The Humanity of Amatrice - One week among the rubble
They called at night.
August 24th, 4:30 AM “Amatrice, Earthquake. Can you go?” That’s all I understand. Yes, yes I’ll go. I jump out of the bed, pick up the half-unpacked back from the previous deployment, just few hours before. Yes, yes I’ll go. The phone starts ringing, the emails start arriving. The world’s headlights are now focused on central Italy, and the 6.2 earthquake that has wiped down Amatrice, Arquata and Pescara del Tronto, Accumoli during the night. On Tuesday, the school year started for the surviving kids. They’ll go to school in an improvised building, since their school is now a pile of rubble. That’s what I, and my colleagues with me, saw as soon as we arrived to the earthquake zone.
— Virginia Vitalone (@vivivitalone) August 26, 2016
Few hours later I am standing in front of mountains of rubble, the streets quaked, the cars flatted by tons of debris. I’m freelancing for NBC, I’m with 8 colleagues from all over the world. The cameramen and I embark into the destroyed town, its walls so fragile that the smallest aftershock could take them down like its surrounding. Get shots, gather information. How many deaths, how many missing, how many rescued? Who to ask to? Where are the officials?
The scene is apocalyptic, firemen everywhere, ambulances, the narrow street that takes into town paralyzed by the heavy army trucks, those on the other side of town cut off from our side. No power, no bathrooms, no food. And frightened people, still in their PJs, walking aimless.
The firemen are still rescuing people, shouting for help. The hours pass, we do a couple of lives, get back among the rubble to news gather. A fireman shouts: “There is someone here!”
Chaos. Ten men start digging among the debris. Rescue dogs sniff to locate the person. They find it. Cameras gather, journalists try to get the shot. The villagers peak to see if it’s one of their beloved ones.
Silence. The body is laid on a stretcher, taken away on the ambulance, the sound of the tires echoing.
Officials carrying a body away from the rubble
The morning after an army of volunteers and soldiers has arrived in Amatrice, trying to repair the road, giving comfort to the population. The population, the guardians of their ancestors’ towns, fragile old ladies still in their night gowns, parents with too many kids for two pairs of hands, white-haired men with their sticks, all sleeping in the blue civil protections tents. The tents are still clean, standing straight in the hot air. But I’ve seen those tents, five years old, covered in dust, heavy under the passing of time. Because I’ve met African and Syrian refugees who have made those tents their home for half a decade, in my own Italy.
This time I meet the displaced, and they’re all locals. Interviewing them is harder than I thought of, with the air still full of the rubble’s dust.
But hope in the tragedy and dignity in the suffering, and courage, lots of it, is what I get out of them.
Like that displaced woman, showing me pictures of her son: “My son and I dragged my husband out of the rubble. He is disabled, he can’t walk. We waited for help till the morning, all three of us, on the remains of what used to be our house.”
Or that firemen, exhausted after three days of working around the clock: “We are accompanying the citizens into their half-destroyed homes. They have nothing left, so we are seeing if they can collect any belongings. We’re going house by house.”
NBC reporter Lucy Kafanov talking with a firemen in Pescara del Tronto.
And like this, for days, long days of heated days and colder nights, collective meals and field hospitals, days of lives and packaging, and finding all the humanity and delicacy inside us to talk to this suffering people, and exhausted firemen, and overwhelmed officials. Emotions were magnified, those days.
A wise colleague said one day: “Sometimes journalists lose their humanity in the doing of the job. Or they forget that being a journalist is not about the story, it is about the person in front of you.”
Life is already moving on, for the earthquake survivors, for their kids, and for us journalists. But our humanity links us together, and won’t make us forget of that terrible, long week of aftermath. I surely won’t.