The province of Reggio Calabria in the south of Italy is a hotspot for natural disasters. As a humanitarian reaction to severe floods in 1951 and 1953, thousands of Calabrian children were displaced and sent to live with other families or in summer camps, military bases or Church-sponsored institutions across the country.
Both the Christian-Democrat government in charge at the time as well as the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and their associated civic groups were directly involved in the relocations.
Bu this is a silenced corner of Italian and European history. It is not part of official Italian history textbooks, nor an issue readily discussed in local Calabrian communities. As part of my own ongoing research I interviewed a number of former displaced children, now in their 60s and 70s, who spoke to me for the first time about their experiences.
They empathise with the problems facing displaced people, particularly children, currently entering Europe and see similarities in their stories of being uprooted.
In the floods of 1951, the Ministry of the Interior reported that the damage affected 68 municipalities in Reggio Calabria, that 3,090 houses were severely damaged or destroyed, 3,797 families were hosted in temporary shanty towns and 49 people died. Two years later, more floods killed 55 people with 2,500 more left homeless.
Reacting to the disasters, the PCI engaged a number of groups such as the Union of Italian Women. They took the initiative to relocate children aged three to 12 years old from southern Italy, with the agreement of their parents, to live with new communist families in the north of Italy. Centre-right newspapers at the time condemned the scheme as an “abduction of infancy”, remarks which echoed criticism of children’s evacuations instigated by the Communists during the Greek Civil War.
Interventions by the Catholic Church and police, both of which openly opposed the evacuation, did nothing to stop it. Instead it led to the children being evacuated to monasteries, orphanages or juvenile detention centres across Italy instead of moving to new families or back home.
In the end, some children were kept away from home for a year; others lived away for as long as ten years.
The Calabrian evacuation was not the only one of its kind. Under other disaster relief schemes active during the early 1950s, the Italian government and Catholic Church, plus associated civic groups (primarily the Italian Women’s Centre) had relocated orphans and children from very poor homes to institutions in other regions of Italy.
Some of the people who were relocated as children told me they had positive experiences of living in new towns: they had opportunities to go to the cinema, get a good school education and eat new foods.
But others were deeply traumatised. Two such children, displaced at the ages of six and seven, remember the day they describe as being “snatched” without warning by the Italian Red Cross. They had been playing with their friends at the time. They stopped only momentarily to wave goodbye to their parents, who had been working in a nearby field before they were taken to Sicily, separated and sent to gender segregated institutions in different parts of Italy where they lived for over a year.
Life in the institutions was hard: they faced hunger, malnutrition, stale bread and corporal punishment.
Today, recalling memories of this experience provokes immense suffering and disbelief about the political decision-making and power games between Left and Right that were involved in these evacuations and relocations.
On their return, many children remained silent about their experiences. They soon understood that what had happened had caused a great deal of suffering for their parents, and relocations became a source of constant humiliation and shame for both children and families. According to many of those who had been relocated as children, their parents had fallen victim to false promises by the government to provide them with subsidies and new housing – promises which were never kept.
During my research I discovered that even in tight-knit Calabrian village communities, children who were relocated are to this day rarely aware if neighbours suffered the same fate. In Italy, where ‘secrets’ are often public knowledge, families and neighbours kept experiences of displacement closely guarded.
People still remember what happened and report that they often think over these childhood memories. But there was no space for the existence of these divisive and shameful stories in the collective imagination of a newly-unified Italy. Child displacement seemed to be an extra burden that Italians could not or were not willing to shoulder after the moral and political defeat of the Second World War. After the devastating schisms appeared all over Europe, silence seemed like a natural condition. The post-war period was fundamental in giving birth to and establishing top-down policies, spawning lasting ideological positions on displacement and how to treat refugees.
In the same way, Europe today is unprepared to handle the current migration crisis while it deals with the debris of economic meltdown.
The child displacement of 1950s Italy is not simply a thing of the past. Humanitarian actions that took place several decades ago continue to affect the lives of relocated children. Displaced children who break their silence are fundamental not only to piecing together other silenced histories but, crucially, to better evaluate the current politics of mass relocation in Europe.
This article was originally published on The Conversation (www.conversation.com). Stavroula Pipyrou is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of St Andrews
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