August 11, 2004


By Jarrett Murphy

Special Correspondent

A funeral caisson is on its way to Stamford and area towns, not to honor a noted personage but to remember the civilian victims of military conflict.

A coalition of peace groups is carting a memorial stone dedicated to civilian victims of war 230 miles from Boston to New York. The walkers are due to arrive in Norwalk on Aug. 23, move to Stamford the next day and head west to Port Chester, N.Y., on Aug. 25.

"Stonewalk" is being organized by Sept. 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group that represents relatives of some victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Local organizers include Peace Action of Connecticut, Peacemakers of the First Congregational Church in Norwalk and the Wilton Friends Meeting.

The walk bridges the time between the Democratic National Convention held in Boston at the end of last month and the Republican convention in New York that concludes Sept. 2. Organizers are asking participants to refrain from carrying partisan political signs on the march.

"It goes beyond just Democrat and Republican and really speaks to our whole political system," said David Potorti of Cary, N.C., a co-director of Peaceful Tomorrows. His brother, Jim, died in the north tower of the World Trade Center.

"What we are saying is we have to remember the human cost of war and terrorism and violence, and we want all politicians of whatever stripe to keep that in mind," Potorti said.

The Stonewalk coalition claims 80 percent of deaths in war are of noncombatants. Brad Vadas, whose mother, Connie Taylor of Weston, intends to march with the stone, might be considered one of them.

Vadas, a 37-year-old Westport man, died in the south tower of the trade center.

"I think most civilians probably are attacked that way," Taylor said. "They have no part in it, really. They just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Taylor said she is marching because "we should be considering that when we give the go-ahead to have another war, that it's not just the military people involved."

The walk's centerpiece is a 2,000-pound slab of granite shaped like a gravestone on which an engraving reads, "To the Unknown Civilians Killed in War."

A caisson made of wood, brass and steel, and pulled along by marchers, carries the memorial. Marchers move the caisson by pushing on rails branching off a wooden harness in front of the cart.

The stone has covered large distances before. In 1999, Peace Abbey, the group that crafted the stone, carried it from Boston to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., hoping to place the monument alongside graves of military casualties.

The request was refused, but the stone was marched again in Ireland in 2000, honoring the victims of sectarian violence there, and in Britain in the summer of 2001.

This year's Stonewalk began in Boston on July 29 and is due to end in New York City on Aug. 31, with daily walks ranging from 2 miles to 12 miles. The stone will remain in New York for the third anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The march hits Norwalk on Aug. 23 after an 8-mile walk from Fairfield. Folk singer Pete Seeger is scheduled to perform during an evening program in Norwalk, details of which are to be announced.

Potorti said four organizers are marching with the stone for the entire route. As the stone passes through cities and towns, local residents are invited to walk along.

"As they go through towns, they pick up people for maybe a day or two. Some people have even walked longer than that," Potorti said. "The idea is just join when you can and leave if you have to."

He estimates up to 30 people have helped pull the caisson during parts of the walk. In addition to pulling the stone and calling attention to civilian deaths, organizers are asking people who join the walk to write to their members of Congress asking that they support the creation of a Department of Peace.

The U.S. military does not publicize estimates of civilian or enemy deaths in Iraq. In June 2003, The Associated Press estimated that at least 3,240 civilians died during the U.S. invasion and subsequent fighting. A private Web site, Iraq Body Count, keeps a running tally of civilians reported dead in news accounts; it claims at least 11,400 have died to date.

Stonewalk is taking place amid a heightened state of alert for possible terrorist attacks. Taylor said the atmosphere of threat only amplifies the walk's message.

"I think we tend not to think of other countries and what they're going through," she said. "Up to now, we in our country -- and maybe this is why we don't think of them -- we feel very safe."

-- Full information on the route is available at Local information can be obtained by calling (203) 866-6040.