Excerpt for Amen! by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


From Libya to Canada - A Lifetime of Changes


Vittorio (Victor) Bellini


From Libya to Canada - A Lifetime of Changes


Vittorio (Victor) Bellini

Copyright © 2017 by Vittorio Bellini

Smashwords Edition

Also by Vittorio (Victor) Bellini

Adventures in Multinational Business

- The Libyan Affair

- The Casablanca Connection

- The Russian Oligarch

- The Mexican Seduction

- The Chinese Manuscript

Other novels

- A girl named Gioia

- La Mano del Destino (in Italian)

- The Union

- Inspired in Venice

- Of Human Emotions

- Broken Dreams

- Once Upon A Time

Short stories:

- One-night Stands

- Delusional Paranoia

- Miracle Wanted!

- Revolutionary times


- Amen!

- A turbulent Career

Available in digital and paperback formats from Amazon and other online bookstores

For information:

To my family



Historic notes on Libya, p. 7

Part I (1935-64)

Colonial years in Libya, p. 12

Part II (1964-81)

Life in London, Montreal and Toronto, p. 87

Part III (1981-87)

Expatriate years in Europe, p. 180

Part IV (1987-2017)

Return to Canada, p. 213

Part V (1992-2017)

Robert’s story, p. 233

Epilogue p. 284



In the opening paragraph of his autobiography Benvenuto Cellini writes that anyone who has achieved anything worthy of notice in his life, no matter how small, should write about it personally, because when written by someone else, the urge to dramatize and embellish the story distorts reality.

In his autobiography, called Summing Up, Somerset Maugham writes that because of poor memory, he did not have the ability to remember with sufficient accuracy facts and events that shaped his life. Consequently, he wrote his story by drawing on fragments of what he remembered and adding fictional elements for continuity. The result is a mix of fact and fiction so well blended together that, upon rereading, he could not tell them apart.

In my case, my recollections of what shaped my life are still vividly impressed on my mind. I therefore see no need to add fiction to anything I did. Like Cellini, however, I believe that an autobiography should reflect facts as they are, without platitudes and hyperbolas, but I make no apology if at times the story sounds self-aggrandizing or self-effacing in describing achievements and failures.

The sequence of events shows the formation of ‘character’ and the making of a ‘persona’, evolving from a turbulent beginning as a war child of modest family means to a man of some substance, before hitting a traumatic reversal of fortunes.




Before I get into my personal story, I would like to write briefly about the history of Libya - my birthplace - and how it got to be an Italian colony.

The country sits between Egypt and Tunisia, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and is part of the Maghreb region of North Africa, which includes the former French colonies of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. The term Maghreb is Arabic for ‘Sunset’ or ‘West’, and is used to describe the North African territory West of Egypt.

While clearly situated in the African continent, the Maghreb people are physiognomically different from people in sub-Saharan Africa, as their skin color varies from Caucasian white to African black. That difference is ascribed to the fact that a slight change in tilt of the earth’s orbit is believed to have occurred in the fourth millennium b.C. The change dried up the northern part of the continent and generated a sandy belt that became known as the Sahara desert. As a result, the desert formed a barrier that separated the Maghreb from the rest of Africa, thereby giving it a Mediterranean exposure and favouring a racial mix with other ethnic groups. The Maghreb people are originally desert nomads, consisting of three different tribal groups: Berbers, Bedouins and Tuaregs. The Libyan part of the desert is inhabited mostly by Bedouins and Berbers.

The history of Libya goes back to the early Bronze Age as evidenced by the presence of metal utensils and artifacts predating various invasions from Mesopotamian times. In the seventh century b.C. it was occupied by the Greeks, and two centuries later it was taken by the Phoenicians who made it a colony ruled by Carthage. Following the fall of Carthage, the country was annexed to the Roman Empire (in 74 b.C.) as a province of Africa Nova. Libya was then known to Rome as Cyrenaica. For the next few centuries several Roman cities were built along its coast, two of which, Leptis Magna and Sabratha, are still standing today and are major tourist attractions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the country was invaded and destroyed on several occasions by marauding Vandals. Following such destruction, a rebellion by local tribes took control of the country and ruled it for a couple of centuries. The country was then invaded in the seventh century - coinciding with the birth of Islam - by a powerful Muslim Caliphate controlled by Baghdad and, later, by Egyptian rulers. At that point Libya became a war theatre for several warring factions, including a few incursions from Sicily, but they all came to an end in 1551 when the country was invaded, conquered and then ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

For the next 360 years - till 1911 - Libya remained firmly under Turkish control, with the city of Tripoli as its capital. The cultural background of the indigenous people (mostly Bedouins) was therefore heavily influenced by the Muslim faith, while their common language evolved in part along classic Egyptian Arabic, while retaining a lot of its nomadic idiom and dialect.

Contrary to the other four Magreb countries - Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania - which had long been colonized by France, Libya was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century, and was one of the few remaining African countries not yet colonized by a European nation. It being located across the Mediterranean from Sicily, the country became a target for the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, which had unified its regional fiefdoms (in 1872) and solidified its military power. A campaign to occupy and colonize a few of the still available African countries was then launched by Italy, starting with Eritrea, Abyssinia in East Africa, and ending with Libya in 1911 and Ethiopia in 1930. The name Libya is an adaptation of its ancient Greek name, first used by an Italian geographer at the turn of the twentieth century, just before the Italian occupation.

Tripoli was a Casbah-kind of a city at the time, with low whitewashed housing units on narrow streets surrounding a couple of marketplaces, known as ‘souks’. Its centerpiece was then, as is today, an imposing medieval-looking castle-fortress overlooking the sea on the edge of the main harbour. It was built by the Turks to defend the city from foreign invasions and still stands today in its original shape.

