L'Aquila Shame: Five Years After Quake, Schools Not Rebuilt

Child's play in L'Aquila
Child's play in L'Aquila
Flavia Amabile

L'AQUILA — In this city in central Italy, there is an entire generation of children who ride in cars and go to restaurants like other Italian kids, but still have never gone to a proper school.

These are the kids from L'Aquila, hit by an earthquake five years ago — on April 6, 2009 — that killed 297 in the region and leveled much of the midsized city's historic center. Since then, from the sound of the first bell in the morning through school days that can last eight hours, the children sit and study in prefabricated metal boxes.

To be fair, these prefab buildings were top-notch when they were installed five years ago. But, time takes its toll and even the most solid of metal turns tin-like, and scotch tape is used to seal cracks on the floor, ceilings collect water, sewers don’t work, windows don’t open and a heating system is blamed for a surge in allergies and respiratory infections.

In 2012, another earthquake struck Italy, this time hitting the Emilia Romagna region northeast of L'Aquila, and just a few months later 58 schools were rebuilt. Yet in L'Aquila and its surrounding towns, a few months after its quake, it was 31 MUSPs (Provisional Buildings for School Use) that arrived. Constructing them cost 32 million euros, spread out among 52 contractors and 154 subcontractors. These are important figures that let just over 6,000 children return back to school, in what was supposed to be temporary quarters.

Five years later, 6,000 students spend their days in these same temporary structures. Something isn’t right. The private schools have been rebuilt, so why not the state-run ones?

“Maybe it’s a misunderstanding and the ‘p’ in MUSP actually stands for permanent rather than provisional,” jokes Silvia Frezza, a teacher who works in one of these prefabs in the nearby town of Sassa.

Scared by the idea that this joke might actually be true, the locals decided to make their voices heard this past winter. Last month, Stefania Pezzopane, a local senator who was head of the province at the time of the disaster, wrote to Italy's new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to ask him to take care of the schools in the district that have become unsustainable black holes.

In L'Aquila. Photo: Stéphane PIA (via Flickr)

Blame game

City Mayor Massimo Cialente recently returned to the Italian parliament to meet politicians who promised another 180 million euros, as well as the possibility that the resources devoted to reconstruction after the earthquake could be excluded from the Stability Pact the country has with the European Union. But these funds aren’t necessarily earmarked for the schools.

Is something finally beginning to happen after years of paralysis? “I don’t agree that nothing has been done,” argues Cialente. “The schools that could have been repaired have been. Now we’re beginning the building of those that have been awaiting reconstruction, and it’s a huge project. We’re making the first campus for the middle-school students. But in the meantime, the schools are functioning.”

But in L'Aquila they don’t want to even hear the word “project.” From delays and postponement, to promise after broken promise, those who were beginning school when the earthquake struck are now moving into adolesence, and have had their hopes dashed.

These are the students who go into their classes every day, seeing their teachers and doing lessons as though everything were normal. But, everything isn’t normal in a MUSP, where nobody has even come to change the air filters a single time in more than four years.

“First, there was a warning for respiratory infections,” says Silvia Frezza. “And now the filters have to be changed every six months.” Nor is it normal to study in a place where the floor is covered in scotch tape because the boards are coming apart, and duct tape has to be used to keep them together to avoid the kids cutting themselves on loose parts.

The windows of these containers, meanwhile, have to stay closed all day. “The reconstruction of the schools isn’t on the political agenda of this city. But we think that the future of L'Aquila should start here,” explains Sara Vegni of ActionAid Abruzzo, which has brought workshops, events and, above all, a hard push for reconstruction.

“It’s true — we’re late,” admits Cialente, “But it’s former mayor Gianni Chiodi’s bad management that is to blame. When he was in charge, he left the schools out of 226 million euros in 2009, giving it all to Abruzzo region and not just to the seismic area. He gave it to all buildings, not just schools. In any case we’re getting there. I believe that within three years we’ll have finished all the work.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

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.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

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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