As a foreign correspondent and documentary maker based in the Mediterranean, I often find myself in extraordinarily beautiful places: the colourful labyrinth of Istanbul’s souks, the narrow back canals of Venice, the majestic spires of the Dolomites or the salt-lined shores of the Ionian Sea.
Unfortunately, however, when disaster strikes, I often must pack my bag, kiss my kids goodbye and head out the door knowing the catastrophic scene that lies ahead will also leave its mark in my memory. And so it was this week on location in the once-picturesque central Italian towns of Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata, where more than 250 people died in a massive earthquake that struck at 3:36 a.m. on the 24 of August.
“We found them all in their beds,” a firefighter named Mauro told me. The images of him emerging from the rubble with a barefoot 8-year-old girl named Giulia clutched to his chest became one of the first pictures of hope beamed around the world in the frantic hours after the quake. “When I finally reached her, I said OK Giulia now I need you to hug me and hold on tight,” he recalled. Later that day, Giulia’s mother and her little brother would both be found dead, and she is now recovering with her father.
This was one of the dozens of heartbreaking stories I heard emerge from the red zone of Amatrice, a fallen city haunted by the 140 seconds of seismic terror that brought it down.
The night before, tourists and residents were happily preparing for festivities celebrating the city’s famous dish: Spaghetti alla Amatriciana, made with Pecorino cheese and bacon. What horror to walk down what was once the main street–the trail little more than a hard-pack of rocks and sand ground together with the eerie remains of daily life: plastic toys, a hand-crocheted blanket, a high-heeled shoe, a page of homework, a beach towel, a black and white ultrasound report flapping in the wind.
Later, looking down from the helicopter as we flew over tiny hamlets reduced to grey piles of rock and rubble, I asked myself, can all these walls be rebuilt? Can all these silent, ruined piazzas return to their rightful place as the pulsing heart of community life?
If anybody can do it, the Italians can, as they have for centuries, summoning resilience even in the darkest hours of destruction. The lesson has been learned before–when our cities and homes crumble around us, life itself and the will to keep living it, become our most sacred belonging.