I am struggling. Physically and mentally.
My head feels like a tiny room that is just too crowded. I can’t move or even breathe properly. I don’t know what direction I am moving in, here among the rubble of buildings, fallen trees all the despondent people (as well as the people with that kind of manic optimism that is usually one step away from total breakdown).
I have taken some steps forward – I no longer sleep in boots and I shower regularly. But also some backwards. I danced to Barry White on the radio. On my own. I don’t even like Barry White that much. And I’ve sort of trashed the cutlery drawer – no sections with knives, forks and spoons neatly separated. I just chuck things in. Apparently this is me externalising my internal chaos. Yesterday I could hear Steve (who’s just returned from Qatar) in the kitchen, sorting out the cutlery, “I thought you’d be pleased” he said as I told him I like it messed up. So, mental health soundings are inconclusive at this point.
Two things explain why this chapter is rather late in appearing on your screens.
The first is a good thing. Last year I quit my job teaching here in Italy to go to London and write a book full of the life stories, reflections and dreams of thirty homeless people in London – a book crammed full of intimate photographs and amazing tales of courage. A couple of weeks ago the fabulous, passionate people at Unbound said they will help me get it published. They work with Penguin Random House but I have to crowdfund (oh god, will that be hard?) the money to get the book actually sort of ‘made’ …. so I have a whole wonderful new project – that I believe in – to fight for.
The second thing? All that meant I was somehow reluctant to touch my keyboard and write the gloomy words I fear will fill this particular installment.
When I started writing these little photo-essays I thought that you and I would move together, through the months, watching this area – that has always been a joy in my heart – get off its knees and make everything right again. Now, today, I doubt this is what we will see. My sense of hope has all but gone.
Those of you who know me – and maybe even some of you who have got to know me a little – will know I am ‘good in a fight’. If there is a war to be waged, I’m someone you want in your corner. I am congenitally ill-disposed to injustice and unfairness.
A group formed in the area a little while ago, called Terre in Moto (it is a play on words – terremoto means earthquake … terre in moto can mean literally land moving or land/people in upheaval) They are good guys and I joined their number: a loose association of the young and the old who live in this region, either farming or running businesses with lives and families and a hope for the future.
A while back, when I still had my ‘fight’, I went to a demonstration in our Region’s capital, Ancona. Terre in Moto were telling the ‘powers that be’ that we will not tolerate the completely useless way the government has been handling the situation, post-earthquakes. Various people spoke to the gathering … including me
and this guy who was so passionate, so impressive, that just for a moment I thought there might be a way forward.
In the weeks following this demonstration, my sense of things has changed … while it is important that people get together to share information, experience and advice, nothing short of an uprising and the sacking of Rome is going to change or improve a damn thing here.
The thing is, towns are dying. What were once dark mutterings about great swathes of this mountainous area being left to wither on the vine have turned out to be virtually a declaration of intent. Amatrice will not be rebuilt. Other smaller villages and towns will not be fixed. For god’s sake, the rubble that has been lying on the roads hasn’t even been cleaned up. Six months on.
The newspapers are full of stories about farmers who have had to move debris with their bare hands to try and get feed to their animals etc. We are told there is not the money. Roads, pylons, water connections and all the infrastructure that was wiped out at a stroke is not to be replaced everywhere. There is, however, a commitment to big tourist attractions like Norcia. Oh, and speaking of tourism, after pressure from Tuscany and others, these earthquakes (all 59,000 to date! Over a magnitude of 2.0) are no longer to be called the Central Italy Earthquakes. We have to learn to refer to them as the Amatrice earthquake, the Visso earthquake etc. Mustn’t let word get out about what’s happened. Central government seem very worried about scaring off the tourists and not at all worried about scaring off the people that actually live here.
Handily, thousands of mountain farmers (who have lost, between them, 10,000 livestock), were sent off to the coast to live in hotels. It is not physically possible for them to be at their farms, working the land and looking after their animals. Oh, and incidentally, the government has still not paid the hotels for putting up these homeless people, a bill that is currently running at several hundred thousand euros. Another empty promise. The hoteliers are saying it is monstrous to expect them to chose between either housing/feeding these people for free (over so many months) or to put them out onto the street to fend for themselves. What kind of government behaves like that?