Italy retained Tripoli as a capital city, but built it anew, juxtaposed to the existing Turkish citadel (Medina in Arabic), along the Mediterranean coast. In 1911 the country consisted of a few coastal cities and towns, with Tripoli in the West as the largest, Benghazi in the East as the second largest, Tobruk in the extreme East bordering on Egypt, and Sirte, Misurata and others in the middle. The rest of the country consisted of nomadic tribal settlements of Muslim faith stretched along the Sahara desert.

During the Italian occupations urban centers flourished into modern European-styled cities. The new Tripoli was built from the ground up, adjacent to the Turkish part. It stretched along the harbour in a carefully planned urban development, with boulevards, piazzas, parks and buildings of classic Italian architecture, including churches and a cathedral.

While the country was being rebuilt to those new standards, an underground rebellion against the Italian rule and its western culture was formed by local Berbers, centered in Benghazi. They started to sabotage infrastructural work with frequent terrorist attacks. They eventually organized themselves and grew in numbers, ready to engage Italian military units in guerrilla warfare. They launched surprise attacks on camels, horses or just hordes of fighters on foot targeting garrison outposts, using firearms supplied by sympathetic fellow rebels in Egypt and elsewhere.

The rebellion was led by a chieftain and teacher by the name of Omar El Mukhtar. He managed to drag his warfare on and on for well over a decade and became a thorn in the side of the Italian army. It was Mussolini who eventually appointed General Rodolfo Graziani and tasked him with using all military means necessary to wipe out the rebellion once and for all. As a result, following a series of fierce desert battles, Omar El Mukhtar was captured and tried in court as a rebel. He was then publicly executed by hanging, but he was also admired for his courage and desert smarts, and was buried with honours. He is now Libya’s national hero, immortalized in a movie (The Lion of the Desert, with Anthony Quinn) made in 1980.


The process of colonizing what was essentially virgin territory over desert-like terrain required a massive influx of qualified immigrants. It was not an adventure for the faint of heart, but the economic incentives being offered and the prospect of a prosperous future attracted a lot of volunteers willing to risk their life in a hostile, rough-and-tumble kind of environment. Thus, thousands of Italian experts from all walks of life were quickly recruited and shipped to Libya. They were professionals in all fields of knowledge, lured to a new colony with promises of a great future for themselves and their families. Geologists and agronomists studied the coastal land to identify whatever fertile soil could be found and then allocated it to different crop cultivations, all aimed at exploiting what the land had to offer and establishing the basis for an agricultural economy.

Major plantations - including tobacco, wheat, barley, citrus fruit, vineyards et al - were developed around small towns, each specializing in a specific cultivation. Thus the town of Zavia was slated for citrus fruit and vineyards, Zuara for wheat and barley, and Garian (a mountain town) for tobacco. They then built farmhouses, townhouses, roads, schools, churches, banks, hospitals, shops, sports venues, airports, railways, harbours and public-service buildings -- all of which created a comfortable life for a growing colonial population that reached 100,000 Italian nationals, in a country of some two million autochthons. As a result, the Libyan economy grew by leaps and bounds -- a welcome relief for a war-torn Italian motherland in need of financial support.

The cultivation of tobacco proved to be one of the most lucrative exports from Libya and made the town of Garian one of the fastest growing centers, just 88 Kms south of the city of Tripoli. Before long, the town became the commercial and service center for a couple of thousand farmers scattered around a mountain region of approx one hundred square kilometers. Thus, in just three decades of constructive colonialism, Libya became a prosperous and peaceful colony, home to more than 100,000 Italians, 50,000 of whom in Tripoli, and approximately two million natives of Berber and Bedouin origin.

Apart from continuing spurious tribal warfare in desert parts of the country, life was good in urban centers. It was good not only for Italian nationals but also for indigenous people, many of whom converted to Catholicism, learned the language and attended Italian schools. Many Libyan natives from well-to-do families graduated from Italian universities and achieved higher professional levels in many disciplines. Some even married Italian women and participated in all social activities. Italian was the only official language at the time, but a form of Arabic mixed with tribal lingos was the common language spoken by natives.

That was the situation in Libya in 1935, the year my father moved there as a hopeful colonialist.



Colonial life in Libya

1935- 1964


Chapter 1.1

1900-1925 WWI and Fascism

My father, Carmine Bellini, came to this world in June 1900 in Lanciano - an important town of some ten thousand souls (at the time) in the region of Abruzzo, in east-central Italy. He was born to Domenico and Viola Bellini as the second of five children, including Giuseppe (who died in action in WWI), Assunta, Antonio and Michele. They were a family of independent carpenters and cabinet makers serving a large farming community in and around Lanciano. My father was fourteen when WWI started and eighteen when it ended. His teenage years were therefore spent in difficult and unhappy wartimes, when survival was the only thing that mattered.

When his older brother Giuseppe died, he became the only child old enough to help his father earn a living for a family of six. As the country reeled from the ravages of war, people everywhere had to struggle to make ends meet. Independent tradesmen dealing with farmers in rural areas had to have their work paid in goods rather than in currency. They took on whatever job they could find, often having to walk for hours just to get to wherever their services were needed. Whether for a new piece of furniture, or for fixing a door, or for any other carpentry job, they received chickens, rabbits, home-baked bread, or fresh produce from the farm in payment. For many of them, eating more than once a day was not always possible.

In those uncertain times most people were ready and willing to consider major changes in the way they were being governed. Tapping into that widespread discontent was a charismatic demagogue by the name of Benito Mussolini, a teacher-turned-newsman with a gift for the gab and a lot of gravitas. As a young teacher first and then as a wartime reporter, he lived and worked in different countries, thereby developing a strong interest in political affairs while becoming fluent in foreign languages, including French, English and German. He published his own daily newspaper at the end of the war and made a name for himself as a political pundit before being elected to parliament in 1919, at the age of thirty-six.

