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Bloody Italy

The revolution is on, the casualties are mounting

Angela Ferrante October 31 1977
Closeup

Bloody Italy

The revolution is on, the casualties are mounting

Angela Ferrante October 31 1977

Bloody Italy

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International Affairs

The revolution is on, the casualties are mounting

Angela Ferrante

Italy. A country broken into a million

pieces, as if someone has just blown it up

and left the treasures mixed in with the debris. Here is one piece: a skin-soft evening at the end of a wilting day in Rome. The gentle hour when the unforgiving Mediterranean sun is only a rose tinge on the church cupola. In the elegant Piazza Navona waiters' prepare the antipastos. Fire-eaters perform. Vendors mark their spot around Bernini’s famous fountains. The man with stumps where legs used to he rattles a tin can. A dirty-cheeked gypsy, child draped over her lap, whines invocations. Tourists strolling past, carefully hold on to their purses. Suddenly, just a short distance away in front of San Pietro in Vincoli, gunshots sting the softness. It is a shoot-out between police and left-wing terrorists. As the curious close in, the body of the most sought-after terrorist leader, 26-year-old Antonio Lo Muscio, lies sprawling in its blood. Nearby, 23-year-old terrorist Maria Pia Vianale. knocked to the ground, lies bleeding, nose broken.

Another piece: the Portonaccio suburb of Rome. Ceramic highrises look down

over the tin shanties of some of the city’s 60,000 baraccati—the poor and displaced, many of them immigrants from the south, who live without water or electricity. The local body shop is busy repairing stolen Mercedes. The 12-year-old local street gang leader is busy prying a lock. He lives in a mud-colored garbage-strewn apartment building. His neighbors say his mother urges him on because she needs the money. From here, one can barely imagine the Italian countryside, fragmented into angles of hills and mountains, where dying villages perch like flocks of birds, still bathed in the light that illuminated Renaissance painting.

It’s impossible to put the pieces together. There is no “whole” Italy anymore. It’s not just that for a country always in crisi the general level of disorder is higher, the contrasts sharper than usual. Or that urban crime is withering the flower sweet life of the cities. The old Italy is crumbling, its social fibre unraveling. Terrorism is striking away at its pillars with machine gun persistence. The country is caught up in a rapid evolution—some would call it revolution—of which violence is both the fuel and the by-product. At the turbulent core of the changes are the young—students, unemployed, emarginati, the outsiders. They have inherited a suffocating house,

beautifully designed with gargoyles and cornices, but overcrowded and badly in need of modernization. They know full well that whether they are born in the cellar or the salon, they have little hope of changing their position.

And now, they are not just hoping for changes, they are demanding them, ready to blow up the whole house if they have to. The majority of 60 million Italians, caught between the old and the new, are baffled when they are not frightened, always seeking magic theories that will put the pieces together and explain away the ugliness.

Theories that will explain, for instance, why early this year students once again descended with furor, bricks and guns into the piazzas of Italy’s major cities. Why they sacked and pillaged like modern-day Huns the gilded shops of Rome and Bologna. Why 17-year-old high-school students were photographed carefully aiming P38 pistols—source of supply unknown—at police. Why the image remains hauntingly of policemen rising up out of tear gas like Martians dressed in self-defense gear. Why there have been deaths on both sides. Why all summer long, while the ruling Christian Democrats under Premier Giulio Andreotti and the powerful Communists led by Enrico Berlinguer for the first time worked on a common legislative program, ultra-left-wing terrorists continued to carry out their own sentences on society with bombings, kidnappings, killings. (In June there was a major terrorist attack almost every two days.) Why judges, prosecutors, university heads, and finally even journalists, were left with their legs shot up, bleeding in front of their homes or in parking lots. Why even the Communists who, with 34% of the vote, are so close to power, have lost control, rejected by the new “autonomists” who want no leaders. Why everyone expects things to be worse this winter.

