Italy's requiem for earthquake victims

As the mass funerals were held in L'Aquila, a nation stopped, mourned and wept for those that lost their lives in the disaster
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The Independent Online

The photograph taped to the lid of the small white coffin showed a pudgy-cheeked little girl with a clasp in her brown hair and a pout on her lips: Giuseppina Germinelli was immortalised in a sulk. She was born in 2002 and carried away seven years later, along with 286 other unlucky residents of Abruzzo, in the earthquake that struck a little after 3.30am last Monday night.

"It was me who found her," said a burly, greying middle-aged man standing by the coffin. "These are her three sisters." He pointed to the three coffins lined up alongside. "I dug them out myself. They are my granddaughters." There was pride in his voice as well as grief and bewilderment.

Yesterday the family was reunited one last time, the coffins of the four sisters heaped with flowers, the relatives crouching beside them, holding hands on top of them, their tears flowing freely.

The mass funeral was held in the parade ground of a police academy miles out of L'Aquila to the west, and these utilitarian, paramilitary surroundings have never witnessed scenes like these. The hundreds of coffins lined up before the temporary stage were so copiously heaped with bouquets that from the stage they resembled a field of flowers. Everywhere there were grieving parents and children, friends and relatives, scrutinising photos and mementoes, sharing last thoughts and tears.

The tiny coffin of Andrea Esposito, who was doubtless looking forward to his third birthday tomorrow, was surmounted by a plastic superhero figure on a motorbike. Nearby a teenage boy was remembered by a favourite t-shirt, inscribed "Linkin Park".

Italy has shown the world its most sensitive and compassionate face since the disaster struck on Monday. Give or take minor quibbles, the emergency effort has been a masterpiece of organisation and efficiency, with more than 17,000 of the 28,000 homeless accommodated almost instantly in the sky-blue tents of the Ministry of the Interior. The first of numerous tent cities sprung up across much of the region less than 24 hours after the quake.

As always in Catholic Italy the funeral mass was emotional and dignified in equal measure, the amplified sound of organ and choir carrying across the heads of the 10,000 who attended. The VVIPS present, including Silvio Berlusconi and the President Giorgio Napolitano, were reduced to a minor supporting role in the ritual of communal mourning – though Mr Berlusconi went some way towards regaining the spotlight by promising his luxury villas as accommodation for the homeless.

On local radio a priest had lamented: "There will be no Easter this year, only a continual succession of Good Fridays, because all the town's belltowers have been destroyed and no bells can ring out." But the Very Reverend Giuseppe Molinari, the Archbishop of L'Aquila, did not miss the opportunity offered by the calendar to ram home the church's message of hope. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene standing under the cross were no different to you before the coffins of your loved ones, he told the mourners. But the "long silence of God" was followed by the Resurrection. "After the silence, the day after tomorrow, we will celebrate Easter. It will be an unforgettable Easter. It will be like being born for a second time."

Yet as they stood miles from town, these thousands who lost their homes as well as their loved ones were bitterly aware that their problems were only just beginning. Their 700-year-old city is now, as Mr Berlusconi put it, a ghost town, both empty of people and more dead than alive.

The gloomy view prevailing on the streets yesterday was that the city is doomed. "Nothing can be saved," said a bus inspector, striding along a road near the outskirts, "trying to shake off my bad mood". "They'll have to knock it all down and start again," he said with grim conviction.

The earthquake hit the city's most important administrative buildings as well as the richest symbols of its identity: the regional archives flattened alongside the Palazzo del Governo. And with the evacuation of the population, all commercial, industrial and educational life has ground to a halt.

Those who built the city will have some very awkward questions to answer about why the sections that shot up since Italy's economic boom were at least as susceptible to the earthquake as the parts built centuries ago.

Reports in the Italian press yesterday claimed that some of the buildings that proved most vulnerable in the quake, including one block of flats in which 29 people died, were constructed of cement in which sea sand was used in place of regular sand: doubling the contractor's profits, but making the steel reinforcing rods in the concrete columns fatally vulnerable to corrosion by the salt in the sand.

There are no answers yet: the city is in a state of suspended animation. Even buildings that have suffered no apparent damage have been evacuated. "We had to leave with what we stood up in," said a man queuing to buy a newspaper near the town centre, his voice choking with emotion. "We haven't been allowed back to get anything. They gave us these clothes at the camp. We don't know when we will be allowed to go back. The priority of the emergency services is removing the dead. Only when that is finished will they start checking the safety of the houses."

In the meantime L'Aquila's status as capital of Abruzzo is in abeyance, with all administrative functions transferred elsewhere, to the cities of Sulmona and Pescara. This small and fragile capital will have a fight on its hands to get its status back. Its residents may take some comfort from the mass at the barracks yesterday. The lesson was from the Book of Revelation, where John the Divine speaks of the Last Days. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, he promises. And "the New Jerusalem will descend from heaven".