It all happened at a time when people wanted a change of government, which is what inspired him to form his own political party. He called it Il Fascio (The Bundle, as in a ‘wheat’ bundle), a symbol for the proletariat, much like the Hammer & Sickle was the communist symbol of the former Soviet Union. The tenets of the party were intended to defend and promote the fundamental rights of all workers in a society seen as favouring the bourgeoisie.

Thus, Fascism was presented by Mussolini in his fiery speeches across the nation as the panacea to all of Italy’s socioeconomic problems. It resonated with the masses and became, three years later, a major political force which eventually culminated (on October 19, 1922) in a March on Rome by thousands of Mussolini’s followers. They demanded the resignation of the then Prime Minister Luigi Facta and the appointment of Mussolini in his place. Fearing a potential civil war, King Victor Emanuel III agreed and, a few days later, on October 29, 1922 he appointed the thirty-nine-year-old Mussolini as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy, and asked him to form a government. For the next three years he ruled the country democratically and within constitutional boundaries, but his frustration at the constant bickering and disagreements among politicians grew to the breaking point.

By 1925 he had had enough and decided to install a dictatorship (Fascism), led by himself as Il Duce (The Leader). In that capacity he managed to impose his will by questionable and often brutal means on dissidents of all stripes. That turn of events created two diametrically opposite sides of the Italian society -- those in favour and those opposed to Fascism.

Mussolini was quick to put the country on the map, as it were, by giving it a strong political voice in Europe. He made it possible to rebuild a lot of what was destroyed during the First World War and mandated the construction of major highways connecting north and south, through a series of impressive bridges and tunnels across the Apennines. He also created the conditions for populating the nation’s colonies - Libya in primis - at an accelerated pace. To do so, he authorized major investments and large scale emigration of several thousands of professionals, tradesmen and farmers, their mission being the development of a strong agricultural economy.

Thousands of farmers from different parts of Italy were being selected for immediate emigration. To make it socially easier for them, they were assigned to different towns as groups from the same region. Thus, farmers from Veneto were sent to a Libyan town called Zavia, which was ideally suited for vineyards and fruits. Others from Sicily were sent to Zuara, slated for cultivation of grain and other cereals. And then there were hundreds of farmers from Abruzzo. Their destination was Garian, a mountain town 88 Kms south of Tripoli, deemed to be ideal for tobacco plantations.

Farmers were offered a spacious farmhouse for their family and several hectares of land to cultivate and live on. They sold their produce to a consortium and were allowed to keep all of the proceeds, which meant that the more they produced the more they would earn. A number of farming villages were created for them, each with a church and civic facilities, all of them located within a few kilometers from the town of Garian. The deal looked good and the financial incentives were also very good, hence the abundance of volunteers willing to move and start a new life as colonialists.

1925-35 Garian

In 1925 my father married Eugenia (aka Caterina) Cotellessa (b. 1902) and had two children, Violetta (b. 1927) and Domenico (b. 1932), both born in Lanciano. What followed was a challenging period for the Bellinis in Lanciano, as they struggled through ten years of hard work and uncertainties while the country recovered from the war. Then, in 1935, an opportunity knocked at their door.

One of the farming families from Lanciano approved for emigration was the Nativios, slated to move to Garian. They were close friends of the Bellinis. At my father’s request they agreed to have him pretend to be a family member so he could join them as a colonial farmer. The deal was approved and off they went, as a family unit. They took with them the bare necessities, fully prepared to work hard and face whatever hardship awaited them. They were taken to ‘their’ farmhouse in a village called Tigrinna, four kilometres from Garian. Their mission was to develop the land for growing tobacco plants and, to a lesser extent, barley and wheat.

While living with the Nativios, my father worked as a carpenter taking whatever odd jobs were available. A few months later, however, he moved to Garian and opened up a carpentry/cabinet making shop. He also rented a two bedroom apartment within five minute walk from the shop and made arrangements to have my mother and their two children, along with his younger brother Michele (25) join him from Lanciano. The two brothers worked together for a while, specializing in building complete furniture sets for different uses. The demand for such furniture was high, given the fast demographic growth of the farming community.

They all knew each other in town and their interactions soon grew into friendships and into social activities. The Bellinis’ best friends were the Nativios, with whom they got together at their farm - an hour walk away - on frequent occasions. In that atmosphere of relative wellbeing, it was considered a duty for young families to have more children (financial benefits were allocated for that purpose). As Mussolini famously declared in one of his fiery speeches:

Now that we made Italy, let’s get busy and make a lot of Italians! I am asking all of you, young families, to multiply. Let it be your national duty.’

Perhaps as part of that ‘duty’, in January 1938 my sister Pia was born in Garian as the third child of a still young family. In the meantime Uncle Michele started to ‘date’ Agnese Zorzan, a young girl of Venetian origins he met while on a job in Zavia, a town dedicated to vineyards, some one hundred kilometers from Garian. Dating in those days was simply looking at each other in church, or chatting casually in village gatherings, but it was good enough to determine the degree of reciprocal attraction and the interest in a matrimonial union, which were often arranged by the families.

In 1940 Agnese was a bubbly and most attractive young seamstress of barely nineteen years of age, while Michele was a handsome thirty-year-old man full of life and bonhomie. They were made for each other, despite eleven years of age difference, and got married a few weeks after they met at Agnese’s family farm (a vineyard). I understand it was a most joyous occasion, filled with festivities and happiness. The day after the wedding ceremony, the newly married couple moved to Garian taking with them whatever dowry Agnese received from her parents. They settled down in a one-bedroom row-housing unit adjacent to my father’s two-bedroom unit and lived blissfully unaware of what was happening in Europe.