The key piece: Italy’s students. Only they can answer why things seem more hopeless now than nine years ago, when they last rebelled to “open up” Italian universities to more than just the children of the wealthy. So about 10 of them, some bearded, most in blue jeans, all serious, troop into a Portonaccio apartment (just above where the gang leader lives) to explain to a foreigner about the Italy they are simultaneously destroying and re-creating. The students represent every political posture from ultra-left to centre, and in a country where every shade of political grey has a name and a mailing address. They start by giving me a few facts. Rome University was originally built for 50,000 and now has 140,000 students. (“If we all showed up for classes at once, they’d have to put us in the toilets,” says 25-year-old Communist Emidio Tritella.) University is only parcheggio—a parking lot. There are up to two million unemployed, most of them graduates or unskilled young people. Most of them, outsiders from the south or central Italy, have to resort to illavoro nero,

poorly paid jobs to survive. These students (there are four living in this cramped apartment) are the sons and daughters of farmers, small shop owners, and the first generation of their families to make it to university, the first to hope to conquer the poverty of the arid south—without having to resort to emigration. And now damn it, they want something for having played by the rules. But university has been opened to them, just as the retracting economy is shutting the doors of hope.

“I want to work but I want to choose it,” says a Sicilian medical student, Pino Oddo, one of the growing number of left-wing “autonomists” who refuse to be cheated.

Tritella, a Communist Party worker, replies with the party line: “In Italy today nobody chooses his job. With pistols you won’t change anything.” They are angry with each other: the autonomist because he feels Communists have “sold out,” moving too slowly to change the country. The Communist because he feels that anarchy will destroy hope for reform.

“If you feel the anger and can channel it, fine,” explains Tonino Russo di Vito, a nonviolent leftist. “If you feel it and can’t, you find yourself in a square in a demonstration and you just may end up hitting someone.” But the discussion quickly deteriorates into a shouting match about

who hit first, who shot first in the last rally.

The autonomist: “I had no weapon in my hand.” The Communist: “Liar.” They spit the ultimate insult at each other: “Fascist.” The ultra-left goes off in a huff to the kitchen. The foreigner remains uninformed. When a philosophy professor, Filippo Mignini, asks, “Is this the beginning of the revolution?” everybody just laughs nervously. “It’s sad in a way, isn’t it?” he says later. “They can’t accept facts because then they would have to go beyond them and they can’t.”

Going beyond the facts, in the more than usually chaotic Italy of 1977, inevitably means taking a radical position. And for most Italians it is easier not to. After all, the country still floats on its own perfumes, still basks in the sunshine life of well-dressed women and good cafés. Terrorism didn’t keep a people, by now inured to every kind of crisis, from packing the beaches. But terrorism is there, like a buzz saw, in every conversation. Up to three or four years ago, the terrorist threat was from the Right—ineffectual coup attempts (78 people are still being tried in connection with one such scheme), bombs on trains, attacks on long-haired leftists by gangs of toughs called squadristi. But the threat now, swinging like a crazy pendulum, is from the Left and is far more desperately effective. In the first six months this year, there were 1,148 terrorist attacks compared to 696 for the same period last year—everything from fire-bombings to assassinations. The suspicion is growing that maybe this time the crisis is real. Says Alessandro Silj, an author who spent several months researching the backgrounds of Italy’s latest crop of left-wing terrorists (and whose book was found in Lo Muscio’s possession when he was killed): “This time the crisis is different. It’s a gut feeling, but something will have to break.”

It’s not so much that the economy, as usual, is fragile. In fact, it has shown some mild, if temporary, improvement. Inflation is down to 15% from 22% last year. Strikes are down. Productivity is up by 2.5%. Italy has even started to repay some of her foreign debts.

But what makes these problems more serious in Italy is a weak social and community conscience, a “me-versus-them” attitude, a lack of respect for everyday laws and regulations and the resultant disorder which most Canadians would find intolerable. In other words, a perfect context for complete breakdown.

