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Libyan Writer Ghoma
الكاتب الليبي غـومة

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Sunday, 15 April, 2007

LIBYA AND ITALY: The Question of the Colonial Legacy!

By: Ghoma

        Through the years I've written on the subject of colonialism and its legacy, but particularly on the Libyan experience with the Italian foolishness. Italy's invasion of Libya, with no whatsoever moral or legal fig-leaf cover, has left her no reason for the still stubborn reluctance to admit her misadventure and accept her responsibility so history can move on! History in general and Italian historians of that period, in particular, as for example, Angelo Del Boca, have long concluded that Italy's colonial campaign was one of the most absurd, and indeed brutal episodes, in the colonial rampages the late 19th and early 20th centuries had witnessed. Italy's misadventures with colonialism in general was rooted, in no trivial part, in that country's exclusion from the "game of nations" and as the scenario went, a subsequent irrational explosion of some pent-up bad feelings, of the inferiority complex type, vis-a-vis other European powers, and that would have explained Italy's conduct of these invasions out of any bounds of ethical or moral restrains. Indeed and in retrospect, Italy's colonial forays seem to have been supported more by virtual rather than by an effective and real cloud of power (military and economic), nor for that matter, by the existence of sizable immediate or potential interests, in these places, to defend. Italy, out of the blue, so to speak, had decided to improvise and catch up with the Joneses, that's, with the other more advanced, voracious, and experienced - in the art of looting and pillage- neighbors: France, G.B., and Germany, and had hurriedly tumbled on the notion for the need of an "Empire!"

        Italian history is quite different from many of the other European nations. Italy came to the nation-hood quite late, if not last, in 1861. The road to unification was relative long and the struggle was tough. However, the newly founded Kingdom of Italy had inherited the rich legacy that struggle and of the Risorgimento movement. It was a legacy of a radical movement full of good intentions and revolutionary fervor with all the emotional charges that went with them. But history had apparently played a very good prank on Italy when it somehow denied her the benefits and the wisdom inherently contained in that long struggle for "resurgence and awakening" and had convinced her that it's ready to play the big powers game. Since the unification, without much reflections nor turns or twists in their misplaced convictions, Italians seemed to have been inflicted with that rare disease attributed to the illusions of grandeur. As reaction to their miserable conditions they dreamed big, they wanted to build them an empire! Thenceforth their successive governments had progressively and consistently turned their backs, so to speak, on the revolutionary legacy of the struggle to bring those disparate Italian regions -some of them were occupied- to unite under one flag, conducted under the guidance of insightful thinkers and led by able and indeed heroic leaders, of the calibers of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, etc. However, the unification was not all blessings; it unveiled baneful realities too. It had also brought home the realization how much problems Italy has to face and how much behind it was.

        The land of romance, poets, artists, and humanists was no different when it came to how to go about solving their national problems. Italy's way in facing such problems, as other European nations had done before her, was to look beyond its borders for their solutions. Italy didn't have to go far to find models, there were all over the place in the other big and small European nations long discovered overseas treasure troves. These experiences were held in no secret and were offered to whoever wanted to follow them and apply them. This was in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference, for the Scramble for Africa - which was held during the same period of the Unification- and which had disregarded Italy's expressed ambitions, if not dreams, to find "a place in the sun," on the African continent.

        The Risorgimento had not only unified Italy but also had made it realize how poor and backward it was: Italy as a "proletarian nation," par excellence, was more than a slogan, it was a real objective assessment. A cultural movement had sprung to support the notion of a nation made up of poor and illiterate farmers and semi-proletarians. A frenzy of competing ideologies was tearing, the not yet dried glue cementing the newly formed entity together, apart. Both the right and left, had agreed on the need to stop the hemorrhaging migrations and to find someway to retain them. The idea of an Eldorado, somewhere, still waiting the hardworking Italians had been gaining momentum and started filling the air, inflaming the public's imagination with romantic and exotic locales where Italian farmers and workers will settle the wilds and taming the savages. Mission reports, novels, and plain fictitious baits had paralleled the noticeable increase in the exodus of Italians and their bad receptions in the New World and indeed wherever they found a place to receive them! Nationalists, private expeditions, etc. had only to hint of the existence of an unlimited supply of land and resources somewhere on not far on the horizon -they'd been preparing the ground for finding an outlet and expanding the national horizons for a while. During this same period the Mediterranean Sea had been reverted to its old Roman name, that of "Mare Nostrum!" and the idea of resurrecting the Roman Empire came into existence. At that point, what was missing, was only the commitment from the country at large to convert the dreams into actual designs and to find a way to make them into facts.

