Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown and 10 other first ladies toured the devastated heart of L'Aquila yesterday, seeing with their own eyes the city's earthquake damage but keeping well away from survivors – some called themselves "the last ladies" – protesting at the fact that they are still forced to live in tents, more than three months after the disaster.
The VIPs were escorted by Mara Carfagna, the woman who haplessly catalysed Silvio Berlusconi's difficulties with his wife two years ago when the Italian Prime Minister jocularly offered to marry her. The group walked through the city's medieval centre, much of it reduced to heaps of rubble, before pausing outside the regional government headquarters which was almost flattened by the shocks.
Mrs Obama was said to have been close to tears at times. She enquired about the children killed in the disaster and others scarred for life by the experience. "I'm very upset," she said. "My husband and I have been very moved by what we have seen, and we'll try and do everything we can to support you."
The city centre has been closed to normal life since the disaster, still far too perilous for shops and offices to reopen: the experts and politicians are still debating how much can be saved and what to do about the rest.
Meanwhile the tens of thousands of the homeless were out of reach in tendopoli (tent cities) closed to outsiders. But they did their best to make their presence felt. On a hillside overlooking the police college where the world's leaders were huddled in meetings, they had emblazoned a huge sign on the grass in English with the words "YES WE CAMP" – adapting Mr Obama's campaign slogan to advertise the fact that the "camping holiday" Mr Berlusconi recommended to those made homeless by the disaster has never ended.
"We want to underline the fact that for the first time in earthquake history, people still haven't been relocated to temporary housing," a man who was only identified as Enrico explained. "It was a clear government choice to keep us in the tents and not to go through an intermediate phase."
As Massimo Manieri, a spokesman of the Association for the Reconstruction of L'Aquila, said this week, after the disaster the government decided against building temporary housing for the quake survivors, instead keeping them under canvas or in hotels until permanent housing was built. The hitch: none of the houses have yet been built, and Mr Manieri said he would be surprised if even a fraction was ready before December, when the cold weather comes.
A group of "last ladies" chanted, "Michelle, come to our tents, the women of Abruzzo await you in their underwear." One held a sign reading, "A stroll in the centre for the first ladies, for the women of Aquila only tents and cement." But Mrs Obama was out of earshot.