The young people seem lost, rattling around inside stereotypes, impatient with them. Impatient with the clientelismo, the patronage system, upon which every job revolves, the taking for granted that politicians are corrupt, that taxes should be avoided, that the phones won’t work, that prisoners will always escape (360 did so last year.) They are outraged that 292 of every 1,000 children die in their first year (compared to 127 in England), that Mi-

lan has two square metres of green space per person (compared to Paris with seven and Amsterdam with 20), that the country has six times fewer sport facilities than the rest of Europe. In the south 14-year-old boys are still sold by their poor parents to local farmers for about $100. The south, after all these years, is still poor, a sort of in-house Third World, its villages depopulated by the young who have moved to northern factories, doubling the populations of such cities as Turin and Milan in the past 20 years, creating a ring of poverty around them.

Now that so much has already been tossed into the current of change, now that the power of the Church is retreating into the campanile of the small town, while that “second church,” as Italians call the Communist Party, collects the faithful in neighborhood committees in the cities. Now that divorce is won and legalized abortion on the horizon, the incentives to change it all are greater. “So many things that Italians accepted fatalistically before,” says Silj, “now they believe they might change them.” The only question is: how?

The authorities have divided the “problem” area into three neat groups. First, there are the hundreds and thousands of students, who, though not terrorists, form the “body of water within which the terrorist can swim.” Politicians get scared when a meeting of 2,000 students actually vote on whether or not they will use guns the next time they descend into the piazza. Next, come the 150,000 who belong to leftist groups such as Lotta Continua (The Fight Continues), which preach violent overthrow and “furnish the ideology.” (Operating out of a Rome warehouse, with 30,000 members, Lotta Continua publishes a daily newspaper. Says a 30-yearold physician, a spokesman for the group, Dr. Enrico Deaglio: “There is no possible way to change Italy without a revolution.”)

The hard-core terrorists, the all-out fugitives who live under cover, changing identities and hideouts every month, living off robberies and kidnappings, number about 200. Another 200 are in prison. The two main groups, which burst onto the scene about three years ago, are the Red Brigades, middle-class, former university students, and the Nucleus of the Armed Proletariat (NAP), which grew up out of a prison reform movement. Together they are believed responsible for at least four political murders, 34 attempted kidnappings and extortions. They are primarily behind the sharp increase in bombing incidents (up 225% in the past four years). Four Napistas were believed killed while handling bombs.

Though relatively small in number, the Red Brigades’ power is such that the trial of their leader, Renato Curdo, a 36-yearold handsome, bearded former sociology student, had been postponed twice. Once, when he was “liberated” from prison by a squad which included his wife. She was

later killed in a shoot-out with police. Then jurists in Turin were too scared to show up in court after the RB killed the president of the Turin Law Society. When Curcio was finally tried this summer, in Milan, he was surrounded by enough artillery to fight a minor war. In the end, he was sentenced to seven years for resisting arrest.

At this weak moment in Italy, it is no longer safe to be a politician. Take the case of Massimo de Carolis, a 37-year-old lawyer, Christian Democrat deputy from Milan. Small, with darting blue eyes, he sits on the edge of his chair in the ornate waiting room of the Italian Chamber, ever ready for flight. He is “right wing” even for a Christian Democrat. He advises no deals with the Communists and he has paid heavily for it. He has been attacked 13 times by leftists. They have punched and kicked him. Tried to kidnap him. Slashed the tires of his car, fiddled with the brakes, put dynamite in the engine (defused in time by police). His offices have been rifled several times. At four o’clock one afternoon two years ago, a woman and two men walked into his downtown Milan law office, guns stuck forward to clear the way. They tied up five people who happened to be in the office with De Carolis and took them to the basement. Then they tied De Carolis against a wall and quickly, coldly, shot his legs from under him. He now moves with a 24-hour police escort. “I’m not troubled too much by terrorists,” says the father of four, his voice quickly swallowed up in the gold brocaded room. “I sleep at night.”

