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When the dust settles.....

10th February 2010

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After the dust has settled and the media spotlight has dimmed those affected by an earthquake still have much to deal with.l'aquila earthquake

In light of the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti the world's media frantically relayed the disastrous events to the world. But as is the nature of such media coverage information on the disaster is paramount for just a few weeks before being quickly forgotten in wake of other news.

Approaching a year on from the L'Aquila earthquake disaster how are the victims coping with life after the tragedy and have the world's media abandoned them? As a student studying Italian, I am keen to hear any news from Italy, but most of it highlights a corrupt government, an insensitive prime minister and a region in turmoil.

In the early hours of Monday April 6 at precisely 3.32am an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit the historic town of L'Aquila in central Italy. A media frenzy followed and the facts speak for themselves. At least 287 people were killed, 1000 injured, 40,000 left homeless and 10,000 buildings damaged or destroyed in the L'Aquila area. As is the same at any time of crisis the world pulled together and aid was sent from around the globe giving rise to the general depiction that L'Aquila was coping well and swiftly getting back on track.

However, having travelled there myself back in May last year I witnessed first-hand the aftermath of tragedy and it was apparent to me that the situation was a far cry from the portrayal in the media. Embarking on an intensive language programme in Abruzzo was a dream come true and after completing my studies I travelled to the town Giulianova for a holiday and to meet up with Italian friends. Staying in Giulianova some 100 miles South of L'Aquila was an extremely surreal experience and what was intended to be a relaxing holiday was soon hit with the stark realisation of catastrophe. Returning to the resort where I had stayed the previous summer only to find that it was full of refugees from L'Aquila was heart-rending. They waited while we holidayed. Their temporary accommodation was only intended to be a short term solution but exchanges with one of the victims since have revealed that they are STILL being housed there. Speaking to an elderly victim called Vinicio whom I now class as my "pen-pal" and the family that remained with him, he recalled the night of the disaster: "I was in bed when we felt the tremors and my world literally fell down around me. My daughter-in-law went into labour that night and we were beside ourselves in the confusion. My brother died along with countless dear friends. Everything I knew taken from me in an instant."

Astoundingly, the man's granddaughter was delivered among the chaos and he was transported to the resort along with what remained of his family and countless other homeless victims. During my two week stay I observed him smoke endless cigarettes, play heated card games and absently observe his weeks old granddaughter. It was heart-breaking and it occurred to me that what was in front of me was a broken man, one who had lost all sense of purpose, direction and his reason for living.

Then came the outrage when Berlusconi insensitively declared that the victims should "treat the experience as a camping holiday" during a trip to the devastated town, adding insult to injury. Vinicio has kept in contact with me since and I believe my light-hearted tales of everyday life in a place where there is little evidence of disaster spur him on from one day to the next. But he paints a very vivid picture that all is not as it seems as the media would have us believe. His letters are occupied by tones of sorrow, grief and an austere nostalgia for the life he once lived. His story is just one among countless others of devastated lives.
Emergency relief efforts were relentless following the quake. Volunteer efforts were employed from all over Italy, tent's constituted villages in the immediate surrounding area and it appeared everyone was doing all they could to help or at least that was the implication. However, what I saw was refugees caught in a trance of surviving the sheer monotony of everyday life with no routine, purpose or hint of knowing when they would be allowed to return home. There were shortages in supplies and the victims were at the mercy of government and donations from charities and aid-workers. The relief efforts were taken over by the region's mayors and the Italian culture ministry in January and it is unclear how they intend to rebuild the shattered lives of so many. For a start there are significant financial shortages, a lack of any formal architectural plan, no sense of political resolve and what's more little or no international attention.

So how long will it take for L'Aquila to get in any way back on track? According to an article published in the New York Times, ministry officials estimate that the historic centre will take at least ten or fifteen years to make any sort of recovery and even at that, virtually all reconstruction must seek approval from the ministry, an extensive, protracted process.

A recent statement from Michala Santaro, the mayor's personal assistant sheds a little light on the situation "the message in the media here is things are going well, that is far from the truth."

And Massimo Cailente the mayor himself speaking from the crumbling interior of his makeshift office on the outskirts of the city claims "if we don't reconstruct properly it will be a shame on the entire nation, we will have another Pompeii."

A typical lament of the Italians is that if they cannot restore the past they will end up consigned to it and alternatives are virtually unimaginable. It appears that this is part of L'Aquila's plight. Instead of being satisfied with a similar reconstruction Cailente is content with nothing less than an exact replica of the former town. Vinicio however, claims his old life could never be re-constructed; he has simply lost too much.

Recently, the mayor introduced a small excise tax in an attempt to aid recovery but even this has proved unsuccessful. So in a country pushed for cash and distracted by the tabloid turmoil of its prime minister, the future of the destroyed town of L'Aquila looks bleak. But in a far corner of the globe I am kept up-dated by frequent letters from a survivor with a fast diminishing hope that his hometown will ever be even a shadow of what it once was.

Just like in L'Aquila, we need to consider that the plight of the people in Haiti will continue long after the media spotlight has been turned away from the disaster.

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