Summit brings mixed blessings to Italy

At this week’s Group of Eight summit, the leaders will stay in a barracks instead of the usual luxury hotel. The road to the site is lined with ghostly houses ruined by the earthquake that hit the central Italian mountain town of L’Aquila three months ago.

People take part in a torch-lit walk through the centre of L’Aquila

L’AQUILA, Italy — At this week’s Group of Eight summit, the leaders will stay in a barracks instead of the usual luxury hotel. The road to the site is lined with ghostly houses ruined by the earthquake that hit the central Italian mountain town of L’Aquila three months ago.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved the summit from the posh Sardinian island of La Maddalena in a show of support for L’Aquila’s stricken population. Not all of the survivors are happy about the decision.

Some are voicing anger at the slow pace of reconstruction and are beginning to question whether the government’s decision to move the July 8-10 summit of industrialized democracies and Russia is diverting money, time and manpower from the rebuilding of their shattered homes.

At a roadway roundabout, workers busy themselves building a colourful brick mosaic depicting an eagle, emblem and namesake of L’Aquila, and the ancient Latin motto of a town long-plagued by quakes: “Immota Manet” — It “remains unmoved.”

The defiant statement is a morale booster but some survivors wonder if decorations to welcome world leaders are what is most urgently needed in a region with thousands of homeless living in tents.

“What do I care about the G8? Let’s hope they will bring some money to rebuild L’Aquila,” says Luciana Circi, a 57-year-old housewife living with her family in a camp set up on an athletics field. “My problems are the lines to eat, to go to the bathroom, no toilet paper, the tents that flood when it rains.”

Officials insist the summit is not interfering with relief and reconstruction and that everything being done for the meeting, from improvements to a local airport to the bed that U.S. President Barack Obama will sleep in, will have a use for quake survivors.

Leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will hold talks on the economic crisis, the violence in Iran, the environment and other global problems at a sprawling police complex in the countryside just outside L’Aquila.

Organizers are also planning visits to the heart of the quake zone and hope the leaders will “adopt” some of the dozens of churches, castles and other cultural treasures in this medieval city that were heavily damaged by the temblor.

The April 6 earthquake levelled entire blocks in L’Aquila and the surrounding Abruzzo region, driving some 54,000 from their homes and killing 296 people.

“There were better things to do here than the G8,” says Sandra Di Renzo, an 18-year-old who volunteers at a kindergarten set up in a tent camp in the ruined village of Coppito, less than a kilometres from the summit venue. “Rebuilding the city is a priority, soon winter will be here and we are still living in tents.”

The walled police complex and surrounding area are heavily guarded and buzzing with preparations: cracked walls are fixed and modest barracks furnished to host heads of state. The tiny airport has been expanded and so has the local hospital, which was heavily damaged in the quake.

Officials say the airport improvements will eventually help relaunch tourism in the area, and even the rooms that are expected to house more than 1,000 delegates and leaders will later house tent dwellers who are waiting for a roof the government has promised.

Other preparations raise eyebrows among residents: landscaping like the emblem decorating the way to the summit, or the construction of a two-lane road to connect the airport to the isolated venue — a route, locals say, unlikely to be of use in the future.

“The people of L’Aquila see roads and other infrastructure being built for the G8 and then look at their houses that are still in ruins,” says Alessandro Tettamanti, a spokesman for 3:32, a citizens group named after the time the quake struck.

Some fear the summit will actually draw attention away from the locals.

“The TV cameras will be pointed at the heads of state, not at us,” says Fabrizio Pambianchi, a cook who lives in a tent camp with his wife and two children. “Resources are being expended for this show and not for the earthquake victims.”

The Civil Protection, the government agency in charge of the rescue effort and the summit’s organization, denies that the G8 is hampering aid or damaging the cause of survivors.

“There is no risk of interference, we have two completely separate structures working on the reconstruction and the G8,” says Guido Bertolaso, the Civil Protection czar. “Obama and all the others will come here knowing that we have not been negligent for one minute in our commitment to the survivors.”

Berlusconi won high marks for an efficient rescue effort after the quake, but discontent over reconstruction plans is growing. The conservative prime minister has pledged to rebuild L’Aquila and the other damaged towns.

Meanwhile work goes on 24 hours a day to build temporary housing that Berlusconi has said will house all the homeless now living in tents by November.

In June, thousands of residents staged protests in l’Aquila and Rome, and their ranks are likely to swell with Italian and foreign activists expected for demonstrations planned in the area during the summit.

The government believes outside protesters will not dare vandalize the crippled city, and hopes to avoid or minimize the violent clashes that ended in the death of a protester and devastated the port city of Genoa the last time Italy hosted the summit in 2001.

Still, some survivors are looking to avoid any possible trouble.

“The G8 won’t solve our problems,” says Loretta Tobia, a 38-year-old doctor who lost her house and lives with her husband and two children in their garage. “We’re leaving that week, though I don’t know where we’ll go.”

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