But even though he is part of the power structure, De Carolis is just as impatient as

the students for change. Since the war Italy has had 38 changes of government, but in reality has been governed by the same regime—the Christian Democrats (DCI), a party of Catholics, small businessmen, farmers, white collars, professionals. It has formed countless coalitions, pressured, bribed to stay in power. In a country where everything is political, it has had a virtual monopoly of all jobs. It was no longer just a party. It became the state. Says De Carolis, “But now it is at an end. The DCI has no more strength.” What angers De Carolis is not the fact that the Communists have now moved into all the “social” jobs—the arts, courts, local government and unions—but

the fact that the DCIS are giving up without a fight. That the DCIS are allowing the Communists in through the back door— bringing them into the legislative process while not giving them actual ministerial jobs. This suits the Communists who are only too happy to work their way into power slowly rather than face the “premature revolution” that eventually cost Chile’s Salvador Allende his life. All around him, De Carolis sees people accepting the inevitability of a Communist rule. Businessmen are quietly investing elsewhere (quite a few in Canada). Others illegally smuggle money out of the country by the billions. Even the terrorists sense this. “The battle has been engaged because the terrorist is convinced, and rightly so, that the political system in Italy cannot go on. They are attempting to tip it over the brink.” Suggestions that Communism would not really “take” in Italy are imme-

diately dismissed. Communism will take, he says, in a country where everyone expects the state to do everything for them, where it is virtually impossible to be fired, where if a company is large enough it can’t go bankrupt because the state will take it over, where the prime demand of the people who visit his political office is to get an “extra little disability pension,” even though they are not disabled. “Italian anarchy is only the sum of small habits,” he says just before he flees into the Chamber. “They are not true individualists.” Nor is it safe, at this weak moment, to be wealthy in Italy. It was a foggy morning in

November three years ago. Luigi Rossi di Montelera, then 27, was heading out to his family’s famous vermouth operations (Martini and Rossi) just outside Turin. A car came out of the fog and sideswiped him. Three men rushed out with guns. Montelera knew immediately he was going to be one of Italy’s growing number of kidnapping victims. He was taken blindfolded to a farm not far away and hidden in an underground room not high enough to stand in, the only door covered up with

dung. His family was notified. The usual Mafia tactics were put in motion. An improbably high ransom demand (six billion lire). A long waiting period to let the fright really set in. Twenty days passed. The bargaining started. Silence again. A month and a half passed. Finally the agreement. In the meantime, Montelera lived(chained to a cot. The only hygiene, a chamber pot. No air. It was winter and there was no heat. Water dribbled in. Almost complete darkness. Bread and salami to eat. Every time one of the captors (Sicilians) came in. Montelera had to wear a mask. A man obsessed with order, used to a detailed hourly schedule, he began to fear the loss of time. “If you lose that, you have nothing to hold on to.” Fear became the everyday companion. “At a certain point, you feel you may die: you get used to it. Then you are not so much afraid of dying as how you will die.” Montelera was lucky. After four months of confinement, police on the track of other ransom money searched the farm where he was being kept. It took them four days of digging to find the hole in the barn, under a cow stall, that led to the underground room. Montelera was so frightended of a trick that he kept his own mask until police could convince him he was free. His family never did have to pay out the ransom. He was lucky, too, that he didn’t end up as did a friend of his, the son of an important textile manufacturing

family, who never resurfaced even though 700 million lire were paid out.

So far kidnapping in Italy has remained primarily the job of the Mafia, a stereotypical Italian institution accepted with the same kind of defeatism as other woes. The kidnapping boom started in Sardinia and southern Italy in the 1960s and quickly moved north. In 1970 there were 14 kidnappings. In 1976, there were 48, and in the first six months of this year there were 46. Many of those victims are still missing. One was killed while trying to escape.