At that time the war was not even a subject for conversation in Garian. People were not ‘connected’ to the news the way they are today, especially in a distant mountain town of farmers. Owning a radio was a privilege very few people of the upper class could afford and, even then, the reception was unreliable. They therefore lived their life in blessed ignorance, far away from the initial signs of a war no one expected.

In the meantime, 1940 proved to be a year of business opportunities for my father, my uncle and also for my aunt. The two brothers established themselves as the only cabinet makers in town, while my aunt Agnese made use of her training to offer basic sewing services, including mending, altering or making made-to-measure clothes for women and children in the farming community. Business was good for them because in those days there was no ready-made furniture and no prêt-a-porter clothes available in shops. As the population grew, so did their work load, and so did their social activities, as they met and befriended many new people. It could have been a year of consolidation and celebration for the Bellinis, as they rejoiced in the gains made after just six years in a new country, but it was not meant to be.

Historical notes on WWII in Libya (1941-43)

In a major speech to a large plenary party convention in 1938, Mussolini stated that the lack of access to the Oceans - both Indian and Atlantic - made Italy feel like being enclosed in the Mediterranean Sea, as if in a geographic prison. He then described Cyprus, Malta and Corsica as the ‘window bars’ of the prison cell, whose exit doors were the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. He went on to say that it was necessary for Italy to break out of that prison by taking control of Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar and Suez, and then getting France to return Corsica to Italy. At the same time he promoted the production capabilities and retooling of the automotive industry to substantially increase Italy’s military arsenal, much like his friend Hitler had done so successfully during his first five years in power (1933-38). Inspired by that success Mussolini too gave himself five years to prepare for a major military operation. He wanted to take control of the Mediterranean Sea, which he called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), as it used to be during the Roman Empire. Only then Italy’s navy would have access to the Oceans and be present as a military power in the rest of the world.

Mussolini and Hitler were kindred spirits of sorts. They were both driven by big expansionist dreams of grandeur, and were often in touch, with frequent visits of the Fuhrer to Italy and of Il Duce to Germany. Of course, Mussolini’s fluency in German helped a lot. That personal relationship and mutual admiration was what prompted the two leaders to join forces in an alliance known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. From Benito’s point of view, the alliance was useful in providing a form of security in the northern part of the country while he prepared for a military operation in the Mediterranean Sea. But he planned to do so after building a sufficiently large military arsenal and training Ethiopian troops as army reinforcements. An impatient Adolph, however, was ready for action and moved fast on Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, thereby starting WWII and dragging Benito into a conflict he was not yet ready for.

To make things worse, in 1939 Hitler managed to have Japan join the alliance, which became known as the Pact of Steel, its sole purpose being to take control of the entire world. Having reached that stage of military aggression, Il Duce had no choice but to play along as best he could. His early success in securing Libya and annexing Ethiopia emboldened him to look across the Adriatic. Thus, in 1940 he took Albania and Dalmatia for starters, but his intention was to go further, all the way to the Austrian border. Those early military moves met with little initial resistance in the Balkans and emboldened Mussolini to look south, at Suez.

The war took by surprise most Italians who did not think they would be engaged in another war while still recovering from the first one, but so it was. The war front soon spread out like wildfire all over the European continent. Its gravity was not immediately realized in Tripoli, despite it being well connected to the news from Italy. As to small-town people, they lived in a state of virtual ignorance regarding world affairs. News bulletins were rare in Garian, and were only available in the form of telegrams to a few people at the top. The only newspaper - the Corriere di Tripoli - arrived a day or two later and was not always up to date with information on the war. As a result, farming communities felt secure in a distant land and were somewhat cavalier about a war that did not seem to involve them. Little did they know that they were living through the beginning of the end of their colonial dream.

In 1941, in fact, in another unexpected blow, the Rome-Berlin Axis decided to spread the war theatre into North Africa, while Japan prepared to attack the USA at Pearl Harbor. The real purpose for moving the conflict to Africa at that stage of the war in Europe has never been conclusively determined, but it has been argued that by engaging British military forces stationed in Egypt (on the Eastern border of Libya) it would weaken them in Europe and thereby make it easier for Germany to subdue Britain, at which point the Axis would control Western Europe. At the same time, Mussolini would be able to take control of the Suez Canal and gain navigational access to Italy’s East African colonies. That way he could use badly needed reinforcements from trained military resources stationed in those colonies. Thus, in February 1941 Il Duce ordered Italian troops stationed in Libya to move eastward and take control of the Suez Canal by attacking local British and Egyptian troops.

That move came at the worst of all possible times for my family. By then, in fact, my cousin Giovanni and I had already been conceived by our respective parents and were already in gestation. It must have been one hell of a shock for our parents when they found out about the war front moving to Libya, but what was done could not be undone. Had that misguided military move been made a few months earlier, I would not exist, ever, simply because my mother would have been too old at forty-five to have another child after the war. At that point the situation in Garian changed from one of hope and optimism to a worrisome time of uncertainty and distress. But there was no turning back and people had to cope with the consequences as best they could.

It was under that cloud of fear that in July 1941 my cousin Giovanni was born, and four months thereafter, on November 3, 1941, I was born too. It should have been a time to rejoice for the two Bellini families, but it happened to be the worst of all possible times to be born. I was a war baby, plain and simple, unaware of the difficulties my neonatal needs were causing to my parents in that unsettling junction of their life.

