AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 16/2009

One Week after Disaster Earthquake Victims Fear Being Forgotten

The earthquake that hit the Italian region of Abruzzo last week devastated communities and left tens of thousands homeless. Many survivors have been transformed into refugees in their own country and it is unclear when -- if ever -- they will be able to return home.

By in L'Aquila, Italy


For seismologists, it was just a medium-strong earthquake, registering 5.8 on the Richter scale. For Italy, it is a national challenge. And for the people in the regional capital of L'Aquila, it was devastating.

Last Monday's earthquake turned residents of L'Aquila into refugees in their own country within a matter of minutes. Forced to flee their homes, wrapped in blankets and dependent upon aid, they pulled their meager belongings behind them in battered roller suitcases. They were weary, exhausted, shattered. Suddenly these Italians were no better off than the boat people from Africa who come ashore on Lampedusa and Sicily.

"Don't leave us in these tents," a woman yelled at an aid worker. After fearing for their lives, now they are afraid of the life that lies ahead. The woman had only slippers on her feet.

Long lines of cars jammed the highways of the province. They were all fleeing to the coast, traveling to relatives. No one knew if this stay would only be for the Easter holidays, or longer -- or forever.

They look like war refugees, and the city that they have left behind looks like it has been shelled for days. There are huge gaping holes in walls, cars covered with rubble, slopes which have slipped and remnants of walls that are grotesquely twisted and intertwined. In front of the Unicredito bank, a man with a steel bar pounds frantically on an earsplitting alarm unit. No one attempts to stop him.

The motto on L'Aquila's coat of arms is "Immota manet," a phrase from Virgil that means "Standing steadfast." But since April 6, large areas of this otherwise proud city of 73,000 can only be viewed with Google Earth. The dome of the Santa Maria del Suffragio church has been destroyed. In the recently restored Santa Maria di Collemaggio basilica, part of the apse has collapsed. The Renaissance San Bernardino church, where the relics of St. Bernardino of Siena are kept, has lost its campanile bell tower and its dome. By contrast, the cathedral's dome survived Monday's earthquake -- only to collapse during an aftershock on Tuesday evening. And even the medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio -- without a doubt the most stunning locality in the Abruzzo region -- is now without its most famous landmark, the Medici tower.

The old city of L'Aquila has been completely evacuated. No one is allowed to enter their house unaccompanied by members of the emergency crews, not even to retrieve a hamster, insurance papers or the family jewels. The "jackals" -- as the looters are called -- are already on the prowl. They headed for L'Aquila as soon as the aid convoys started to roll out.

Map: Abruzzo and L'Aquila
Google Earth

Map: Abruzzo and L'Aquila

L'Aquila resembles a ghost town. No clatter of scooters, no voices, only the taste of dust hanging in the air. On the town's main street, the Viale Duca degli Abruzzi, it is so quiet you can hear the wind blow. A white-haired woman crouches on a piece of marble, with a travel bag next to her and a blanket draped over her knees. When the ground trembles again, once, twice, a brief cry escapes her lips and she stretches her hands out, as if she were grasping for support -- or trying to pin down the world around her.

At least 294 people have died, nearly 1,200 are injured, roughly 100 of them severely. An estimated 40,000 people have been left homeless. And the ground continues to shake. On Tuesday evening, when a second quake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale shook the country as far away as Naples, a young woman from Campobasso jumped in panic from a balcony, and has been lying in a coma ever since. A total of 430 aftershocks were registered by Wednesday. Another aftershock measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale hit the region on Thursday evening, causing a four-story building in L'Aquila to collapse.

This Easter Sunday was a somber one in the region. Thousands of people made homeless by the quake attended mass at makeshift chapels, where they prayed for the dead. Aid workers distributed chocolate Easter eggs to children in the tent cities. In his Easter message, Pope Benedict XVI, who plans to visit the earthquake zone soon, urged survivors not to give up hope.

