Italy's earthquake victims left in limbo

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The Independent Online
IN THE thick fog it is easy to miss the entrance to the Colfiorito camp. At the gate is a prefabricated container with posters of Mickey Mouse in the windows and a sign saying "Welcome to the Disney Club". It is the one flash of colour in an uncompromisingly cold, grey panorama.

Snow has been shovelled into neat piles along the gravel paths that divide one clump of containers from another. A central domed structure houses the electricity generator. Beyond it, a large metal shed with a wooden crucifix and a noticeboard outside, doubles as church and community centre.

The improvised village on the outskirts of Colfiorito, on the slopes of the Appenine mountains, provides shelter for 200 people forced out of their homes by the earthquake that struck central Italy in September 1997. They are facing a second Christmas in makeshift accommodation and are worried it will not be the last.

Further tremors over the past week have brought back bad memories and made them fear for their safety. While restorers are painstakingly piecing together art works in Assisi, reconstruction in the village of Colfiorito has not even begun. People fear they have been forgotten. The elderly are convinced they will end their days here and the young, if they can, are moving out.

One of the lanes in the camp is called Via della Speranza (Hope Street). There, Angelo Forti, 86, lives at number 53 with his Polish-Italian wife, Yadvga. A slight man with twinkly blue eyes, he makes me welcome in the tiny space that functions as kitchen-dining-living room. On the walls are a Mussolini nostalgia calendar, a faded photo of Mr Forti as a young soldier and an assortment of icons and pictures of Our Lady.

"That earthquake destroyed 50 years of my life. My three-storey house was turned into a pile of rubble. They just bulldozed it away. I know they can't rebuild things overnight but I don't want to die in this container," he said.

Like many of his fellow camp dwellers, Mr Forti is sensitive about being seen as a victim. "We don't want hand-outs, just a helping hand," he said, warming his hands in front of a gas burner. "I bought that with my own money. My wife couldn't survive another winter with the electric heaters we had."

Much of Mr Forti's pension goes to pay Dora. A plump woman with a wrinkled face and rough hands she cooks, cleans and helps him look after his wife, who is seriously disabled after a stroke.

The earthquake that ripped through Umbria and the neighbouring Marche region destroyed Dora's dream. She and her husband worked for 15 years at Fiat's Turin plant and planned to retire to Colfiorito.

"We had finished renovating our old house in late August and were waiting for our furniture to be sent down from Turin. After the quake it was declared unsafe. We put all our savings into that house so even with a government grant it will be difficult to rebuild." She complains that her daughter, who is 16, already suffers pains in her joints because of the cold.

The situation in Colfiorito is similar to that in other camps scattered throughout the Appenines. The series of quakes that struck central Italy originally left 10,000 people homeless, though many slept outside their houses for fear rather than necessity. Today those whose houses suffered minor damage have gone back home, while others are staying with relatives or taking advantage of a government rent grant. The people left in the container camps are those who have no other option, more than 30 per cent of them elderly.

The Colfiorito camp organiser, Dante Amici, a postman, says the older residents are like uprooted plants. "They were used to a very active existence; tending their vegetable gardens, making their own wine, fixing the tractor. Now they don't know what to do with themselves. I am not saying this causes them to die but it certainly doesn't help them to live."

Camp life for children is not much fun either. The Disney club, complete with Pocahontas tent, hundreds of videos and an enormous television, was a donation. This Christmas there will be more gifts of toys and clothes but space inside the prefabs is at a premium.

"We won't be putting out our Christmas crib and we won't be having a big family dinner because there isn't room," said Anna, as she mopped the Disney club floor prior to the afternoon playgroup. Anna's house was not destroyed but two rooms are unsafe so the family are not allowed back. "We have applied for funds but who knows when there will be a decision. It doesn't matter if the subsidy doesn't cover the cost, as long as we can get approval to go ahead. For now we are stuck."

The first phase of the reconstruction provides government grants of up to pounds 20,000 for people like Anna whose properties were only slightly damaged.

The second and more complex phase involves villages that have been entirely or partly destroyed. Technicians have to assess geological stability and safety factors before even considering architectural or aesthetic points. Only once this has been approved by the town councils and the regional authorities can individual projects be put forward. Town planners say if they get things finished in five years they will be doing well.

The concern here is that if the reconstruction takes too long, a village like Colfiorito which lives on agriculture and a few small factories, may drop off the map.

Once a bustling centre it is now deserted. The state highway that cut through town has been rerouted. There is a gaping 100-yard long hole where houses have been demolished; some are propped up with metal supports, others look unharmed but closer inspection reveals buckled walls and bent staircases. One of the few undamaged buildings is the Pizzeria del Pecoraro (the Shepherd's Pizzeria) but paying guests are a rarity these days. The owner, Bruno Ricci, an elderly version of the Marlboro Man, with grey stubble and bloodshot eyes, is bleak. "Colfiorito is not dying, it's dead. They've done nothing here and maybe there is no point," he says.

"In the past there was a big jolt then a few tiddlers and it was all over. This time, the earth hasn't stopped shaking. The big one is still to come, mark my words."

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