In the meantime, Mussolini, sensing the danger of the advancing warfront along the North African coast, decreed that all school-aged children in Libya be repatriated to Italy, and then sent to children seaside camps scattered around the country. This was done to protect them from becoming war casualties. Thus, my sister Violetta (14) and brother Domenico (9) were taken from our family and sent to separate camps in Italy. A few months later, the same decree was extended to include all women and children of all ages. Consequently, my mother (39), my aunt Agnese (21), my sister Pia (4), my cousin Giovanni (7 months) and I (3 months) were sent to Italy in the erroneous belief that we would be safer away from the Libyan war front.

How wrong they were! I can only imagine what my mother had to go through in trying to breastfeed me and also look after my four-year-old sister on a long trip back to Italy. The sea voyage itself, aboard a ship crossing the Mediterranean from Tripoli to Palermo, was a challenging experience. Most passengers were women and small children. They were seasick half the time, throwing up overboard, as they had to make do with inadequate food and sordid sleeping accommodations in cold wintry conditions, while I was in need of constant attention. I was later told that, were it not for a strong spirit of camaraderie among all passengers, we would not have survived the crossing.

But survive we did, till our transfer by train from Palermo to a refugee camp near Naples. We stayed there only a few days, until another train was arranged to take us to our towns of origin, Lanciano in our case, where we thought we would be safely away from war hostilities. Well, that was not to be. The only good thing was that, as we settled down, Violetta and Domenico were allowed to leave their respective seaside camps and rejoin the rest of the family in Lanciano. It seemed reassuring at first, but our relative tranquillity did not last long.

The military deployment to the Eastern border unleashed a series of fierce battles. It carried on for well over a year of increasingly bloody confrontation that eventually forced both sides to seek reinforcements. The subsequent arrival of American troops was countered by German reinforcements. Their arrival made it an all out confrontation between Allies and Axis military troops that prolonged the agony and bloodshed for several more months along the Libyan coast. It then reached its defining moment at El Alamein and Tobruk near the Egyptian border. It was there that the Allied forces - aided by rebellious desert Bedouins under the command of Idris Ibn Senoussi (who became Libya’s first Monarch) - imposed their military supremacy.

From that point on, the war front advanced westward to Benghazi and then to Tripoli through sand dunes, desert trenches and infernal heat, exacting death and destruction, as Marshals Rommel and Montgomery, two of the most celebrated military leaders of WW2, faced off to the last man standing. It was catastrophic finale to two years of fierce battles in Libya. At that point, Mussolini was ousted from power. He was replaced by General Badoglio who agreed to sign the Armistice and outlaw Fascism.

Thus ended Benito’s Mare Nostrum dream. It was foolhardy to even think about it, but that’s the way it usually is with dictators. They dream big and they also fail big. In retrospect, had the war been delayed a few years, Mussolini might have had the military arsenal needed to take Suez and then use the manpower and military resources he had in East Africa to pursue his dream in the Mediterranean. In that scenario, we would be living in a different world today.

The Libyan conflict lasted well over two years, ending in late 1943, at which time Tripoli was peacefully occupied by American and British troops. No battles were ever fought in Tripoli and Garian. It would therefore have been better all of us, women and children, to stay in our homes for the duration of the war rather than being sent back to Italy.

The silver lining, if one could be found in those tragic years, was that my father and uncle were able to build a certain amount of prosperity while war raged far away from Garian. Farmers too were able to cultivate their allotted land and grow their crop in a peaceful environment. They all managed to help their families in Italy by sending some money whenever they could, but they were unable to be in touch often enough to know how they were doing.

It’s hard to imagine for young people of our modern generation what it was like in those days, when a letter took a month or more to be received and replied to. Texting, emailing and all kinds of other social media were not even in the vocabulary at the time. The mental state of those unfortunate people must have been a horrific torture as they waited to hear from their loved ones.


Chapter 1.2

War years in Lanciano (1943-47)

For little over a year, from early 1942 to mid 1943 we lived in relative peace after settling down in a two-room apartment in Lanciano Vecchio (the old part of town). I was too young to remember anything but I was told several times what our life was like. There were five of us in that small place in 1942, my mother and four children, aged 15, 10, 4 and me, just a few months old. Aunt Agnese and Giovanni, instead, moved in with my grandparents, a short walk away from us, but we were in touch daily.

By early 1943 it became clear that Italy was on the losing side of the war, as the Axis powers were forced to retreat while the war front moved ominously from Libya to Sicily, thereby threatening the peninsula. Mussolini was angrily blamed for that disaster and became the target of a growing underground insurrection by partisan militia (Partigiani), fighting against Fascism. By mid 1943 the Partigiani became a force to be reckoned with and managed to have Mussolini removed from power.

On July 25, 1943 - at 10.47 p.m. to be exact - King Vittorio Emanuele III in a historic radio bulletin announced the ousting of Benito Mussolini and the fall of Fascism. It marked a mini-triumph of sorts for the Partigiani, and reflected the growing disapproval of a war no Italian citizen ever wanted, other than a minority of power-hungry fascists. It also marked the end of the Rome-Berlin Axis, as Marshall Pietro Badoglio replaced Mussolini as Prime Minister and initiated armistice talks with the Allied forces.

On August 28, 1943, a month after being ousted and placed under arrest, Mussolini was secretly taken away from Rome and driven as a prisoner to Campo Imperatore, an isolated ski resort at the top of the Gran Sasso Mountain, less than two hours drive from central Rome. It was thought to be a safe, hard-to-reach hiding place to protect him from potential lynching by the Partigiani, and also to make sure he wouldn’t be rescued by loyal diehard followers.

