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Italy holds state funeral for quake victims

April 15, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in L’Aquila, and Giulia Segreti in Rome, Italy.

Published on April 10, 2009

Italy united in mourning on Good Friday with an open-air state funeral for the victims of this week’s devastating earthquake in the central Abruzzo region, even as grief turned to anger amid unanswered questions over why many of the nearly 300 victims were buried beneath modern but sub-standard buildings.

Thousands of mourners gathered in the compound of the Finance Police college on the edge of the medieval town of L’Aquila, facing 205 coffins — white for children and plain wood for adults — and a makeshift altar as no churches in the area were considered safe or big enough for the ceremony.

A toy motorbike and a yellow cushion were placed on top of the coffin of three-year-old Andrea Esposito who rested on the casket of his mother Valentina. A man pressed his face to the white wood as if seeking a sound from within. Nearby an elderly woman in a wheelchair collapsed wailing on the coffins of her family as crowds of relatives reached out for a last touch.

Rescue workers from all over Italy, some still smeared with the grey dust of four days of burying into rubble for survivors, acted as pall bearers. A rugby jersey adorned the coffin of Lorenzo Sebastiani, a player in the national Under-21 team. The youngest, Antonio Iovan, was just four months old, his coffin not even half a metre long.

President Giorgio Napolitano, government ministers and Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, attended the funeral, which was given special dispensation by Pope Benedict XVI to be performed on a day normally reserved for Easter rites.

“In this moment the whole of Italy is together, a country which has demonstrated how the values of solidarity and fraternity are still solid, and characterise Italy,” Cardinal Tarciso Bertone said, giving the sermon.

Pope Benedict, who intends to visit the region after Easter, sent a message also calling for solidarity and commending the state for its “praiseworthy” response to the quake, measuring 6.3 on the Richte scale and the worst to strike Italy in nearly 30 years. The latest official death toll, rising daily, stands at 287, with an estimated 30,000 people left homeless. Many are now sheltering in tents provided by relief organisations.

But amid the outpouring of national grief, and much praise for the relief effort, mourners expressed mounting anger over why anti-seismic construction laws appeared to have been flouted by major construction companies. About a dozen university students were killed in a relatively modern hostel in L’Aquila, while the newish hospital was also seriously damaged and had to be evacuated.

Prosecutors have opened investigations into the collapse of key buildings, suspecting Mafia involvement in shoddy construction using sub-standard concrete and iron. Officials are also expressing concern that organised crime will also try to exploit the billions of euros that will be spent on reconstruction. Experts have said a quake of similar magnitude in California would probably have claimed no victims.

Antonio, a 66-year-old farmer from the village of Paganica, who lost a cousin, said Italy’s biggest problem was that laws existed but were not respected or enforced. “No one ever pays for their crimes in this country. They should have their heads cut off,” he said shaking.

“I am full of praise and admiration for the rescue workers, the police, everyone who helped. Italians have a big heart,” he said. “But as for the government and the law…” he added, not finishing his sentence. He praised Marco Travaglio, an investigative journalist, who in a television report on Thursday night named major construction companies he accused of being complicit with organised crime in carrying out shoddy public building contracts.

President Napolitano’s comments on visiting the area on Thursday — “everyone must look into their consciences” — made front-page headlines that resonated across Italy.

Mindful that governments will be long judged by their response, Mr Berlusconi has made four visits to the quake zone and promised a long commitment to the reconstruction, even proposing that a new town be built near L’Aquila. The whole historic centre of the town has been declared unsafe for all. Aftershocks are still bringing buildings down almost daily.

Decades have passed in Italy before victims of past quakes have been given proper housing. “Temporary” and primitive barracks erected in the wake of the 1908 Messina earthquake — the most devastating to hit Europe in modern times – are still lived in by 3,100 families, according to a recent report by environmental activists.

The last words of the two-hour funeral service were left to Dachan Mohamed Nour, an imam, for the four Muslim victims of the quake, testimony to how a recent wave of immigration is reaching even relatively quiet corners of Italy. “I am praying for all, without distinctions of faith,” he began. His words drew loud applause and then the sea of mourners swept among the coffins before they were borne away.

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