A Land of Hardships

Geologically, Italy lies on the African continental plate, which is constantly pushing its way under the Eurasian landmass. The Abruzzo region owes everything to these tectonics: the beauty of its mountains and the harsh poverty of its inhabitants. The soil is too infertile and the roads are too winding and twisted to bring prosperity here. Everyone who can leave looks for a better life elsewhere.

The new Italians -- immigrants from the Balkans, Romania, and North Africa -- have settled in the deserted centers of the villages. They work on construction sites or care for the elderly. Now they are the ones who are most affected. Their houses were old or cheaply cemented together. They came to start a new life, and now it's over.

This is a land of hardships. Hardly anywhere else do superstitions and the belief in miracles flourish to such an extent. Every village has its places of pilgrimage, its saints, its healing relics and crying Madonnas. In Manoppello, where earthquake survivors kneel in prayer, a divine shroud is venerated, and in the neighboring town they revere a heart muscle which belongs to the AB blood group.

The earthquake in the Abruzzo region has revealed the country's heart and soul, people's willingness to help, their courage and sense of community -- in short, their admirable ability to cope with disasters. By the break of dawn last Monday, aid convoys from the neighboring regions were already on their way, towing heavy trailers up the mountain roads. Shortly thereafter, the outskirts of L'Aquila resembled a military camp with voluntary civil defense workers, firefighters, Red Cross, paramilitary Carabinieri police, the National Forest Corps and the Italian Financial Guard.

Listeners called into radio stations and offered to take in homeless families over the holidays. The entire country is shaken, especially since many in Friuli, the Marche, Umbria and Sicily know from personal experience what it is to lose everything through a few jolts of the earth. On Friday, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to L'Aquila to attend a state funeral for the victims. It was declared a national day of mourning. Senators promised to donate their salaries. For a moment, Italy was united.

Opposition leader Dario Franceschini has offered Berlusconi his camp's backing to deal with the situation. Berlusconi, for his part, flew daily to the crisis region, promised €30 million ($40 million) in immediate aid. "The state is here," he said, clearly wrought with emotion.

The state is indeed there. But at the same time, the survivors who gather on the sports field of the Piazza delle Armi witness another, much criticized side of their country: its often glaring inability to master normality. Nicoletta Giusti, 53, a housewife who is camping with dog and family on the grass, wonders why some new buildings collapsed while others remained standing. "They told us everything was earthquake-safe. But it's obvious that they took cost-cutting shortcuts like using, I don't know, inferior cement or not enough steel." How can it happen, she asks, that a medium-scale earthquake can cause this kind of damage?

There is no lack of regulations. After every major earthquake, new ordinances were issued for construction in seismically risky areas. And yet not even official buildings met these standards -- not the San Salvatore provincial hospital, opened in 2000, not the student dormitories, or the court, or the university or the prefecture. The prison remained standing.

"In Japan or California, such an earthquake wouldn't have claimed a single life," says Franco Barberi, a seismologist. "So you have to wonder who supervised the construction work." In Italy there are over 16,000 schools alone in high-risk zones -- and the vast majority of these buildings lack sufficient building safety.

Civil defense authorities have requisitioned hotels on the Adriatic coast. Within just one day, emergency accommodation was set up for almost 18,000 people in L'Aquila. But the sight of the tent cities brings back unpleasant memories. There is an enormous fear that such temporary shelters could become permanent as funds trickle away and sooner or later no one is left who is responsible for the situation. There is a rumor currently circulating that in Messina, Sicily, people are still living in emergency housing from the last earthquake -- which was back in 1908.

Berlusconi has pledged to take better care of the survivors of this quake. In "24 to 28 months," he says, a "new town" will be built near L'Aquila.

Onna, a village at the epicenter of the earthquake, was completely destroyed. Forty people died here. Onna is now a village without children. The Italian TV presenter Bruno Vespa has suggested that Germany could take part in the reconstruction of Onna. According to research conducted by the Carabinieri, on June 11, 1944, German troops locked 16 men and women in a house and blew it up.

Journalist Giustino Parisse made a film about the Onna massacre in the hope of passing on the memory of this event to his children. But his effort turned out to be in vain. Early on Monday morning, the journalist's father and both of his children died under the rubble of their home.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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