In the meantime Allied troops continued to advance northward and reached Salerno, near Naples, after crossing from Sicily. On August 31, 1943, the city of Pescara – a major urban center some 50 Kms from Lanciano - was one of the first cities on the Adriatic coast to be hit by indiscriminate bombardments. A week later, in early September, Marshall Badoglio announced the signing of the Armistice and the cessation of all hostilities against the Allied forces. At that point the Italian army was effectively turned against their former German Allies, thereby making them the de-facto enemy. As a result, there ensued a period of confusion on battlefields, as many Italian military officers were still loyal to Mussolini and objected to switching sides.

Fearing military reprisals from Nazi troops, on September 10, 1943 the entire House of Savoy (Italy’s Royal family) fled the capital incognito and left the country from the port of Ortona, on the Adriatic coast, a few kilometers from Lanciano. Three weeks thereafter, German troops rescued Mussolini from his mountain hideout and took him to Lago di Garda in Northern Italy. There he founded a State in Exile, as it were, known as Repubblica di Salò and formed a government with loyal followers and a significant military detachment still committed to Fascism and to the Axis. He continued to fight with Hitler in a foolish attempt to regain power in Italy.

This turn of events unleashed a sort of civil war, pitting Italians against Italians, as fascist forces loyal to Mussolini engaged antifascist Partigiani in often fierce door-to-door town battles in northern Italy. In the meantime, German troops stationed in Italian cities, including Lanciano, slowly changed their former friendly attitude as allies and started to retaliate against a growing hostile behaviour from covert Partigiani activists. They started to raid and abuse stores and citizens, often shooting anyone who dared oppose resistance. Taken aback by the sudden, if understandable, behavioural change, some citizens were initially confused, then angry and later defiant. As abusive acts from German troops became increasingly bold, people started to rebel and randomly fight back as best they could. Then, on Oct 5, 1943 a heroic act by a young man, Trentino La Barba, sparked an immediate bloodbath in Lanciano.

Trentino had dared put on fire the car of a German officer. It was an act of bravery that cost him his life. He was arrested, tied to a tree, blinded, tortured and then killed publicly in Piazza Plebiscito, just a few blocks from where we lived. Domenico (eleven at the time) was an eye-witness of that atrocity. The execution was meant to be a dire warning to others, but it had the opposite effect. People had had enough of the occupiers and revolted en masse.

They raided police stations, grabbed rifles, pistols, machine guns, pitchforks and whatever other weapon they could find, and started to fight back in a fierce armed resistance that lasted nine months. To make things worse, Lanciano itself came under indiscriminate bombing raids aimed at German troops by Allied forces, a situation that forced many citizens to seek protection by rushing to improvised bomb shelters in their neighbourhood.

Our short period of peace and tranquillity had thus turned into a period of indiscriminate death, anguish and fear. We, along with all our friends and relatives – mostly women and children, some old, some young, some infants (like me) – scrambled from bomb shelter to bomb shelter, running away and hiding from relentless poundings of bombing and shooting that left a trail of destruction everywhere. In this environment of crumbling buildings, rubble-covered streets, human pain and precarious living, survival was the only thing that mattered. Most victims died under military fire, but too many others departed this world for lack of medical attention. My older sister Violetta died of a severe case of bronchial pneumonia that, for lack of penicillin, could not be cured in that inferno. She was barely sixteen and had been like a second mother to me. Her premature departure made things even more difficult for my mother, adding to the mental agony of not knowing who would be hit next.

Many of those who managed to survive ended up losing whatever little possessions they had. My mother lost a small bag of gold jewelry and other valuables she always carried with her. The bag was her only financial security and was accidentally left behind somewhere, lost forever as she scrambled in a mad rush to carry me to safety. Then, nine months later, as the remaining German troops withdrew from the region, the Allied forces entered Lanciano as ‘liberators’ and, in many cases, celebrated by selective and unabashed looting and raping. There again Domenico (twelve at the time) was an eye witness, as he often told me while reminiscing with anger and disgust.

Those nine months were the most brutal, death-ridden and agonizing months for the people of Lanciano and, especially so, for my family. As for me, I was too young to see and understand, but somehow I feel that the ordeal left an indelible mark in my psyche. In June 1944 hostilities in Lanciano came to an end, leaving a mixed trail of relief and despair as many didn’t know where to turn to pick up the pieces and survive their loss of homes and belongings. As always in these sad cases, the spirit of solidarity and compassion from those who managed to hide and save precious provisions of victuals for emergencies helped generously and was instrumental in re-establishing some form of normality. Thus, life went on, precariously at times, but still … it went on with a modicum of optimism.

Eventually, at the tail end of the war, the Partigiani captured Il Duce and, on April 28, 1945, they hanged him and his mistress (Clara Petacci) in a public square in Milan (Piazzale Loreto, later renamed Piazza della Concordia). Two days later Hitler committed suicide, thereby marking the end of WWII in Europe. As a three-year-old toddler, I was blessedly unaware of what we had been through, but the spiritual scars were clearly reflected in our sombre lifestyle, in the mood of the people, and in my mother’s daily prayers.

There ensued a couple of peaceful years that gave time to heal and recover from mental and physical bruises, and live decently, if only on bare necessities. We survived by pooling together whatever resources we had and on whatever little money my father and uncle could send from Libya. In May 1945, at the end of the war, our family in Lanciano consisted of my mother (43), brother Domenico (13), sister Pia (7), and me (not yet 4). Violetta would have been eighteen if she hadn’t succumbed to pneumonia two years earlier. We lived in a two-room apartment in a very old building of Lanciano Vecchio. Aunt Agnese (24) and cousin Giovanni (4) lived with my grandparents, two blocks away from us

My mother, a woman with a heart of gold but of modest means, was busy looking after our daily needs, while teen-aged Domenico helped by taking a part-time job at a local warehouse. I was too young to remember much of those days, but I do know that we never suffered hunger pains and we did play every day in the narrow, slanting cobblestone streets of our neighbourhood. We played soccer in those streets, with balls made of stuffed old stockings. We used stones to mark the goal. We raced pushing wooden wheels down the streets. We played hide-and-seek and tag, or ran around with noisemakers just for fun or to annoy people. We sliced broom sticks to make wheels for our toy cars. We passed elastic bands through the hole of empty spools of sewing tread to make self-propelled wheels. Whatever we needed for our games was cleverly improvised and patiently homemade, because we could not afford to buy toys. As young children we did not know any better and we were happy.

