Words by Tara McLaughlin

In the early hours of Monday April 6th at precisely 3.32 am an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit the historic town of L’Aquila in central Italy. At least 287 people were killed, 1,000 injured, 40,000 homeless and 10,000 buildings damaged or destroyed in the L’Aquila area. At the time, the world pulled together, aid was sent from around the globe and the city looked set to get swiftly back on track. But nearly a year on the disaster, far from the media spotlight, the victims are having a hard time rebuilding their lives.

Having travelled to Abruzzo back in May 2009, I witnessed firsthand the aftermath of the earthquake and it was apparent to me that the situation was a far cry from the swift recovery portrayed in the media. Staying in the town of Giulianova, some 100 miles south of L’Aquila, made for a surreal experience and what was intended to be a holiday soon turned into a stark realisation of catastrophe. The beautiful resort where I had had a carefree time the previous summer was now full of L’Aquila refugees. They waited, while we holidayed. An elderly earthquake victim, Vinicio, who later became my pen-friend, shared with me his memories of the night of the disaster:

“I was in bed when we felt the tremors and my world literally fell down around me. My daughter in law went into labour that night and we were beside ourselves in the confusion. My brother died, along with countless dear friends. Everything I knew was taken from me in an instant.”

Astoundingly, Vinicio’s granddaughter was delivered among the chaos and he was transported to Giulianova along with what remained of his family and countless other homeless people.

Emergency relief efforts were relentless following the quake. Volunteers came from all over Italy, tents were set up in the area and it appeared everyone was doing all they could to help - or at least that was the implication. However, what I saw was refugees caught in a trance of surviving the sheer monotony of everyday life with no routine, purpose or hint of knowing when they would be allowed to return home. There were shortages in supplies and the earthquake victims were at the mercy of government and donations from charities and aid-workers.

During my two-week stay in Giulianova, I observed Vinicio smoke endless cigarettes, play heated card games and absently observe his weeks old granddaughter. He went through all the motions but looked like a broken man, one who had lost all sense of purpose, direction and reason for living.

Vinicio has kept in contact with me since and I believe my light-hearted tales of everyday life in a place where there is little evidence of disaster spur him on from one day to the next. But he paints a very clear picture that all is not well.

His and the other refugees’ stay in Giulianova was only intended to be a short-term solution but nearly a year later they are still being housed there. Then came the outrage when the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, insensitively declared that the victims should “treat the experience as a camping holiday” during a trip to the devastated L’Aquila.

Vinicio’s letters are full of sorrow, grief and a sober nostalgia for the life he once lived - and he is just one of the many people whose world was wrecked. Former residents who are still without a home have staged public protests, questioning the criteria with which the replacement prefab homes erected in the outskirts of the city have been assigned. Likewise, students lamented a lack of classrooms and labs.

With the new year, the responsibility for rebuilding L’Aquila and its surroundings passed in the hands of a newly set up reconstruction team, which recently presented its plans to the mayors of the 57 municipalities affected by the earthquake. However, funding remains a major obstacle to recovery, especially since Italy struggles with a huge public debt.

Recently, L’Aquila’s mayor, Massimo Cialente, proposed the introduction of an excise tax in an attempt to raise money, but it proved unsuccessful. While the people of Abruzzo prepare to send aid and money to earthquake-wrecked Haiti, the future of their own capital looks bleak. And Vinicio’s hope to see his hometown return to be even a shadow of what it once was is vanishing fast.

Useful Links

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Read all about the earthquake in L'Aquila.
Fundraising activity for L'Aquila Earthquake victims.
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