At that demonstration I took this picture because I suddenly realised what was happening in central Italy.
When a ship sets sail it has lifeboats on board. In case it sinks. Where were our life boats? Where was the store of temporary houses ready for the next quake? We are sinking. Rome turns its back. They talk the talk, but when the Extraordinary Commissioner for the earthquakes, Vasco Errani, says that there is no reconstruction you know you are in trouble. Reconstruction? They haven’t even managed the post-emergency phase. Too busy lining each others’ pockets.
When I was younger I lived and studied in Moscow, under the Communist regime. My boyfriend was a sort of pseudo-dissident and we lived in a miserable block of flats in two cramped rooms. We never spoke in the corridors or on the stairs, and only in hushed voices in the flat itself. Just in case someone heard and maybe reported us. My boyfriend used to say that the brilliance of the KGB was that they didn’t actually have to do very much at all – they didn’t have to listen in to all phone calls and conversations or install lots of spies in the flats – they just had to let you think there might be a threat, stand back and that would suffice … you’d censor yourself, be nervous of your neighbours and trust pretty much no-one. You’d sort of fade away into a non-state. The job the State wants ‘done’ gets done by doing really rather little.
This is what I think is happening here. The government are not doing very much at all. They publish a decree on Monday promising x, y or z. By Thursday morning it’s shelved and there’s another one now under discussion. And on it goes. Promises of money to help the homeless pay for rents etc. have not materialised. I’ve not received a penny for the last 5 months. Thank god the guy who owns this place doesn’t ask for rent. But we have to move from here in another 6 weeks or so. Then what?
I think they are waiting to see how many men are left standing. I think they are waiting to see how much noise and nuisance those with the heart and the energy left will make. It seems like holding a pillow over everyone’s face and seeing how many will manage to fight for breath – how many will be left to actually be a problem. Maybe not too many. Amandola, a town 15 minutes away has seen nearly 1,000 people leave. God knows where they’ve gone, maybe other family in other areas of Italy, who knows? In my first ever blog, I mentioned the word diaspora – it is quite often to be seen in the papers these days. De-poplulation is the buzz word now.
Not long ago I was phoned by my local comune and told that there was to be a meeting about the housing situation. I went along with about 50 other people.
I think they were calling us in smallish groups because the rooms are small – that, or they didn’t want a large gathering that could turn nasty once they’d finished delivering the news. The Sindaco (our mayor) turned up half an hour late. We milled around in the corridor and were restless. We had been told to come at 9pm which was oddly late.
Finally at about 9.30 were allowed in to a council room where we waited for another 15 minutes for some good news.
There was no good news.
The Sindaco told us that the council had not ordered a single house. Bombshell Number One.
The list for registering for a temporary house (wooden or container) had shut 2 months previously. Loads of us were signed up. I stood up and asked why none had been ordered. The Sindaco said “Because we don’t have a definitive figure yet“. I responded saying that if you think there might be, say, 200 homeless families, why not go right ahead and order a safe 150? Oh,no, can’t do that.
Another man, livid at this stage, asked when they would be ordered, and when they would arrive. Bombshell Number Two … not before next Christmas. I simply got up and left.
Back to my analogy of holding a pillow over a person’s face. How can we live like this? There is no certainty about a solitary thing. Even I have begun to play with thoughts of leaving. How can you live a life in these conditions. But leaving is what the government want us to do. Problem solved.
Nature has been hard on us here. For months. All the earthquakes, then that desperate, destructive snow that killed off so much livestock and so many farmers’ will to live and any belief that help would be coming.
You expect indifference from Nature – but from your own government? From your fellow man? That is hard to to stomach.
The local comunes, action groups, campaigns – they’re not enough in the face of the calamity that came to this area. I just can’t see how we can survive this on our own. We can’t keep being on the move, again and again
never quite sure where or for how long. Old folk on the coast saying in the press things like “I don’t want to die here, in this hotel. I want to die at home”. And what will we do when the next quake comes?
The clean-up hasn’t finished, the temporary fixing hasn’t started and there seems to be no unified vision for reconstruction. We have been abandoned. By the rest of Europe and by our own government.