But happiness was not to be seen on the faces of most adults, for they did know better after suffering losses of loved ones and of personal possessions. Still, they managed to cope, and they slowly regained a sense of guarded optimism as work advanced on clearing the rubble from the streets, fixing infrastructures and rebuilding here and there.

Most people had personal crosses to bear in the immediate aftermath of the war. My mother was one of them. Such was the fury of her destiny that, in addition to the terrible anguish caused by the premature death of a daughter, the loss of her jewelry and by what she had already been through during nine months of bombardments, another blow was in the making.

In late 1946, a few months before rejoining my father in Libya, I suffered a personal accident that marked forever the rest of my life and added to my mother’s woes. In my quest to be like my much older brother, I had the misfortune of playing with a homemade toy that was clearly forbidden to 5-year-old boys like me. The toy was a bow & arrow that my brother had made using umbrella spokes. He used it with his friends for target games, shooting arrows made of sharp umbrella spokes into the old wooden door of an abandoned house, a few steps up the street from where we lived.

He had stored it up on a high wall recess over a window, presumably out of my reach. But one day I was temporarily alone at home and somehow I managed to climb up to the wall recess to get the bow & arrow. I then went outside with excitement and ran up to the wooden door that was marked with a bull’s eye. I aimed proudly with my left eye and pulled hard on the bowstring. Then I let go! Alas, I held the bow the wrong way around and the sharp end of the arrow, instead of heading to the door, hit me deep into my left eye.

My mother’s rivers of tears and endless prayers, along with a visit to the Madonna of Loreto in a hopeless quest for a miracle, could not save my eye. I can only imagine the renewed anguish she must have been subjected to after losing Violetta and then losing all her gold, while running from shelter to shelter with two children and an infant in tow.

My eye was then replaced with a glass-made prosthesis at a local clinic in Lanciano. The limited prosthetic technology of those days made it obvious to all that I was blind in one eye, a fact that attracted the usual comments of compassion. At that age, I barely knew what had happened to me and I did not seem to care much. Deep inside, however, something in my subconscious must have triggered a personality change.

The accident made me ‘different’ from other children my age and, much as I did not quite understand why, I was often subjected to words of pity from friends of the family. They were comments made in good faith and with good intentions, but they remained ominously etched in my mind, as I felt more and more handicapped and destined to a life of pitiful existence. I began to feel diminished, incapacitated and less than a ‘whole’ child. Thus, I entered a period of negative self-awareness with shyness, nervousness, sadness and a mild form of speech impediment that led to reclusive behaviour. I avoided being the center of attention because I knew I would be looked at with curiosity and compassion. It made me feel bad and I wanted none of it.

At that age I did not have the ability to think about anything other than fun and games. I did not have the maturity to foresee and judge the effect the accident would have on my life, but I did feel wounded, a sentiment that triggered something in my young instinct, my personal ethos maybe, something that decided for me. It decided that I should live my life pretending the handicap did not exist. It became a spontaneous attitude, second nature, as it were, not to ever talk about that sad episode with anyone, not even family members. I instinctively ignored anyone curious enough to ask about it by changing subjects or by walking away. I didn’t care what people said behind my back, I didn’t want to know. I had unwittingly created a delusional mental block at that young age that made me feel more normal and less of a curiosity.

In the meantime we prepared to rejoin my father in Garian. The end of WWII provided the springboard for the United Nations to eventually grant independence to all colonies of all colonial powers, thereby ending forever the era of colonialism. They all won - whether in Africa or in Asia - one by one all of them gained their independence from occupying European powers. Even Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia managed to do away with well over a century of French domination. But the struggle for independence may not have been worth the effort for most of those countries, as they now find themselves mired in poverty and unending civil wars, compliments of corrupt and unstable totalitarian regimes, or religious fanaticism fighting for sectarian supremacy.


Chapter 1.3

Life in Garian (1947-58)

In mid 1947 we all returned to Garian, including cousin Giovanni and aunt Agnese. While we were in Lanciano my father quit his carpentry job and used his savings to open a general store in the main piazza. It was one of the first in town, located right next to the bus stop, and minutes from the post office, police station, town hall and church. My uncle, instead, retained the workshop and continued to make custom-made furniture. He was also the only one in town to make coffins for the inevitable deaths in the Italian community.

I was almost six when we returned to Garian and I was ready for my first year of schooling. Inevitably, my half-field of vision often prevented me from seeing what was happening at my far left, a problem that engendered instances of embarrassment, much to the thrill of my school mates. As a result, I relapsed into a state of increasing shyness and self-absorption. Adding to my problems, I was later diagnosed with weak kidneys and was therefore prone, on occasions, to wetting my bed, a fact that was partly responsible for another problem: a nervous condition that provoked a minor speech impediment.

By the time I was ten my self-esteem had reached its nadir. Perhaps conscious of my shortcomings, I was never able to fully concentrate on my schoolwork and only managed to barely pass to higher grades. As I think back to those difficult years, I realize I was a basket case. Quiet, distracted and withdrawn, I was unaware of whatever potential talents I may have had.

