Thoughts on Arriving at Aviano

20,000 Protest at NATO Airbase

Revolutionary Worker #1011, June 20, 1999

This report from Italy was written by Peter Gunn of FighT bAck, a revolutionary newspaper in Germany founded in 1972 by U.S. G.I.s and anti-war activists. It was slightly edited for publication.

It is Sunday morning, June 6, 1999. The sun is just appearing above the massive Dolmiti mountains to my left as I drive down a steep valley in northern Italy. I've been on the road now for almost 12 hours, and after catching a few hours of sleep in the back of my car, it is now "go time" in order to reach Aviano Air Base by noon. I search the radio for news about the war. There are reports about the NATO and Yugoslavian army commands meeting again today to try to iron out differences concerning troop pullouts and military occupation. NATO is still bombing. No news about the demonstration yesterday in Washington, D.C.

Taking a sharp curve on this winding Alpine road I catch a glimpse of a stone structure to my right that looks like a sharpened anti-tank barrier. I stop and walk over to it. On the side there are three columns of names on a brass plate--so old and weather-worn it is difficult to decipher them. Engraved in black letters on the front I read: "Il 23* Reg.t* Fant.--Ai Commilitoni Caduti Per La Patria" (The 23rd Regiment Infantry--For the Comrades Who Died For the Fatherland). Walking back to the car I wondered how many of these types of memorials had I seen in my lifetime. In my hometown, in Washington, D.C., in just about every town and city in Germany or France or Austria--dedicated to those who died "for the Fatherland." If you were Austrian you killed an Italian who "died for his fatherland." If you were Italian, you killed an Austrian who "died for his fatherland." Young men of 18 or 19 years, who went out to kill and die for lands that they didn't even own but just happened to be born and raised there, so they became "their fatherland." How many fatherlands are out there that we all have to die for?

Moving on I look straight up at the unbelievable ridges above me. I think about all those hundreds of thousands of bloods who must have been standing here 74 years ago thinking the same thing. Italy and Austria went to war in 1914. Every mountain pass was, to begin with, in Austria's hands, and to win security the Italian forces had to press the "enemy" forces back over the high regions. Trenches and shelters here were hewn out of solid rock since ordinary field entrenchments were impossible in a land where there was no soil. Anyone who's been in the mountains in the winter knows how cold it is--just sitting on a ski-lift for 20 minutes can freeze your toes --imagine what else gets frozen after being out here for 4 years. I remember reading once about an Italian unit advancing upon a ridge in the spring and suddenly seeing a new army on a hillside standing in a strange position. They were 600 Austrian corpses, frozen stiff, which the summer sun had rescued from the shroud of snow.

As I zoom down the mountain road I notice an old bunker here and there. A large deserted building with pine trees and bushes growing on its roof can be seen up on a small hill. Looking closer I notice a large faint red cross. This used to be a field hospital for the wounded, left to remind us today what kind of hell once went on in this peaceful valley.

The road soon opens up to a rough valley of green, bordered by massive steep limestone cliffs that rise up to the sky. Small cottage-type farms appear here and there, and cows graze on the multi-colored mountain pastures. It is still spring time here in this high altitude and many yellow and blue herbal flowers decorate the rich green mountain grass. This valley had been fertilized by the blood of hundreds of thousands of young men just 70 some odd years ago. It looks like one big decorated cemetery with massive gravestones flanking all sides.

Cemetery? Turn left! I stop to check it out. Crossing a small wooden bridge that takes me over the turbulent mountain creek, I notice hundreds of wooden crosses resting peacefully amongst the pine trees on a slope. There is a sign in German and Italian announcing that this is a joint "Soldatenfriedhof" (Soldiers' Cemetery) for 1259 soldiers from both sides of the war. As I pass by the rows of graves I notice many Slavic names: "Strusjak, Alia 30.12.1916," "Vszow, Sabik 13.5.1917." Next to them there are some who undoubtedly were Muslims--perhaps out of the province of Kosovo--"Busmiko, Ahmed, 15.5.1917" and "Levic, Ahmid, 14.5.1917." Here and there an Italian name, many Germans, and then a large stone cross dedicated to Lieutenant Weiss from his family: "a man from Vienna who had just begun his life"; underneath there is something inscribed in Hebrew.

One finds many such cemeteries and memorials all over these valleys. They mark the fierce battles that took place between forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italian Republic in the First World War--the "Great War" that was to "end all wars." On May 30, 1916, 7,000 Austrians died in a single day at the pass of Buole as their officers sent one wave of attack after another to try to break the Italian lines. 200,000 Italian troops fell in the campaigns of 1915-16 along a 500-mile front, due to blind and ill-considered attacks ordered by the High Command.

