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Beneath the G-8 summit, a valley of misery for Italy quake victims

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved the meeting of world leaders to L'Aquila as a sign of solidarity with quake victims. But residents say they don't want symbolism, but homes, schools and jobs.

July 10, 2009|Henry Chu

L'AQUILA, ITALY — If the earthquake that killed 300 people here in April was the injury, then the Group of 8 summit underway in this ravaged town is surely the insult -- at least in the eyes of plenty of its inhabitants.

While builders scrambled to get suitable facilities ready for the onslaught of world leaders and journalists, thousands of residents made homeless by the temblor continue to live miserably in tent camps.

While workers opened a new airport in record time for the visiting VIPs, quake victims still have no idea when L'Aquila's historic city center might be repaired and life can creep back into what has become a virtual ghost town.

And while the likes of President Obama and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi chew on weighty issues of climate change and the political crisis in Iran, residents like Federica Tomassino wonder about such basics as their homes, jobs and schools.

"I don't think there'll be time at the G-8 to talk about any of this," Tomassino, 25, said Thursday, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

The anger she and many others in this scenic, hilly region of central Italy feel wasn't part of the script for the confab of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, which kicked off Wednesday and concludes today.

What Berlusconi had expected was gratitude, a sense of appreciation of his decision to move the meeting to L'Aquila from its original venue in Sardinia in a show of solidarity with quake victims.

But many of those victims say they could use a bit less symbolic solidarity and a lot more direct action in righting their lives and the communities upended by the magnitude 6.3 temblor. Three months later, about 25,000 people still live in tent cities in the region, and an even greater number remain in campsites and hotels on the Adriatic Sea coast.

"Yes we camp," protesters spelled out in big, white letters on a hillside this week, riffing on Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes we can." The message was plainly visible in the Mediterranean sunshine to the leaders and journalists converging on L'Aquila for the G-8 summit.

"People live under the impression that the reconstruction is going well and that most of us already live in houses. This is not true," said Mattia Lolli, a member of 3.32, a new residents association whose name commemorates the time the earthquake struck.

"We are not against the G-8, but we want people to know, to be informed about this," Lolli said. "Our houses look exactly the same as the day after the earthquake. The only works done in record time were for the G-8. . . . Our problems are much bigger."

Tomassino says the G-8 actually brought more headaches for residents, with the beefed-up security and increased traffic that have clogged the town over the last month.

Dozens of women chanted their anger Thursday as First Lady Michelle Obama, French First Lady Carla Bruni and other leaders' spouses toured quake-hit areas. Actor George Clooney, who owns a house on Italy's Lake Como, also showed up for a look-see.

"Michelle, Carla, come into the tents! The women from Abruzzo are waiting in underpants!" demonstrators shouted, emphasizing their sense of deprivation. L'Aquila is the capital of the Abruzzo region.

President Obama was given a tour of the town by Berlusconi on Wednesday.

The Italian news agency Ansa reported that Germany has pledged to rebuild a church destroyed in the hard-hit village of Onna, and Canada is to fund construction of a student center in L'Aquila.

None of that means much to Costin Marius Ionut, 27, who has been living in a tent with four other men since April.

Temperatures soar to sauna-like heights inside the tarp-like enclosure in the summer heat. The displaced are not allowed to cook for themselves, because of the fire hazard; all must take government-provided meals in a mess hall. The only toilets are communal ones, and water comes from a public tap.

Tempers have frayed and fights have broken out among camp residents.

"It's chaos for everybody. . . . We need another earthquake to knock this down," he said, gesturing at the tent.

Saying he's outraged that the government seems to think promises are enough, Marco Sebastiani, 27, wears his protest on his chest. Playing on a common description of the people of L'Aquila as "strong and nice," his yellow T-shirt reads: "Strong and nice, yes. Stupid, no."

"I'll keep wearing it until L'Aquila is rebuilt," Sebastiani said of the shirt.

But he's no optimist. He owns four of them.

--

henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maria de Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.

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