Forgotten people of L'Aquila losing faith in Berlusconi promises


LETTER FROM ROME:A taped conversation between building contractors has fuelled the anger of acquilani already disenchanted with the progress of reconstruction, writes PADDY AGNEW

LAST SUNDAY, the patience of many of the L’Aquila earthquake victims ran out.

An estimated 6,000 of them joined in a “wheelbarrow protest” in the old centre of L’Aquila, the Abruzzo town hit by a devastating earthquake last April which killed 307 people and left more than 40,000 homeless.

Focus of the protest was the 4½ million tonnes of rubble which, 11 months later, still choke the eerily empty town centre. In a symbolic gesture, the protesters brought their own wheelbarrows and began to move the rubble out of the town’s “centro storico”.

For much of the last year, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been pointing to his decisive, interventionist handling of the L’Aquila earthquake as proof of his “can-do” entrepreneurial spirit. He would build people new homes and he would get the town back on its feet, he promised.

But now, many of the earthquake victims no longer believe him. From the beginning, many argued that the government’s reconstruction programme had its priorities all wrong, concentrating energy and funds on the building of 20 “New Towns”, comprising seismic-proof permanent buildings, in a huge extended area around L’Aquila.

Environmentalists and architects argued that the new towns, several of which have indeed been completed and assigned to earthquake victims, represented a distraction from a more important priority – namely the restoration and reconstruction of L’Aquila’s mediaeval centre. Worse still, critics suggested these new towns were little more than a glorious opportunity for building speculation.

Those criticisms resurfaced with a vengeance last month following the publication of transcripts of a conversation between two building contractors, Francesco Piscicelli and Pierfrancesco Gagliardi, shortly after the earthquake. This was a wire-tapped conversation, carried widely in Italian media, which had emerged during a judicial investigation into alleged massive corruption regarding the public contracts for high-profile events.

The conversation between the contractors goes as follows:

X: “You had better get on to this earthquake thing down there (at the Office of Public Works) because we’ve got to be ready to start up quickly, you don’t get an earthquake every day of the week . . .”

Y: “I know . . . the poor people . . .”

X: “At half three this morning , I was in bed, laughing to myself.”

The publication of these and other taped phone calls has fuelled the frustration of those “acquilani” who feel their city is in danger of becoming some sort of latter day Pompei, visited by tourists curious to see what life was like before the “event”.

Even people who have been assigned one of the anti-seismic houses do not accept that the town centre, where they used to live, has been shut off.

The mood in L’Aquila is one of contestation. Last weekend it was the wheelbarrow protest. On previous weekends there were symbolic “invasions” of the centre with people handing over the keys of their abandoned homes. Others carried placards which read: “I Wasn’t Laughing When It Happened”, in an obvious reference to the conversation between Piscicelli and Gagliardi.

Until the rubble is removed restoration work cannot begin; 4½ million tonnes of rubble cannot be dumped just anywhere. Earthquake commissioner, regional president Gianni Chiodi, intends this week to ask for the right to call in the army to help remove the rubble.

In the meantime, the centre of L’Aquila remains a ghost town. Thousands are forced to commute 200km daily from their temporary accommodation in hotels and apartments in Adriatic coastal resort towns. In a sense, they are the lucky ones, since they at least have a job – unlike many “acquilani” whose jobs in shops and offices in the town centre ended with the earthquake.

Even some of those lucky enough to have been assigned an anti-seismic home are not happy. Many complain that the new towns offer no sense of community, and in some cases lack even basic amenities such as bars and newspaper kiosks.

It comes as no surprise that some earthquake evacuees have secretly (and illegally) returned to their old homes. After spending months in one of the tented villages, Giuseppe D’Orso, his wife and son (7) moved back into their house. He bought a wood stove to compensate for the lack of mains gas, and now he and his family await a permit to get on with some minor repairs.

The Testaverdes lived for a while in their camper van. But with the freezing L’Aquila winter, they abandoned the camper and moved into the garage of their home, again armed with a wood stove. They do not know whether their house is to be demolished.

It appears that a growing number of “acquilani” are no longer content to sit and await their destiny. They are likely to make themselves heard in coming weeks, especially in the run-up to regional elections at the end of this month.

Perhaps it is fortunate for Berlusconi that there will be no regional election in Abruzzo.