In December 1951, soon after my tenth birthday, the United Nations recognized the independence of Libya, which was then declared a Monarchy, ruled by King Idris. As mentioned earlier, he was a man of Bedouin origins, former Emir of Cyrenaica, one of three regions of Libya, along with Tripolitania and Fezzan. He was instrumental in reorganizing and leading a resistance against the Italian occupation following the capture and hanging of rebel leader and national hero Omar El Mukhtar. He eventually led his people to fight alongside the Allied troops in Libya and was then hailed as a hero, ready and willing to be enthroned as the first Monarch of the Kingdom of Libya.

The declaration of independence followed nearly six years of interregnum, during which time Italian bureaucrats continued to manage the affairs of the nation, while American and British military bases in Tripoli and Benghazi ensured its peaceful transition to independence. That historic event did not result in instant changes to Libya’s daily life. The interregnum continued, as the transition to native-led rule took several more years to plan, organize and implement. But it did embolden some locals (mostly young hotheads of Bedouin and Berber origins) to seek revenge from previous colonial subjugation, and to create increasingly aggressive disputes with Italian families, often resulting in bloody confrontations.

King Idris was aware of the difficulties inherent in taking full control of all government institutions and chose to cooperate with the existing Italian administration. As a result, a period of friendly governance ensued, with the incumbent Italian authorities remaining in charge while a Libyan constitution was being drafted in Arabic by a select group of educated Libyan nationals, aided by Egyptian advisers.

Thus, postwar life continued for several years in relative peace for most of the Italians still in Libya, as changes to an Arabic administration were slowly being implemented in public services. It was clear, however, that all of the privileges Italian nationals enjoyed in pre-war years would eventually come to a gradual end. By 1952 Italian farmers prepared to leave the country and return to Italy. For some of them it was a return to the unknown, following several decades of colonial life. They went back to their town of origins virtually empty handed, except for some savings they managed to hang on to.

Among those farmers who left early were the Nativios and the Memmes (the two families were related by the marriage of Maria Nativio to Guido Memme a year earlier). Rebuilding their life in Lanciano, however, after nearly twenty years of Libya, proved to be very difficult in the immediate postwar years. A lack of jobs for their grown children and the scarcity of income from a farm they had to share with other relatives, made them regret their return. As a result they looked for greener pastures across the ocean. At the time there was an aggressive immigration recruitment campaign from the Canadian government. It was Guido Memme the first to go and settle down in Toronto. He was soon followed by the Nativios.

For obvious reasons, Garian and its satellite villages stopped growing demographically during the war, but continued to grow economically as farmers became more productive and more financially secure. The town served a population of a few thousands Italian farmers, tradesmen and professional people, with an economy based on wheat, barley and in large part on tobacco plantations, the latter being by far the most profitable for Italian farmers. The town also served a few thousands Libyan natives from surrounding villages but, except for the educated elite, they did not mix socially with their colonial masters and preferred to use their own shops for most of their needs.

My father’s general store was only about 200 square meters (2200 sqft) but its central location quickly made it a reference point for all farmers and local professionals. It sold almost everything the Italian community needed for their daily life, from a variety of fabrics, sewing material, shoes, canned food, pasta, wine, beer, sodas, coffee, tea, sweets, chocolates, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers and pharmaceutical first-aid items. The store became the main destination for Sunday shopping trips by local farmers and also an occasional meeting point for professional people.

It’s interesting to note that farmers bought everything on credit as soon as they ran out of cash, which is what happened in the last few months preceding the next harvest. They did so strictly on an honour basis. My father had a book in which he marked the expenses incurred by each of the families he gave credit to. The debt was then paid up in cash at harvest time, when farmers sold their produce (mostly tobacco leaves) to the government-run consortium. The amazing part of this incredible arrangement is that I don’t recall anyone ever complaining about being overcharged. After all, they were not asked to sign anything and had no written evidence of what they spent other than my father’s set of numbers. The implicit trust they had for each other is something that would be dismissed as fiction by contemporary businesses.

As I think back of the eleven years I spent in Garian as a child and as a teenager, I can’t help being somewhat nostalgic. The town had everything -- beautiful buildings, large piazzas, streets and boulevards lined with almond trees, oleanders and several other flowering bushes. It had a large church that included a recreation center for children and many active parishioners; an imposing town hall; a grand 'prefettura' (central police station); a fire station; a movie theatre; a well-equipped medical clinic; a large school for up to grade six equipped with sports facilities; two gas stations (Esso and Shell); an ice-cream parlour and four bars. It also had a Roman Catholic cemetery with several marble monuments and a few crypts for wealthy families. Taxi service and daily bus runs to several neighbouring destinations, including to and from Tripoli, were also available, along with a couple of transport trucks. Two small construction companies (one of which belonged to the Lo Porto family, close friends of ours) cashed in on a lot of construction activities.

Garian was, in short, a self-sufficient town before the war and continued to be so till the inevitable, if slow, exodus of Italian farmers, not all of whom were eager to leave. Many non-farmers living in Tripoli and Benghazi had rewarding professional practices or business investments they could not just liquidate and hope to transfer to or replicate in Italy. For those people life was good in Libya. They knew each other well and got together on various festive occasions, even after the declaration of independence.

What helped a lot was a peace treaty being negotiated and eventually signed between Italy and Libya. It ensured that resident Italian citizens would enjoy the same rights as Libyan nationals and be allowed to continue in their professional or business activities with no restrictions. The treaty was a win-win for both countries as it gave Libya the service providers and the civil servants it needed for economic stability, while they worked on building their own institutions in their own language. The post-independence period was therefore a throwback, as it were, to the prosperity of prewar years for Italians, with the added economic benefit of a strong presence of several thousands of American and British military personnel, as well as a considerable influx of oil companies.

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