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People's power and U.S. plutonium
17 mai 2007
Vicenza, Italy - Without a mass mobilization of indignant citizen the atomic secrets buried in the caves and bunkers of the Berici Hills around Vicenza would have remained secreted below the loads of cement hastily poured over them. The concrete may have temporarily buried the evidence had not the U.S. military decided to extend their bases and expand these perfect underground storage spaces for more of their weapons of war.

By Uli Schmetzer

Vicenza, Italy - Without a mass mobilization of indignant citizen the atomic secrets buried in the caves and bunkers of the Berici Hills around Vicenza would have remained secreted below the loads of cement hastily poured over them. The concrete may have temporarily buried the evidence had not the U.S. military decided to extend their bases and expand these perfect underground storage spaces for more of their weapons of war.
The stockpiles of âweapons of mass destructionâ have become part of a public insurrection by tens of thousands of outraged citizen who were told last year their government and the cityâs mayor made a secret commitment years ago allowing the United States to build a second military base and airport just two kms from the center of Vicenza at a location known as Dal Molin.
The intended base became a rally cry.
âDal Molinâ has spawned a Peoplesâ Power movement that captured the attention and support of those Italians and those Europeans tired of watching their governments cede land, mountains, forests and jurisdiction to U.S. bases, allowing the Americans a free hand to do what they want with these territorial donations while local taxpayers have to finance part of the expenses of this military colonization.
(In Italy this official arrogance to construct projects without municipal or civic consent has already kindled a fierce protest against an alpine superhighway in the Val di Susa and in a citizen protest in Venice where an outdated eight billion dollar project of cement and steel barricades now being built on the access canals to the Adriatic are considered by experts âan environmental disaster.â)
The battle against U.S. base expansions meanwhile is not a surprise if one clicks on the U.S. Armed Forces website which states the U.S. European Command stationed in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany, âis responsible for 13 million square miles (of bases) in 89 countries and territories.â The statement adds: âThe commandâs mission is to support and advance U.S. interests and policies throughout the region and to provide combat-ready land, maritime and air forces to Allied Command Europe or the U.S. Unified Commandâ¦.â?)
It is now generally accepted during the Cold War at least some two hundred U.S. atomic weapons and nuclear warheads were stored in the subterranean caves and bunkers under the sovereignty of the U.S. bases. These weapons were located only eight kms from the center of Vicenza, a stately Palladian city with an elite ranking on UNESCOâs World Heritage list. (The requisite for stored WMDs is 30 kms from major urban zones)
No competent authority wants to identify or discuss this arsenal even today, six months after contractors began to once again extend the underground galleries in the Berici Hills, perhaps this time to store weapons for what members of the bellicose American administration proclaim to be âa permanent war against terrorism.â
For decades the people of Vicenza quietly asked each other âwhat could the American military be storingâ in the vast natural caves at Tormeno and Longareâ? The caves occupy an area of five hectares and some are large enough to allow trucks to turn around inside them.
In local jargon the caves have been dubbed âSite Pluto.â
There is little doubt among Vicenza citizen nuclear weapons containing plutonium were or are still warehoused inside the caves. The next question then is: âWhat weapons are the Americans also hiding in the nine bunkers they built into the hills at nearby Longare, right under the Basilica of the venerated Virgin of Berici?â?
âI believe they stored or still store nuclear weapons in our hills. There was a leakage fifteen years ago and it was cemented over temporarily. For years I have been trying to get an answer, but neither the local mayors nor the federal government can tell me what was and what is in there,â? says Francesco Scalzotto.
For twenty years Scalzotto, 63, and two other pacifists have protested from 10 to 11 oâclock each Sunday outside the iron gates leading to the caves of Tormeno. He has been spat at by an American officer but was also praised for âdoing the right thingâ by a female U.S. sergeant who came out of the base and told the trio: âKeep up the good work.â
Leakage from the stored weapons caused a flurry of activity fifteen years ago when a special US unit wearing white suits, masks and armed with Geiger counters was secretly flown into Vicenza to examine the caves. The alarm had been triggered by Italian health authorities who found abnormal levels of radioactivity in the area. Next a convoy of cement trucks was sent into the caves to concrete over parts of the natural grottos. Local workers, employed to help with the task, were blindfolded on their way through the galleries.
As usual in the case of a military mishap the story about leakage at âSite Plutoâ quickly dropped out of the news.
Ten years later, in 2002, the daily Il Gazzetino reported fourteen people in the small town of Longare had died of leukemia, double the number in any other Italian municipality.
Again there was no follow-up.
The secrecy surrounding US bases in Europe is notorious even though civic groups rally periodically in protest.
Yet few anti-base movements have escalated at the rate of Dal Molin which last February staged a protest march by 120,000 people in spite of a scare-campaign by the Italian media forecasting violence and terrorist attacks during the march. Hundreds of buses carrying sympathizers from all over Italy, parts of Europe and the United States, joined the walk against the base and the storage of ammunition and missiles on the doorsteps of a major city.
On its website the American Peace and Justice movement wrote this year: âExpanding the airport (at Vicenza) would be far worse than building a major military base one and a half miles from the most historic piece of real estate in the U.S. As such it represents a serious callousness on the part of the U.S. to local conditions and thus to justice itself.â?
What the website does not make clear is the enormous environmental damage of the planned airport which will be used by sophisticated jets fueled with highly toxic liquids experts believe will inevitably pollute the subsoil of an area around the airport which is identified as the main fresh water basin not only for Vicenza but populations as far away as Padova and Rovigo.
Not surprisingly in less then a year Dal Molin has become a symbol of opposition against the symbiosis between governments and commercial interests which embark, often stealthily, on mega-projects without consulting or at least informing their citizen. This prepotency by their leaders is today the source of growing protests by citizen in our pseudo-democratic societies where power has been usurped by a few to the detriment of many and environmental concerns have been sacrificed to profits.
