Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I would do it again

Sunday afternood, about 5 pm, the fishing ship Chico from Porto Palo in Sicily was at the end of its third and last day at sea. Its crew had caught 49 swordfish. They saw a ship with 151 aspiring immigrants on board, in serious difficulty. They called the Capitaneria di Porto in Augusta and were placed into contact with the one in Rome. Scared, and worried of the approaching dark, they cut the nets, took the women and children on board, ran a line to the drifing wreck, and started off towards Malta, the nearest destination.

The situation on board was dramatic. One woman had a cardiac arrest and needed rescuscitation. Another fainted from exhaustion. It was while soccurring this woman that the crew revealed that they were being towed towards Malta and not Italy. All hell broke loose. People started jumping in the sea. The women clutched the children and threatened to follow suit.

At this point the captain received from the Capitaneria in Rome something that seems to have been along these lines: "Do whatever you have to do to save the lives of those people there, even if it means coming ashore in Italy."

Which is what the captain of the Chico elected to do.

Once reached Pollazzo, in Sicily, the captain and crew of the Chico were questioned by the police, and subsequently charged with complicity in illegal immigration, and the ship seized.

The captain is bitter. What he said was: "My father and his father have been fishermen before me, I know what it means to die at sea. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, because you're not even left with a corpse to grieve over. I am a seaman, and at sea solidarity is life. I would do it again."

A couple of years ago, a boat full of people - about 180 of them - sank off Porto Palo on Christmas night. News of the wreck came ashore but was not believed, because no corpses could be found. And no corpses could be found because the fishermen of Porto Palo, snagging first bodies and then parts of bodies and then bones in their nets, were spooked and horrified and siezed with pity - but they also knew they would be facing problems and aggravation and their ship stuck at shore if they reported it. So they chucked them overboard again. This went of for years, until the secret got out and one journalist followed up with the story, and Porto Palo was shamed, despite trying to explain that they would have acted much differently if those people had still been alive. Indignation was poured on the heartless people of the sea town who would chuck skulls and arms and legs back to the sea.

The wreck, and its bodies, is still at the bottom of the sea despite appeals from the relatives and several Italian public figures including members of both houses of the Parliament and a couple of Nobel Laureate to retreive it and give a proper burial to the bodies.

And when the fishermen of Porto Palo do happen on live bodies at sea, this is what they get.

Monday, August 05, 2002

La mattina del cinque di agosto

Today the news on TV is unanimous in remembering the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death. It took me a while to realize that "the fifth of August" tugged a very different memory in me. And finally I got it: it's the fist line of one of the most famous, and notorious, war songs in Italian history.

It has been officially collected in Novara, by a folk song researcher, from a man who testified to having it heard sung by the troops that, on August 10th 1916, took Gorizia. The battle of Gorizia (August 9-10) claimed, according to official data, the life of 1,759 officers and about 50,000 soldiers on the Italian side, and 862 officers and about 40,000 soldiers on the Austrian side.

I have heard it said that you could be executed if found singing it, which isn't all that unlikely, sedition being a serious offence then, especially in wartime. Nowadays, even the webpages of the National Association of Alpine Corps can offer its lyrics, but not so long ago folk singers were prosecuted for public slighting of the Armed Forces for having sung it, and could provoke outrage by performing it.

The song is a curse, and a dying man's curse at that, of the object of the offensive, the city of Gorizia; and of the men who had sent the soldier to fight while remaining safely behind the lines; and of the whole concept of a national borders somehow affecting the nature and quality of the land. My parents and me used to sing it on long car journeys. You can hear it here (takes forever to load)

On the morning of the fifth of August
The Italian troops were moving
For Gorizia the far-away lands
And grieving each of us left

Under the pouring water
And a hail of enemy balls
On mountains, hills and great valleys
We died while saying this:

Oh Gorizia may you be cursed
By any heart gifted with conscience
Grievous was our leaving
And return was not for many

Oh you cowards that now lay
With your wives on wooden beds
Mockers of us human flesh
This war will teach us to punish

You call it the field of honor
This same land beyond the borders
We die here calling you murderers
May you be cursed some day

Oh dear wife who cannot hear me
I entrust to my comrades beside me
To provide for my children
While I die with your name in my heart

Oh Gorizia may you be cursed
By any heart gifted with conscience
Grievous was our leaving
And return was not for all.

I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather of late, if nothing else because he was an enthusiastic swimmer who taught me to swim when I was less than a years old, and I've been dutifully going the swimming pool lately. And though he had not been in Gorizia, he fought for all of the First World War on the mountains. Actually, he was on the Monte Nero, I believe, and the Monte Canino, also recorded bitterly in song. I think I'll go up to Monte Grappa, to see the trenches and galleries, next week. The memory of the great carnage is never far away, geographically, but mine is the last generation that actually heard the stories from the living voice of people who had been there, and knew. I wish now that he's gone, as I guess every granchild ever did, that I had paid more attention to him.

Still, I guess Marilyn Monroe makes for a better story. It's a lot easier to dismiss her.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

How not to get people killed

Martin Wisse (here I am, Martin!) has written about the huge demonstration that took place in Genoa in the first anniversary of the death of Carlo Giuliani during the G8 riots (let's call them like that) last year.

What's been remarkable is that this time, despite the danger of terrorist attacks having, if anything, grown, despite a death laying between protesters and the various police forces, despite anger and the memory of torture (because that's the name of what happened in Genoa last year, to peaceful protesters many of them foreign nationals), and the rest - nothing happened in Genoa. No shop windows where smashed. No cars burnt. Nobody got hurt. Upwards of 100,000 people marched and nothing got destroyed and nobody got as much as a bloody nose. Ok, some flowerpots near the the Brignole railway station got smashed. That's all.

