FLORENCE — “This taxi is a revolution of love: I’m rediscovering life thanks to death ...”
Caterina Bellandi’s words are nearly as colorful as her coat. For the past 12 years, this exuberant Florentine taxi driver has turned off the meter to give joy rides around Florence to child cancer patients, or simply accompany them for a hospital visit.
The air of Mary Poppins with a bit of Patch Adams mixed in, the 48-year-old drives a car that looks like it’s straight out of an amusement park, delighting kids and giving them a little ray of hope on every trip.
Tourists and other customers are amazed and often don’t understand what they’re traveling in, and sometimes prefer to not get into the cab — Auntie Caterina says they’re afraid of all the positive energy!
“My partner, Stefano, always told me that driving a taxi was the best job in the world because you can let people into your life and go on a little journey with them,” says Bellandi. “I teased him about it, but I was wrong: Each client opens up a whole new world to you.”
Caterina’s life took a tragic turn in 2001 when her husband died of lung cancer. He left her his taxi license and his car, the "Milano 25," asking her to continue his business. She didn’t think twice, leaving her sales job, and soon after caravaning across the city.
A family's fate
Fate was just around the corner one day when Paolo, Barbara and their 3-year-old daughter Costanza got in the taxi. They chose her car because Costanza liked the large flower on the dashboard. Chatting with them, Caterina discovered that their other child, Tommasino, died from a brain tumor and that the parents had founded a charity to research childhood cancer.
A lightbulb went off, and she instantly realized that those who have suffered are often the best at helping others through times of trouble — and confronting hardship with a smile can actually make you stronger and braver.
She wanted to give hope to sick children, so she painted her car in bright colors and gave herself a dazzling uniform. She began to give free rides to the young pediatric patients of the Meyer Children’s Hospital in Florence. After just a few journeys, her taxi turned into a benchmark and she became Zia ("Auntie") Caterina for everyone.
Often the children and teenagers that come to Florence for a year of special treatment need to come back in the following years for checkups. “They become children of this city,” Bellandi says. “I go to collect them from the train station, bring them to eat a gelato. A relationship comes from this, a friendship: I’m their favorite aunt, friend, fairy godmother and they know that they can trust me because they can joke around with me.”
She adds: “I always tell them the truth, nothing but the truth.”
Since then, the "Milano 25" has become a non-proft organization and in 2007, the original car was made a monument of the city by Mayor Matteo Renzi, and now stands in a civic park.
Today, she drives Luca’s cab. “It was Luca’s dream to have a London black cab: When he died we thought of him and dedicated the new car to his memory.”
Bellandi calls the children "superheroes" and asks them to draw pictures of themselves with special powers, which are then taped all around the car. She asks her superheroes to be true, to not get lost in self-pity, but neither to put on an act or wear a wig to cover signs of chemotherapy. Above all, she tells them not to be afraid of showing their fears.
“They’re all afraid of death, but you have to tell them that they can get better. This way they can bring that confidence and hope into the ward with them,” she says. “I ask the older ones to show me their scars and prostheses as proof that life still prevails inside of them.”
If you asked Zia Caterina how many children have gotten into her taxi, she wouldn’t be able to tell you. She’s interested in stories — not numbers. She guarantees everyone 24/7 availability and at any given moment she’s ready to turn on the engine, put on her colorful costume and open her umbrella, her Mary Poppins-esque symbol of power with which you can fly away from fear.
“I’m free to choose to do good, and that’s what I am here for, however I can,” Bellandi says. “My revolution comes from an encounter. From curiosity, and the ability to wonder and give space to any possibility. My taxi is all of this: something to be seized on the fly, because the journey is always better than the destination.”
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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