Zuri F. Hodge, 11, of Verona, keeps vigil at The Friends Meeting House in Oakland yesterday. The American Friends Service Committee sponsored the event, which includes an exhibit called "Eyes Wide Open" featuring 113 pairs of combat boots representing soldiers from Pennsylvania who have died in Iraq.
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The pairs of black combat boots displayed in the meeting room of the Friends Meeting House in Oakland yesterday numbered 113, instead of the 110 first assembled for the collection in February.
The three newer pairs, like the rest, have symbolic importance: They represent soldiers from Pennsylvania who have died in the current war in Iraq, and three more have died since the start of a traveling exhibition two months ago to recognize them.
The black boots, carrying name tags and sometimes poetry and photos, actually come from a California supplier of used military goods instead of having been worn by the soldiers. The American Friends Service Committee obtained the boots to use in the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibition around the state, modeled after a national boots exhibit representing the more than 2,300 U.S. servicemen who have died in the war.
The smaller state exhibit is in Pittsburgh this weekend, coinciding with community gatherings organized by the local Friends group at its meeting house and East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
Among speakers at a community forum at the church at 7 p.m. today are Eman Ahmad Khamas, an Iraqi writer and human rights advocate, and Diane Davis Santoriello, mother of Army 1st Lt. Neil Santoriello Jr., killed by a roadside bomb on Aug. 14, 2004.Some of the boots on display in the exhibit bear name tags, photos and poetry in memory of fallen soldiers.
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Ms. Khamas, who also spoke at the meeting house last night, is part of a group of Iraqi women making appearances throughout the United States in recent weeks urging that American troops be withdrawn. She said their hope is that an orderly withdrawal over a period of months, with replacement by international peacekeepers, would maintain order while reducing the insurgent attacks, which she said result from anger at Americans.
"It's gone from bad to worse every day" for typical Iraqis, Ms. Khamas said, contending the U.S. presence increases violence rather than reducing it. "We don't have any kind of security to move around in the streets."
Ms. Santoriello, who has been an outspoken war critic with her husband since their son's death, said this weekend's events are intended not to preach against Bush administration policies, but to encourage people to stop and think about those who have died from both countries. The exhibit includes a separate collection of shoes, of all styles and sizes, symbolizing the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died.
"I just want people to understand the human cost of the war and to honor the dead," said Mrs. Santoriello, although her son's name is not attached to any of the boots because his wife objected. Some other names among the 113 slain Pennsylvanians are also missing, although their ages and hometowns are identified on cards with the boots, because their families don't want to be associated with anything that might be viewed as opposing the military or U.S. government.
Scilla Wahrhaftig, field director locally for the American Friends Service Committee, said the exhibit and accompanying lectures or forums have been well-attended at colleges and community gatherings throughout Western Pennsylvania in recent weeks.
Aside from tonight's forum, the boots are on display at the East Liberty church, at Highland and Penn avenues, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and noon to 3 p.m. tomorrow. There is a 2 p.m. screening there today of two related films, and a 4 p.m. performance there tomorrow of Pittsburgh Playback Theatre's "Reflections on the Human Cost of War."
Gary Rotstein can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1255.