Exhibit shows toll on Iraqi civilians

There were no photos of Marwa, Tabarak and Safia Abbas on the walls of the antiwar display, but the sisters’ story was there for all to read and remember: The girls, ages 5 to 11, were madly, deeply loved by their young parents. They were ordinary children living ordinary lives – until an American missile exploded in their home, killing them while they slept.

"People from Washington should come and see this and understand before they make their remote decisions," Bumblebee Makherjee, 29, of Center City, said yesterday as she walked through "Dreams and Nightmares: Daily Life in Iraq," an exhibit on Independence Mall.

"Look at this," Makherjee said. "It’s appalling. It’s so shocking. People would rather put their heads down and not look at it because you feel your hands are tied and you don’t know what to do."

The exhibit, by the American Friends Service Committee, focused on Iraqi civilians killed since the conflict began in 2003. It used photos to juxtapose colorful scenes from peaceful life in Iraq – a shoe-shine boy, a father holding an infant, a toddler wearing a red bow – with black-and-white images from a country that is suffering – a man wailing as he holds a small, blanket-clad body, a child sifting through dust in a graveyard.

The text on the walls provided sketches of the lives of people who have died, including Khalid Ali Saleh, 72, killed in April 2003 before he could meet his second grandchild, and Samar Hussein, 13, killed in March 2003 while making breakfast with her aunt.

"Dreams" was a new addition to American Friends Service Committee’s "Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War," which uses pairs of boots to mark military deaths and shoes to mark civilian deaths in Iraq. The entire exhibit, which included boots marked with the names of the more than 115 troops from Pennsylvania, was scheduled to remain until tomorrow night but ended late yesterday because of the stormy weather.

It’s unclear how many Iraqi civilians have been killed during the conflict, but a Johns Hopkins University study in April 2004 estimated the total at 100,000.

The civilian tally grows almost weekly, with deaths blamed on coalition forces or insurgents; last week, a car bomb in a bustling Baghdad market killed more than 60 people.

But 60 is a faceless number. The faces on the wall are real.

"We don’t know if any of these people are still alive or not. It’s hard to wonder," "Eyes Wide Open" tour manager Marq Anderson said, looking at the staring image of a slightly smiling boy. "Thousands of Iraqis are going to die who had no say in this war and no way to escape the consequences of it."

The pictures of Iraqis going about their daily routines were made by Philadelphia photographer Linda Panetta, who visited Iraq in 2003 and 2004. In a year, she said, the war’s toll on civilians was clear.

"You could see the immense fear in people’s eyes," she said. "You just never knew what was coming around the corner."

Visitors yesterday had differing opinions about the war and the exhibit’s message, said Melissa Elliott, an American Friends Service Committee staff member. Many were moved, she said, including a Gulf War veteran in a wheelchair who returned twice to donate money. Three Navy men stopped and had a lengthy discussion about the reasons behind the war. One woman said she felt the display dishonored the troops.

"We tried to explain that it honors everybody and our common loss," Elliott said.

Visitors Janice and Rowland Curry, both 58, of Austin, Texas, said they opposed the war and felt the exhibition supported their cause.

"I think we all need come out and see this and think of the deaths in real terms," Janice Curry said.

Added Rowland Curry, "Every protest puts a little pressure on somebody. The more of us old white guys that come out, maybe we’ll get something done."

Narberth resident Bruce Segal said one of the things that struck him most was the display’s location.

"It exemplifies freedom of speech when you can have an exhibition specifically challenging our government’s policies across from Independence Hall," Segal said. "It’s a protest in the form of art."

Contact staff writer Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2813 or npompilio@phillynews.com

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