        In the late 19th century Italy had attempted to establish a beachhead on the only non-contested corner of Africa, that of East Africa, the area around the Horn of Africa. And while Italy's Horn of Africa's (Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia) wars were encountering stiff resistence, it launched the campaign to make the Mediterranean what it claimed it to be: its sea! Thus, the project for Tunis's invasion was moved into the front burner. And that's when France had gotten wind of Italy's intentions and was quicker to annex Tunis to her other North African possessions. That's also when the last and lonely outpost of the sickened Ottoman Empire came to the fore. Libya, almost overnight became the target of Italian designs, and became the crosshair of its badly thought about and worst formulated imperial plans. Why Libya? Because: a- a large chunk of land with very few people and no army to defend it; b- it's on the southern borders of Mare Nostrum: c- it was the only land left, in North Africa, out of control of European powers; and, d- it was controlled by a weak and fading empire.

        All these projects and campaigns were thought about, prepared, and put into action under the so-called "liberal" coalitions, particularly that of Prime Minister, Giovanni Giolitti. On October 11, 1911, a 100, 000-armada led by General Caneva, opened its fires on the main coastal cities and towns of the peaceful and sleepy little known Welayaats of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and thus a prolonged and brutal campaign of destructions and genocides had begun that will last close to half a century. During an arc of time extending more than 3-decades, Italy had tried every possible trick in the book and some few more. From air bombs to chemical gases, scorched land attacks, up to personal and collective intimidations and punishments, tribes' coaxing and cooptation; and, finally when all didn't work, concentration camps, and in an early hit-squads fashion, the invaders had launched a campaign of terror: of assassinations and executions, by hanging the resisters in the main squares, bedouin encampments, hills and vales of that vast sandy lands. By the end of the nightmare, half of the scarcely inhabited land, was either killed, or forced to flee the country. Out of a population of ~1.5 million, in the last Ottoman census, by the end of W.W.II, only about 750,000 people were left in the country. Poor, illiterates, and famished, they gave themselves to whoever had promised them some crumbs.

        Italy's defeat in WWII and its invasion by the Allied forces, which was seen as liberation rather than occupation, in some sense had been a manna sent from heaven. This brief interlude -the Allied occupation- put an end to the Fascists's hold on the country and supposedly had cleansed the country from their legacy. The Italian Republic rose, as the mythical phoenix, on the ruins of the Fascist Regime. Italy s inclusion into the Western Alliance, NATO, and its willingness to be a frontline in the Cold War, gave her a break, a respite so to speak, and actually made her slip from under the burdens, and presumably the embarrassment and shame, of facing its past, particularly in coming to terms with the colonial one. This self-deception, if not mass amnesia, gave Italy the excuse of not stirring the crock of dirt of what was ruefully yet wistfully had been left behind. Thus, Italy, to this day has never looked into colonial history critically nor searched deep into its soul or pondered on what drove generations of Italians into one of the most brutal and absurd colonial campaigns in recent memory. Yet Italians still pretend, and some have convinced themselves, that what their country had done, to others, was part of a historical accident which befell their humanist and peace-loving country. It was nationalism's misguided aberrations and later Fascism's delusional madness, but thanks to God or America, since they had turned against them both, then are no responsible for their foolish acts and campaigns. In other words, Italians, after WWII, and indeed to this day, had succeeded in portraying them as being in the same boat, that's, as having been victimized as their country's victims.

        What followed such an attitude was a tale itself bordering on the ridiculous, if not the absurd. The International community, the UN and other world institutions, instead of holding Italy responsible for all the maiming, genocides, and destructions of countries and populations, like Libya, and be made to pay for the committed crimes against humanity, the winners and those who were pulling the strings after the War, left Italy enjoying its privileged status in the "independent" United Kingdom of Libya! Italy was left in control of most of counts and moves in the country, from commerce to best agricultural lands. It took the Army's coup d'etat of 1969 to dismantle the Italian colonial grip which was suffocating the nominally independent country.

