Italy remembers its own victims of ethnic cleansing in Balkans

IN SCHOOLS and offices they stood in silence and flags flew at half mast yesterday as Italy remembered its worst atrocity of the Second World War - a massacre that, until this week, the majority of Italians knew nothing about.

What happened in the Italian-occupied Balkans as the war wound down was ethnic cleansing at its most savage and it happened 50 years before the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.To this day no one knows how many Italians were expelled and murdered, but some believe the victims to number as many as 15,000, many of whose remains lie in deep crevasses in the Istrian mountains.

This year for the first time, at the urging of the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, is Foreign Minister, Italy's bitterly divided political parties agreed to bury the hatchet and mark the event as Remembrance Day.

Italians had settled the Istrian peninsula and the coast of Dalmatia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, after Italy was ceded them in the settlement at the end of the First World War. With the arrival of Mussolini, full-scale Italianisation began and the Italian language was enforced in schools.

After the fall of the Fascists in 1943, Yugoslavia's partisans took their revenge. The horror started on 8 September 1943, when thousands of ordinary Italians were dragged from their homes in Istria, bound, shot and flung into the crevasses, many of them still alive.

There were further spasms of violence between the beginning of May and the middle of June 1945, 45 days during which the Yugoslavs had sole control of the cities of Trieste and Gorizia and the territory around them. Those who were not murdered were forced to leave their homes and return to Italy.

The Foibe (foibe being the dialect word for a crevasse) massacres have been a taboo subject in Italy ever since. Antonio Negrin, whose television drama on the atrocities was shown by the state broadcaster RAI this week told The Independent: "When I was asked to make this film, I knew nothing about the massacres, even though I studied history at university. Not a single Italian history book speaks about them."

After the war, many people had their reasons for wanting them hushed up. For the right-wing parties they were the embarrassing consequence of the forced Italianisation under Mussolini. The Communists wanted nothing to do with them because those responsible were the Communist Yugoslav partisans. For the ruling centrists, the Yugoslavian leader Tito was the West's one Communist ally in Europe. Nothing should be done to endanger that asset.

This week, all sides of Italian politics joined hands to welcome the gesture of remembrance, from former Communist leaders, Piero Fassino and Walter Veltroni, to Mr Fini, the post-Fascist. Yesterday the head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, laid a wreath at the Altar of the Nation in central Rome.

The president of the lower house of parliament, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said: "Parliament has given a clear reply to the hypocrisy and reticence that marked one of the most tragic and bitter pages in the history of our country."

The only people who have so far declined to join in the commemoration are inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia.

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