you do it to win,” he said.

Within days of Thor’s death, many of those friends had posted reflections on a memorial site assembled by his long-time friend Howard Yellen. They reminisced about his many visits to the Atkins Park bar in the Virginia Highlands and his no-holds barred approach to politics and people.

“Whatever else you say about him, Thor was a lover,” Yellen wrote. “He loved ideas and books, and conversation. He loved people and friends in a way I am frankly very jealous of.”

About a week after his son’s death at the hands of the Taliban, Thor’s father sat down to compose his own reflection to share with family and friends. He did not write directly about his son, but rather reflected on an exchange he had with the author Samuel Beckett when Thor was 10 years old.

The two men, literary critic and internationally acclaimed author, sat in a hotel coffee shop in France while Beckett described a scene in the production of his work “Night and Dreams.” A man sits at a table, dreaming, while a hand descends from offscreen to offer aid and solace to the dreamer. It was the helping hand, Hesla recalled Beckett saying.

“This is what Thor was doing in Kabul,” Hesla said. “He was lending a helping hand.”

— Contact Rachel Zelkowitz

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