Today Dal Molin is a rally point for naturalists, environmentalists, pacifists, activists, regional separatists, disgruntled youths and apolitical citizen who have discovered only joined action has a chance to stem official greed and military adventurism in their own backyard. Among them is Danilo Schienato, 75, who in mid-May was on the 25th day of hunger strike in protest against the new base.
Not unexpected the supporters of U.S. bases hit back in a city known as âthe most pro-American city in Italy.â?
Seven hundred Italian workers employed at Camp Ederle, the existing U.S. base in Vicenza and headquarters of the South European (Airborne) Task Force (SATEF) were joined by shopkeepers and jewelers in a city famous for its gold market. They staged a pro-base march as City Council members stressed the new base would bring additional wealth to (an already wealthy) city. To augment the pressure SATEFâs U.S. commander did not refute reports the Americans would close Camp Ederle unless Dal Molin was built.
The questions these days is why, with the Cold War over and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, does the U.S. need additional bases and why has it contracted out an extension to the underground weapon storage facilities, a task that began six months ago?
The anti-base sentiments have also rekindled old memories here.
Vincenza was brutally bombed by the Americans during World War II when the city was occupied by the retreating Germans. According to survivors few, if any, Germans were killed. But the urban destruction and the death toll among Italian civilians was heavy according to the names of victims inscribed on walls and columns in the city and surrounding towns. That World War II modus operandi seems to repeat itself in Iraq and Afghanistan these days.
Despite these memories this City has gone out of its way for decades to lay out the welcome mat for American service personnel. At dawn U.S. troops are allowed to perform their push-ups and calisthenics in the Piazza dei Signori, the town square, the heart and architectural jewel of the city flanked by ancient palaces, the town hall and the Basilica. In the village of Barbarano a disused catholic church was converted into a radar station.
    In view of this pro-Americanism the success of the anti-base movement came as somewhat of a surprise and may have been partially due to the decision the movement must transcend political parties, ideologies, religions and class differences.
This universal nature of Dal Molin was obvious during an impromptu protest by 400 people this month against a concert by the U.S. military band in the Basilica to the Virgin of Monte Berico - a temple above the bunkers filled with deadly ordinances and missiles. Police carted away fashionably dressed ladies, as well as men and women in worn jeans and T-shirts.
Thousands of housewives who had never been at a demonstration in their lives have suddenly metamorphosed into fervent activists braving paramilitary carabinieri and police in their determination to free their city of lethal weapons and foreign troops.
âMost of them say before a protest demo âwe donât want to get involved in anything dangerousâ but as soon as there is a confrontation these are the very people jumping out front and shouting the loudest,â? said Licia La Farina one of the activists of the movement
. She added: âOur strength is that people from different walks of life and different political ideas are pulling together on the same rope.â?
In fact during the main protest in February the presidium of the movement - now permanently installed in a tent on the fringe of the city - suggested delegations from political parties could march only as an appendix behind the main dross. The suggestion was approved in spite of protests by the various political parties, all anxious to jump onto a campaign wagon catching on among the public.
In their effort to prevent the movement from being hijacked or subverted by any political party the Dal Molin activists decided to ban speakers of political parties from addressing protesters at rallies.
Perhaps most important the movement has made Italians conscious for the first time they have never been informed how long the U.S. bases can remain in their country or the contents of the agreements their governments signed since World War II. For all they know these accords could be in perpetuity.
In fact agreements signed in 1943, 1947 and 1949 were all kept secret. In 1954 a USA-Italy base accord was signed by government representatives from both sides but no details were revealed and the agreement was never submitted to parliament for ratification.
Also hush-hush is the Stockpile Agreement on nuclear arms deposits and the recent Shell Agreement in 1995 as well as the âStone Axâ agreement in 2001 which apparently concerned technical data on atomic arms in Italy.
In contrast to this industrialized nation the under-developed Philippines, a former U.S. colony, kicked out its American bases when their leases expired in 1992. The Filipino Senate refused to renew the lease agreements in spite of considerable U.S. pressure.
Italians, and possibly many Europeans, have no such opportunity.
âIf we were a U.S. colony I would have to accept this situation, but we are supposed to be a sovereign nation,â? says pacifist Scalzotto.
The anti-base protests began on July 3 last year with a torch march on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. When the municipal council voted 21-18 in favor of the new base, thanks to a majority enjoyed by the Berlusconi party, the protesters spent seven hours blocking the Town Hall with whistles, pot-banging, tambourines and any other handy noise-making object.
By December last year 30,000 joined a march from Camp Ederle to Dal Molin. On January 9 this year the limousine of U.S. ambassador Ronald Spogli was blocked by crowds outside the Town hall for an hour.
The momentum of the protests did not slow down after Prime Minister Roman Prodi - extracting his government from the dilemma with the usual political astuteness - announced his government would not oppose the new base since it was part of an agreement made by previous governments. (Political sources claim Washington threatened Prodi with classifying Italy as âan uncooperative or even hostile nationâ unless the country accepted the Dal Molin base.)
Obviously the base is a vital component for the already announced U.S. military strategy to consolidate the six battalions of the 173rd Airborne Brigade around Vicenza. Currently Vicenza hosts two of these rapid reaction brigades while three others are based in Bamberg and one in Schweinfurt, both bases in Germany.
Win or lose, the protest intends to remain a permanent civic movement affiliated to similar action groups in Italy and abroad.
One way or the other the long honeymoon and the infinite existence of U.S. bases in Italy may be over.

This work is in the public domain