        Italy, as far as its bloody colonial history was concerned, acted as the proverbial ostrich, in burying its head -should one say soul?- in the immediate gratifications brought about at the aftermath of the War's reconstruction prosperity. It's fair to say that, so far, Italy has never been held accountable of any of its committed genocides and came scot free from traumas and self lacerations usually associated with the consequences of such atrocities. No one has asked Italy to step up to the plate and pay for the damages (both morally and materially) inflicted. Neither of the victim states and populations, in Libya nor in East Africa, have put enough pressures on Italy to admit its mistakes and to do right thing by them. No one has yet stood and demanded an official apology from Italy. Nor Italy has shown any real contrition or a true willingness for repentance. Italy, indirectly, is asking forgiveness, knowing full well, at this point, there can be no such a deal until and when Italy has come to its senses and has begun on what will certainly be a painful experience to come to terms with its colonial past.

        For true reconciliation comes only after a real search for the causes which had made a country like Italy loses its human-sense and historical legacy, turned its lethal power on near and far countries and societies, without mercy, with full-blown campaigns of deliberate exterminations. A debate in Italy was long due; on how to face the past but above all on what to do with the consequences of its past actions. A change of attitude, a recognition of the pain and humiliations inflicted on other innocent humans, etc. has to be admitted into Italy's individual and collective memories and consciences. The curricula in its schools and its main history textbooks have to include all the atrocities the Italian armies, preachers, and businessmen and women were capable of mounting and indeed had done, etc. Then and only then negotiations can start on what is the best means to heal the inflicted wounds left still open, and repair the broken psyches and bodies of these societies.

        A healing process cannot start when the aggressive country has never acknowledged publicly its wrong-doing, misadventures, and has acted upon such a stand. Italy's history books still skip through the colonial period as if it were mere exotic cruise tours, or worst humanitarian aid rescues, to poor African savages. Whatever little was admitted is still kept out of the public consciousness at large confined to the halls of the academy. Even a movie like that of the Lion of the Desert is not allowed to be seen in the country! To say such a posture ain't propitious for good tiding is no exaggeration!

        What makes things worse are the absurd and mistaken maneuverings of a regime like that of Libya. Instead of stating its case as clear as possible with the claims it sees pertinent, it's letting Italy off the hook by asking silly and cheapening demands. Instead of calling on Italy to find ways to bring to see how to deal with the claims, Libya is accepting symbolic gestures of meaningless content. Letting Italy dealings with its denials and coming to terms with them, publicly would make the hagglings on what is appropriate compensations a bit easier. At this time, Libya's asking for a literally mere crumbs, as building a highway already built or a hospital or some whatchamacallit nick-knack, only trivializes the cause and shows how victims, even when they act as states, are still traumatized to see the tree from the forest. Libya, to say it simply and clearly, is still unaware of its rights and is unable to articulate them. $3 billions-and-some-change, to build a coastal highway (what has happened to the already there?) are almost the same amount that Libya had just paid for the Lockerbie's disaster with 270 victims! How can Libya make its case with AIDS's victims to be compensated as the Pan-Am victims when it's willing to sell its history wholesale for far less than that?

        The so-called Libyan's Jihad Institute, a tink tank for the study of the colonial history, instead of its usual empty talk-fest,s, would have been better off, and indeed should have, it's used its archival otherwise findings to fill the air. It should have and still is possible to mount a world wide campaign made out of documentaries, pamphlets, publications and various multi-media means to let the Italian public as well as world public opinion know what Italian armies and their governments had done to the Libyans Libya, is in position to bring enough pressure to bear on Italy not least using energy exports and market restrictions. Only the lack of Libyans' imaginations, or perhaps the guts, to pursue their just cause is keeping Italy's prevarications. However this is not going to happen in the near future. No matter how or what the present or any other Italian governments makes a deal with the Qaddafi's regime, as long as the deal is not based on a true and deep regret accompanied by adequate and long term compensation fund, Libyans and the others will never forget Italy's crimes. Perhaps, only Qaddafi's senescence or the slick-willies Italian politicians, or both, are abusing a historical account by taking it as another prop to a corrupt government and a crumbling regime!


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