Eight Months After the Earthquake L'Aquila Battles Despair, Inertia and Corruption

Eight months after a powerful earthquake struck the Abruzzo region of central Italy, many of its cities and villages still lie in ruins. As they cope with the trauma, many residents are fighting to stay in the impoverished region while local authorities try to fight corruption and increasing Mafia involvement in reconstruction efforts.


By in L'Aquila

Susanna was 15 when the earth shook in Onna. It was the morning of April 9. The ground beneath her feet began to roar, and the ceiling suddenly cracked open. Her parents leapt out of bed and called for their daughter, but there was no answer.

Susanna was dead. She was eventually found lying under the wreckage, curled up like a small child.

Benedetta, Susanna's older sister, was 26 that night. She also lived in this village of 350 people on the outskirts of L'Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region. Like most people in the village, she had gone to bed that night unconcerned, even though there had already been several minor quakes. The authorities hadn't issued any warnings, so she wasn't worried.

But then she was taken by surprise by a quake with a magnitude of 5.8. It devastated Onna and turned it into a sea of rubble. Benedetta -- like her sister, Susanna, and 39 other village residents -- was killed.

The surviving members of their family are two siblings, Edmondo and Carolina, and their parents, Tiziana Colaianni and Pasquale Pezzopane. The couple now lives in one of the brand-new wooden chalets -- whose construction Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi inaugurated with a bottle of champagne -- built not far from the wreckage of their former house.

Lingering Anger

It is a Saturday afternoon, and even though it's cold, the sun is still hot. A surreal silence pervades the new development. Colaianni is a quiet, intelligent woman of 52 years; her eyes are weary from crying. When she thinks about the night of the quake today, she is still angry. "We ran outside to get help," she says. But when the rescuers finally arrived, "they forcibly kept us away from our house," she says, adding: "No one can prevent me from risking my life when it comes to my own children."

Colaianni complains that the civil defense officials did not let her participate in the rescue efforts. "We're ashamed that we didn't do anything," she says. After the earthquake, she says, she and the other residents felt that they could help and be active and energetic. "Instead," she says, "they made us powerless."

In the tent city where the victims of the disaster were temporarily housed, the people from Onna formed a tight-knit community. In their pain, they both fought with each other and helped each other out. Now, once again, they are on their own. Pezzopane, an energetic man who is eager to begin a new life, is thankful to have a roof over his head. "But this isn't our home," he says. "Here, we are merely guests."

His wife, Tiziana, is afraid that the destroyed houses lying next to their current home will never be rebuilt. She is afraid that her former home will disappear forever, that her community will fall apart and that she will have to leave the village. "I feel alone and alienated," she says, looking sadly at pictures of the two daughters she lost. Moving into the new home precipitated a period of contemplation, questions and great pain for the family. "I cry a lot," says Colaianni. "But, before, I couldn't cry at all."

Torn Up by the Roots

In Italy, a family's home is oftentimes its only asset -- losing it means losing everything. Pezzopane had had high hopes for the new village committee, which was supposed to participate in the reconstruction. But his hopes have been frustrated. "They simply accept everything as it comes," he complains. "There is no individual initiative." Of course, says Pezzopane, local residents welcome donations and aid projects, but they feel that they don't have much say in them. For example, Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian and politician, raised €55,000 ($80,000) for a new gymnasium, but no one ever asked the villagers whether they even needed one. "They appear out of nowhere with a complete package," Pezzopane say, "and the only thing left for you to do is accept it."

The people of Abruzzo feel strongly connected to their homes and villages. Despite the danger that their damaged homes might still collapse, many returned to them soon after the earthquake. And that's where they stayed until fire department officials arrived and forbade them from remaining in the buildings. Hardly anyone in the region -- including the people of Onna -- wants to abandon the mountainous region, despite the fact that it lies right where two tectonic plates meet and has been plagued by earthquakes for centuries.

Those who do move away do so because of a lack of jobs. Even in normal times, the entire Abruzzo region suffers from a mass exodus of young people, who can't find work in the economically challenged region. Even before the earthquake, entire villages had already almost died out as a result of rural flight. The disaster has only made things worse.


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