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The arrests of Sardinian independence activists involved in Kurdish solidarity activism in September signals a troubling new development in the Italian state’s participation in the criminalisation of the Kurdish struggle.
It also reveals a key nexus of the imperialist war machine that is perhaps not so well known in Britain.
The vast, barren landscapes of Sardinia which give it its wild sense of beauty provide the perfect environment for military infrastructure and practice sites and its location in the Mediterranean makes it conveniently positioned for conflicts, real and potential, in the Middle East.
Sardinia hosts 60 per cent of Italy’s military ranges. Coastal military sites Capo Frasca and Capo Teulada on the west and south-west coasts serve not just the Italian military but NATO forces, including Germany, the US and the UK, and limit the use of the beautiful white sand, clear water beaches and sea for public use and fishing boats.
Further inland lies one of the largest weapons-testing ranges and rocket-launching sites in the European Union, the Poligono Interforze di Salto di Quirra (PISQ) estimated to be 30,000 hectares of land plus 30,000 square km of coast, prohibiting access to swathes of land and sea for locals.
The PISQ was launched in 1956, taking on a central role for the Italian military forces (air force, army, navy) from 1959 onwards, as well as acting as a site for NASA and the European Space Research Organisation. Its foundation followed the expropriation of arable land, resisted strongly by locals who had remained on the land despite economic problems and high levels of emigration.
During the 1970s, the Italian government worked to drive forward the military industry, heightening tensions between the traditional agricultural-based livelihoods with an increasingly polluting and land-occupying one. This growing militarisation faced resistance, including the formation of the Barbagia Rossa, an armed communist group allied with the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) and made up of farmers, shepherds, workers and students.
From 2000, the PISQ was opened up to private military and industry use and a new airport runway allowed for tests of Unmanned Air Vehicles, more commonly known as drones. In the 2000s it was discovered that an abnormal number of lymph cancer cases had been diagnosed in the area, as well as past spates of birth defects and abnormally high numbers of leukaemia among workers in the base and local residents.
For Sardinians, the use of their island by the Italian government for military bases has deeper implications for democratic accountability than, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s decision to site US cruise missiles on Greenham Common in Berkshire, which drew a huge, women’s peace movement in the 1980s, or the ceding of Irish neutrality when the Irish government permitted US jets to refuel at Shannon Airport.
This is because of the relationship between the Italian state and Sardinia, which has had a strong independentist character ever since its rule by Spain, then the Piemontese Savoy dynasty, to the 1861 Risorgimento, through the fascism era and to the present day.
The independence movement has, for the most part, been strongly linked to the radical left, in part due to its repression by the fascist government, with talk in the 1960s of turning Sardinia into the “Mediterranean Cuba” and participation of Sardinian independentists in the international anti-fascist fronts during the 1930s and 1940s. In recent years, however, there has been crossover between nationalists in the independentist Sardinian Action Party and the reactionary Lega headed by Matteo Salvini.
Although not a colonial relationship comparable to Britain and Ireland — which was used directly as a site of primitive accumulation and a base from which to launch new waves of primitive accumulation — Sardinia has been repeatedly colonised by waves of settlers and assimilation attempts.
Following the second world war, across Italy, the armed units of the partisan resistance forces under the guidance of the Italian Communist Party were seen as a potential threat against US and Western European interests. Fearful of a victory of either the Italian communists or socialists in the 1948 general election, the US had plans in place for a direct military occupation of both Sicily and Sardinia.
Eight years later, the military bases PISQ and Teulada were founded following a NATO agreement.
To protect its growing military assets from increasing levels of banditry and social unrest, the Italian state needed to defend its authority over Sardinia, despite the semi-autonomy granted to it following the second world war.
As described in Eric Hobsbawm’s book Bandits, banditry in 1960s Sardinia would peak each year when the shepherds’ rent was due.
The repression of farmers in Sardinia by increasing numbers of Carabinieri military police and establishment of their caserme (headquarters) on the island by the Italian state caused tension and further cycles of rebellion. This was famously depicted in the classic film Banditi a Orgosolo (Vittorio De Seta, 1960) which follows the misfortune of a young Sardinian shepherd in the mountainous region of Barbagia, which is famous for banditry, trying to avoid arbitrary state repression and eventually turning to banditry himself to avoid destitution.
Although the more rebellious independence and revolutionary movements petered out by the 1990s, recent years have seen the growth of the military industrial complex on the island including information technology companies such as Vitrociset with links to Lockheed and the Italian transnational, multibillion-euro weapons company Leonardo-Finmeccanica, which produces military systems at the PISQ base.
The Rome-based Leonardo-Finmeccanica, the ninth largest defence contractor in the world with 180 sites worldwide, including in the UK, is part-owned by the Italian state, its biggest shareholder, and supplies helicopters to the Turkish military, the second-biggest Nato standing army. This mutually reliant relationship between the Turkish military, whose primary concern is the repression of the Kurdish liberation movement, and the continued Italian dominance over Sardinia and maintenance of its military-industrial interests on the island, is a key aspect to the repression faced by Sardinian solidarity activists.
The A Foras (Out) movement was initiated on June 2 2016 to oppose the military occupation of Sardinia, continuing the decades-long struggle against the military bases. A 2014 fire at the Capo Frasca base caused by the German air force prompted a thousands-strong march and renewed commitment. Its call is simple — an end to military exercises, decommissioning of the military bases, compensation to those who have suffered from the chemical pollution and the return of expropriated land to its rightful owners.
In September the Italian equivalent of Special Branch (the DIGOS) raided various houses of A Foras activists as part of a “counter-terrorist” investigation. One of the targets, Luisi Caria, who fought with the International Freedom Battalion in Rojava, the YPG unit made up of international communist and anarchist volunteers, is accused of international terrorism under the 270b law, originally introduced during the fascist period.
Another, Antonello Pabis, an independentist and community activist is accused of “collusion.” Both were put under house arrest, subject to the very first Italian criminal investigation case relating to YPG fighters. This kind of repression is nothing out of the ordinary for independence, anti-war campaigners. A Foras activists told me stories of having their cars tracked by police, listening devices placed in their cars and political meetings and being subject to police orders forbidding them from entering provinces where the military bases are.
Given the history of the Sardinian independence movement and its historic participation in anti-fascist struggles, it is unsurprising that a large proportion of Italian-speaking YPG internationalists hail from Sardinia, sympathising with the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial aspects of the Kurdish freedom movement. These two raids and criminal charges are the first time the Italian state has attempted to prosecute a former YPG internationalist, of which there are many.
The raids taking place shortly before the A Foras annual camp are clearly linked to the Sardinian anti-war, independent movement, which draws attention to Italy’s collusion with the imperialist war machine. In its statement, A Foras condemns the military occupation of Sardinia, an “occupation undertaken by the Italian state which fraternises with the real terrorists.”
As NATO partner Turkey ramps up attacks on Kurds in northern Syria, obstructing their fight against ISIS in their last foothold in Deir Ezzor, Italy, along with the UK, continues to sell billions of pounds worth of weapons to Turkey and pursues criminal prosecution against internationalists who fought with the Kurds against ISIS.
The implication is clear — NATO allegiance and the imperialist war industry take precedence over peace and democracy and those objecting to such priorities will find themselves under repression by the very states that arm and abet terror-sponsoring regimes like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Rosa Gilbert is co-secretary of the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign.
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