But you don’t have to be powerful or wealthy to feel the palpable deterioration. Elena Catania has owned a stand-up espresso bar just a couple of blocks from Rome’s famous Fontana di Trevi for the past eight years. For the past two years she has watched Rome, the city of eternal nights, becoming ritirata, withdrawn, restaurants closing up early for fear of having their earnings robbed, people hurrying home, or, if going out, keeping their gold pendants and watches at home. Her shop has been hit by robbers several times. One morning, the Trevi gang, youths about 15 years old, grabbed her purse with the week’s take. They warned her they would set fire to the shop if she told police. She did nonetheless. True to their word, they retaliated. It wasn’t like that under Mussolini, she remembers smiling. Then, you could leave your purse in the middle of the square and no one would dare take it, she says. He made things work.

Year after year she votes for Italy’s neofacist party, the Italian Social Movement (MSI) in the hope that the golden days will return. “It’s such a gradual thing,” says the 35-year-old mother of two. “Suddenly you realize something has changed overnight.” Then she mutters darkly: “If it continues like this for four or five years, there will be bad things. Brutte cose."

Inevitably, parallels are drawn. Is all this chaos, so reminiscent of the 1920s, just a prelude for another dictator? Italy may very well be on the point of heading toward a strong law-and-order regime— but it would probably be a regime of the Left. Throughout the terrorist activities, Italy’s Communists have clearly sided with the police and are supporting stronger police measures. They stand to lose even more than the Christian Democrats from continuing deterioration caused by terrorism, and stand to gain more if they seem to be able to control it. Their stand has completely alienated the young who feel they have lost their only voice in government. As for Italy’s neofascists, they are now split, bleeding inwardly, and looking very sullen. In the last election, the MSI captured only two million votes, and early this year half of its strength in the Chamber and the Senate broke away to become a more “legitimate” party.

MSI leader, Georgio Almirante, a 62year-old former journalist, dwarfed in his high ceiling office in a 16th-century palazzo in Rome, laughs bitterly. “No, there

is no real possibility of a dictatorship of the Right. I have no desire for it. These things just amuse me. On the other hand, a dictatorship of the Left is quite possible.”

A spartan student meeting room in the Law Building of the University of Bologna. Members of the Italian press are assembled around the tables, but by now this is an old story for them. It’s a story about how a nice middle-class medical student, 24-year-old Francesco Lorusso, happened to find himself in the middle of a student riot last March 11. How he happened to

catch a police oullet full in the chest. How his death unleashed waves of riots in student centres.

In the corner, the mother, a schoolteacher, sits dressed in black, a tall ascetic woman with thin light hair and pained blue eyes that refuse to stop staring at her chalk-white hands. Beside her is a young leftist lawyer who has called the press conference to demand why the policeman who

shot the fatal bullet has not been charged or even interrogated. A medicine professor stands to explain in meticulously cold detail how Francesco must have been running away, not attacking the police cordon. He hadn’t died right away. He had lived 20 seconds, time to run a few metres, before collapsing under an arch. The heart had continued to pulsate, the shirt had filled with blood.

“Madam,” the professor says turning to the mother, “forgive me if I must make such sad explanations.” But the mother doesn’t mind. She has taken up her son’s battle, even though she has always lived a sheltered life, the son who had in his teens joined Lotta Continua and disagreed continuously with his father, a police official.

“I understood my son. He wanted the creation of a better world, a good and generous world. The young people have enormous fears of the future.” Ten thousand students showed up for the funeral even though police banned a procession.

Fifty thousand students paraded angrily in university centres even though the family appealed for peace. “He became a symbol of the fight,” says her other son, Giovanni. “The young can only fight with violence. The anger has accumulated for so long.”

The press pack up their notebooks. The mother leaves taking her grief home to a middle-class Bologna suburb. Only a gap remains where a missing piece belongs.«^