JACOB BALZANI LÖÖV → /ustica/ - text
/ustica/ – text
2 May 2020


island, massacre

Italy, 2016-2019

In the midst of the sea an island. Land of blenched bones and pirates. Black soil of volcano surrounded by abysses, challenged by courageous skin-divers. It is a small and fierce community of not even thousand souls, where everybody knows each other. Farmers, fishermen and who works for the seasonal tourism. Islanders yes but not isolated, -it is the motto of their school but history, uncaring of how much water separates an island from the rest of the world, arrives here too sooner or later. It happened already with the prisons wanted by the House Bourbon, it happened during fascism, when political opponents like Bordiga and Gramsci, apostles of communism in Italy, were interned on the island. Until the 50s the word Ustica in the newspapers was used only besides escapes, riots and detainees pardoned by Mussolini. Later the island ceased to be a place of confinement and Ustica tried to polish its name for what it is: beautiful and wild black pearl in the Mediterranean Sea, gate to the mysterious underwater worlds. Every summer explorers and spokesmen of the Oceans, myths like Costeau and Piccard, were meeting on the island to tell their adventures and findings. It didn’t last long.
Forty years ago, during one of those evening of tales, just moments before the sun was setting down on the 27th of June 1980, history arrived here again. 115 kilometres away from tiny emersion of the Tyrrhenian Sea, an airliner crashed in the water leaving no survivors. From that day Ustica ceased to be island and became a massacre.


Can an ugly thing pollute the meaning of a word? Can the ugly Italian politics ruin the landscape, not only physically, as it happens with illegal constructions but also culturally, ruining its image therefore its idea. The first comment an inhabitant of Ustica would have about the airplane accident is that the island has nothing to do with it. In the beginning of the 90s the municipality council has even approved a motion to protest against the image damage the island received from the attribution of the massacre to Ustica. On the other hand talking with any other Italian, above all whoever grew with the news that since almost half a century keep recurring on TV about the massacre, Ustica evokes air crashes, state massacres and unsolvable mysteries. The word Ustica, from the beginning, was combined to the airplane crash because it is the nearest emerged land and maybe also because the journalists, assembled for the yearly International Show of Underwater Activities, dictated from here their first articles. Narratives feed on places and to “materialise” in our mind they need to be associated to a physical reality. There are other accidents which are related to geographical toponyms, among the accident on Italian internal flights it would be enough to think about the tragedy of Montagna Longa (in which found his death Litterio Maggiore, a former major of Ustica) and the crash of Punta Rasi, both happened during landing at Palermo airport. Despite the large number of victims, many Italians do not remember those accident. It is indeed easier to accept a tragic event with a clearly defined dynamic than an event in which a satisfying truth has never been found. It could be that the never-ending serie of trials and news induced the stigmatisation of Ustica island. This phenomenon is linked to the social amplification of risk, how is defined according to social and geography studies, meaning the role that media and public narratives have in amplifying perception and fear of places and causes of accidents or threats.

As the anniversary approaches, every year, the mayor of the island receive phone calls from journalists asking if the Ustica airport is still working of if some elder remembers the night of the accident. The flight was between Bologna and Palermo, in the little Ustica there has never been any airport and clearly nobody saw what happened more than hundred kilometres away. There are no direct links between the island and the massacre, on the island there are no memorials but if we search carefully, between the memories and the landscape of the island, a strong connection exists with the geopolitics of the Mediterranean Sea, which set the conditions that allowed the massacre, the decoys and the trials to become reality. Among those the deep relation with Libya: starting from 1911 almost thousand Libyan deportees were confined on the island. And the American influence: ustica for thirty years has been the island of Baseball, the sport introduced to Anzio shortly after the landing of the Allied troops in 1944.

Almost forty years went by and still there are no culprits for the massacre of Ustica: Unknowns. There is no expiration for a massacre offence and the judiciary is obliged to continue the investigation as new elements emerge. It is not clear who was responsible for the accident but how it happened was clarified after 19 years of inquiry. After five thousands pages of surveys the judge Priore concluded: the Itavia DC9 has been shot down during an episode of aerial warfare. No further details were given on it. The area is under NATO control but the presence of other military planes cannot be ruled out as a Libyan military jet and the body of its pilot were found few days later in southern Italy.

The idea of combining images of life on the island and landscapes linked to the tragedy, wants to give a cue to think about the link between those two antithetic meanings, about how this connection was suddenly formed and its consequences. After forty years from the massacre we want to remember and honour the 81 victims while rehabilitating Ustica in its original meaning of island.

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