"For the past two weeks, NATO military officials said, a resurgent army of ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo managed to flush out Serbian-led Yugoslav troops dispersed around Mount Pastric near the Albanian border. That created the kind of `target-rich environment' that NATO pilots had been searching for during more than 31,000 sorties over Yugoslavia in the past 10 weeks."

International Herald Tribune, June 5, 1999

"Murder from the skies" came down upon the many soldiers laying in this valley by those who attained the heights. Cannons weighing 11 tons were hoisted up to the mountain peaks--an engineering feat that could match the high-tech blah-blah-blah of today. High-tech in war means death to the grunts, no matter what time and age. Looking up at the tops of the mountains that rise 7 to 9,000 feet above sea level, I imagine sharpshooters and artillery or mortar units picking off helpless infantry troops as they charge uphill or downhill, depending on which general gave the orders to go into the offensive. Shelling with great guns among these peaks must have been desperate business; for whereas elsewhere there was deep soil to limit the effects of the percussion, here in these valleys of rock walls explosions of TNT and shrapnel must of been like being in a steel room with a live grenade. Infantry soldiers couldn't have had much of a chance against those shooting down on them from above, much like the thousands of troops in Yugoslavia who hide from NATO's B-52 carpet bombings. "Murder from the skies" was different then, but it had the same effect as it does today. The 1,259 soldiers laying in this graveyard and the tens of thousands of crosses in other such valleys of the Alps can attest to that.

Just 50 flight miles from this valley of World War I death, jets are now taking off from the NATO air base in the third war on this continent in this century. (Oh, I forgot, this is not a war, it is just "air strikes.") Aviano Air Base is located at the base of the Italian Alps. There is only one road in and one road out, and there are few signs that direct your way towards this massive NATO fortress. Hundreds of thousands of square yards are surrounded by chain-linked and barb-wired fences. Guard towers mark the perimeter of the base with serious looking sentries manning machine guns. Anyone trying to get in this base without permission would be shot on sight.

20,000 bold anti-war protesters dared to almost do just that on Sunday afternoon, June 6. Had it not been for rows upon rows of "carabinieri e poliziotti" who protected the base, many would have gone over or through the fence and onto the airfield. A broad coalition of forces--from the various "communist" "socialist" parties in Italy, the "Women in Black," Pax Christi supporters and other pacifists, members of the Green Party in Italy, and a large block of "autonomi," as well as numerous other initiatives throughout Italy--had organized this national demonstration under the main slogan "Contro la guerra, a un passo dalla pace" (Against the War, Give Peace a Chance). This was the third largest demonstration against the war in Yugoslavia, after the 100,000 strong demonstrations in Rome on April 3 and 10, and the 200,000 demonstration in Assisi near Perugia on May 20.

A "peace caravan" had started in southern Italy and arrived the night before. They caught the few guards in front of the main gate off guard and almost drove right into the military fortress. There were reports of a small confrontation right there and then. The spirit at the march was loud and clear. "Clinton, D'Alema...assassini, assassini" (Clinton, D'Alema...murderers, murderers), "Americani tornate a casa" (Americans go home!) and "Stop alle bombe" (Stop the bombings!) could be heard over and over again. Here and there rocks were thrown at the police when they tried to provoke the demonstrators, which quickly forced these "state provocateurs" back into their rows.

A speaker from the Socialist Party announced the demonstration a "victory" since NATO stopped all bomber takeoffs during the day because of the protest. He denounced NATO for purposely bombing hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and old people's homes. Another speaker mentioned that despite these peace agreements, NATO's arrogance and Big Power politics are laying the groundwork for a very difficult "peace" in Kosovo. Luca Casarini, from the Autonomes of northeast Italy, received a big hand when he took the stage. Luca is famous for cutting the fence and entering an Italian military base in Istrana. He was arrested, but the government had to back down from pressing charges against him because of the large national protests against the war. He mentioned that his action was a message to the politicians in Rome that the war had to stop. People let up a loud cheer when it was mentioned that thousands of demonstrators had marched to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. the day before.

It was a grand show of resistance and international protest that the NATO leaders could not ignore--even if their Central Networks of Notpress (CNN) suppressed all international reports about it. They have been doing the same thing throughout the war, as was seen the day before when there was a virtual press blackout about the demonstration in Washington, D.C. But the two massive demonstrations here and in D.C. made it very clear that the anti-war movement is alive and strong and will be around hounding NATO in the future.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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