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EYES WIDE OPEN
Next week, more than 2,500 pairs of shoes will be exhibited in downtown Fresno's Courthouse Park to represent the lives lost during the Iraq war.
More than 1,500 black boots will be arranged in neat rows, a pair for each of the American military casualties. One thousand pairs of donated shoes will be piled to represent the Iraqi civilian deaths, which varying estimates place between 15,000 to over 100,000.
The Eyes Wide Open exhibit is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the Iraq war. Organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization founded after World War I, the exhibit hopes to educate people of the true cost of the American presence in Iraq and afford communities an opportunity to grieve for all the lives lost.
When the exhibit debuted in January 2004, there were 504 combat boots to memorialize fallen soldiers. As the conflict has intensified, so has the exhibit.
"A lot of people had expressed demand to see it here. Some people from Fresno, they went to other cities and they saw it there, so that's how they heard about Eyes Wide Open," explained Mai Der Vang, an organizer for the AFSC-affiliated Pan Valley Institute, which is bringing the exhibit to Fresno.
Eyes Wide Open has already traveled to more than 40 major cities, and will continue its tour up the west coast after the Fresno stop.
"What's interesting is a lot of the boots have been donated by families and then a lot of the other boots- maybe half of the boots- were contributed by army surplus stores. But primarily the boots are given by family members who are touched by this memorial, said Vang.
Boots are arranged by state and include the soldier's name, age, and rank. California has the most boots, followed by Texas. Some family members leave photos, cards, or flags to travel with the boots of their loved ones. Organizers are unsure if any Valley families will attend the exhibit.
"We realized it was going to be tricky for families to just come out and speak. We realized if we did have other people who spoke before come and speak, it might be a way to open up the conversation with families here who are kind of isolating- keeping it you know, still unsure as to how to approach this and speak to other people about it. What we really really hope is they will come out to the exhibit. And just kind of come and reflect and just kind of be part of the exhibit and be part of the experience here in Fresno," said Vang.
One of the event's scheduled speakers, Bill Mitchell, lost a family member in the war and has been traveling with the exhibit, speaking at all of the sites. He will speak at the Fresno event as well.
In addition to honoring the American dead, the exhibit tries to also honor the Iraqi civilian casualties. Along with 1,000 pairs of shoes, there is a 24-foot wall displaying the names of civilian casualties.
"Shoes that have been contributed for the Iraqis are shoes that have been donated along the way. So those are shoes that you or I might wear everyday. They're not boots or anything specific. That's what makes it kind of unique is that people that have been touched by it have donated," explained Vang.
While Vang emphasizes the exhibit is a memorial, AFSC takes a stand against all wars, and urges people to sign a petition demanding the US bring its troops home now.
The exhibits will be one of the largest anti-war events in the Valley, a region that is decidedly pro-Bush. Organizers are doing their best to prepare against a backlash from conservative groups.
"We're going to try to prepare for whatever we can. We hope nothing bad will happen we just hope for the best, but we got to prepare for the worst. We know that when it was previously in Dallas there was a protest and I think some of the conservative organizations in the valley kind of saw that and they were kind of vying for the protest in Dallas. We are not sure if they know its coming here to Fresno yet."
"We want people to know that whether people think its anti war or whether people think its pro war, regardless of that regardless if the conservatives come or the liberals come that really it's a memorial to really mourn the loss of those who have passed on as a result of this war," Vang continued.
The exhibit opens Tuesday from 10am to 7pm and features a candlelight vigil that evening. On Wednesday the exhibit will be open from 10am to 5pm. In addition to the boots and shoes, there will be speakers throughout the day and a media tent with footage of the realities in Iraq. Each day at 11am the names of those killed in the conflict, both military and civilian, will be read.
For such mundane objects, the boots and shoes in this exhibit exert great power.
"In my own opinion shoes are universal to anyone. We need shoes to get from here to there and we might take them for granted many times, but there are people who don't have shoes at the same time. I think it's just a universal concept for many people of many cultures, of many backgrounds- the power of our own two feet."
"Eyes Wide Open" will be on display in Courthouse Park Tuesday, March 22 and Wednesday March 23. Visit the offical site and the Pan Valley Institute site for more information, including schedules. Courthouse Park is located at Tulare and Van Ness in downtown Fresno.