Why? What was it that went so differently from last year? Is it that there were no violent elements, antagonists, violent anarchists, black block? No - they were there all right. Probably fewer of them but it's not the force of numbers that counts in this case. So what?

In part, this time around the mainstream leftist parties and the CGIL, the largest Italian union, came as well. (They even officially apologized for not having been there last year, took the requisite flak, and Luciano Violante, there to represent the DS party, in a press conference said: When you go wrong, you say so, and you take what's coming to you.) They have strong, and experienced, "order service", that is, security. Maybe it was that. Maybe not. Security was there last year too. I wasn't there, understand. So I have to go by what the papers tell.

And they tell funny stories. This is how Carlo Bonini chronicles the event on La Repubblica:

At twenty past six, the "blacks" have just gotten under the walls of the city prison of Marassi. They meet a Neapolitan policeman, vice-quaestor Angelo Gaggiano: not a wet pinko but the same man that ordered the charge in via Tolemaide last year.

Gaggiano marches up in the no-man's land between the police and the Blacks and takes off his helmet. Fifty meters behind him, his people. Fifty meters in front, maybe five hundred people from "Inmensa" and "Askatasuna". He shakes hands with their representative - roughly the same age but - the journalist notes - for all the rest divided from his opponent by all of life's choices bar none,more or less.

"Now understand me, guagliò (= guaglione, "kid", all-purpose friendly Neapolitan form of address). I let you get to the prison, with all that you shouldn't have. You give me a guarantee that you'll not be lobbing stones, bottles or molotovs against mine or the prison. That way, everybody's happy. If you don't keep your side of the bargain, you'll get charged. All right? Can you guarantee that?"

The other, not exactly a kid the journalist notes, is a bit vague. "Let's say that we self-determine ourselves as single individuals. That we demand the political agibility of acts of outrage."

Gaggiano turns, fiddles with his cell phone, calls somebody, maybe the quaestor. "Oscar? Look, this is how things stand here..."

Then he turns back. "Let's say I don't get precisely what you mean by acts of outrage. Let's say that I take it to mean a couple of firecrackers, all right? Is that so?"

"Well, yes, a couple, three firecrackers."

"Eh... let's not go over the board with this outrage, though."

"Maybe slogans as well. I dunno, murderers, things like that."

"Vabbuò (=allright), see what you can do for the slogans. Just as long as you keep those scarves off the face, allright? Gimme a break there."

Yeah - I don't know how much the journalist embellished events. I can just see this scene in any typical Italian comedy, with Ugo Tognazzi in the role of the policeman and Vittorio Gassman in that of the Black. And yet, you know, this is Italy at its ridicolous, childish best.

Anyway, Marrassi went unscathed, and so did the Blacks' outrage, and so did shops, banks, petrol pumps, malls.

But that's not all. Police consistently was visibile in front - and shielding - the carabinieri (it was a young carabiniere who shot Giuliani), but giving a wide berth to the demonstrators. Visible but not threatening. No tear-gas launchers in sight. No armour. Shields and batons in ungloved hands, and kept rigorously low. No menacing war drumming with feet or shields or batons. When the crowd got nervous, buffer distance was simply increased. Never was the crowd bottled in, and possible deflux corridors were always kept clear. People charged with keeping the peace kept their heads, even when spat upon freely.

Needless to say, no live bullets flew around.

At the end of the day, disappointment was expressed only by the handful of young people who attacked the flowerpots in via San Vincenzo. "If I knew it was going like this, I'd have gone with the Disobedients. At least they were a lot. What a shitty day."

And as a result, a vast peaceful body of civilized citizen could express their protest with all the protection that a democratic State should afford them. And that it should have afforded them last year.

Is this an unprecedented leap forward in sanity and competence? No. It's the ABC of crowd control, that all the Italian police forces have known and have been practicing for decades. I have seen much the same in Padua: young men who probably thought that they were being made to risk a beating (as Forza Nuova had promised) for a bunch of bloody perverts, but were there nonetheless, curteous and more than ready to protect the faggots and dykes from anybody who'd tried to stop them doing their thing.

So the real question is: why was this uccustomed sanity ditched last year? Was incompetence, confusion, panic the only reason things derailed so much? Or did somebody plan for disaster? And where did the people that tortured people in the Genoa barracks learn their trade? And who told them that they wouldn't be called to task for it?

The same people who loudly proclaimed their support for the officers accused in Naples of doing much the same things, things that would, that should, shame anybody wearing a uniform if true? And not claiming that those things weren't true - but that they were justified.

Malefic fluid

The former President of the Italian Republic Francesco Cossiga is in Ireland, on vacation. He has just issued a press release in which he says that he is ill with a "constipation" whose origin leaves his doctors baffled, but not him: he knows it is the "malefic fluid" promanating from one of the advisors of the newly elected Chief of Superior Council of the Judiciary, the governing body of Italian Justices. The new Chief is an ex Minister, and probably felt by Cossiga to be a political adversary.

People in Italy have a tendency to mutter "Need to get his lithium dosage adjusted again, right?" when these sort of things happen with our former President. And they happen with a certain frequency.

You'd think this is a quaint and marginal character. Not so. Cossiga is a powerful and influential political figure.

Yeah, I hear the snickers. It's all right snickering for you, it's not as if you had him as a Senator for Life in your senate.