Documentary Photographer Mauro De Bettio is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From his project ‘The Wall of Silence’. To see Mauro’s body of work click on any image.
THE WALL OF SILENCE
At 22:39 on October 9, 1963, a 2 km long landslide of more than 270 million cubic meters of rock and earth breaks off the Toc mountain. The roar stops the hands of the clock. Facing the window, the pastor of Casso, observes the light of the full moon fall upon the wood. Trees, fields, animals, woods, stables and men trying to tame the wild beasts. An entire world begins to slip down the valley at 100 km per hour, 500 meters of descent and then the crash. The displaced dam water, now, flies high above the church bell tower. It forms a 250m high wave, which divides into two. The first wave, higher than the village ,hits the ground floor of the elementary school. It rains 100 kg boulders that cover and crash through the house roofs. Many people are injured, none dead. The inhabitants come out and see that beyond Casso there is nothing left, not even the road. Meanwhile they hear a sound, like a train running, in the distance, over the edge of the gorge. The second wave; finds a route towards the valley, over topping the dam, that overlooks the village. Down below they are gathered watching the final of the Champions League on one of the few televisions in the village. Suddenly, there is a power cut. Submerged by the smoke of cigarettes, in between screaming and swearing, people go out into the street. Turning their gaze towards the mountain, they see lightning and they start to complain about the coming storm. They finish their glass of wine as a stream of hot air begins to caress their face and moisten their lips.
“I told you the rain was coming”
they exclaim, the wind increases. It increases until it pushes them back. Some hold on to tables and chairs, until suddenly they understand:
“… the dam!”
Terror spreads. They have a handful of minutes to get to safety, but it’s impossible to decide what to do, their minds run wild with fear. They are torn between too many options: save the family, the children, their parents, warn their friends. But they don’t realise that it’s too late to save themselves, to get in the car or jump on a bike. A stream of air rises and drags them to the ground, breaks the windows, tears the tiles from the roofs.
“Wait for me, no! You’re younger, go! My girlfriend,noo!”
A desperate run for salvation. It’s the wall of air that arrives first, as fast as a train. Like a piston that removes their clothes and then the skin. A force that pulverizes the bodies, turning them into dust. The powder of which is subsequently swept away by the water that follows. The wave that over topped the dam, after a 4-minute flight, travelling at 80 km per hour, it hits the bed of the river Piave. It collects stones and crashes down on Longarone, erasing it forever from the maps. After 15 minutes the return wave is back to smooth everything, like the tide working on the beach, it transforms the valley into a muddy slope.
The sun rises and the image is ghastly. The haze of dry mud now clears and uncovers a lunar desert. There is nothing left. Everything has disappeared. Two thousand people, yesterday they were here, today they are one with the earth. A rumble echoes around the valley, helicopter blades. In the center, a latte-colored lake. On the surface, between the rubble, the military inspect the damage, moving respectfully between the multitude of bodies littered about, dragged onto the highest trees left standing, naked from the holocaust of violence of the night before. From the ground sprout the train tracks, bent and twisted like bushes. Many of the soldiers can’t take it. They lean to the ground holding their heads in their hands. Tears rolling down their faces.
The dam, however, is still there.
The massive gray wall, work of the most advanced Italian hydraulic engineering, looms over the built-up area of Longarone. Belly in, chest out, broad shoulders and elbows leaning on the hillsides of the two mountains that won’t let it go. Still there to control; She did not disappoint the expectations in her. Whatever happened behind her is not her business.The fallen landslide left a sinister “M” behind, on the north side of the Toc mountain, a signature that can still be read today. A blinding flash, a terrifying rumble and a small mountain village, all sucked into the huge flowing whirlpool, have been attributed, for years, to a sad occurrence caused by a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a flood. A truth, unfortunately, distorted. There have been so many the lies and the dirty manoeuvres. Starting from the shady mode of the attribution of the work, the falsification of the reports, the beginning of excavations without authorization and the land expropriations taken from the families of the farmers, whose houses would be submerged by the lake.
The dangers of the dam had been discussed since the design phase, but the private electric company ‘SADE’, the highest dam in the world, wanted it at all costs and were willing to do anything to get the contract. The state government offices were deserted at the time and the few that were working, evidently, were busy in more important matters. No one, therefore, noticed anything. Not even when the dam exceeded the maximum height previously established. Between silence and lies, time passed and the dam was gradually cemented. They turned a blind eye when the inhabitants began to complain about rumbles and shakes coming from underground, when a crack in the ground began to form and expand, a symptom of the precariousness and lack of stability of the slopes. Even when the geologists announced the possibility that it may detach itself at any moment. The manufacturer rushed the testing in order to sell it to the Government which was nationalizing the electrical industries. It was for this reason, they had to cover up the problems that were emerging, since, if the information had become public domain, the value of the shares would be greatly devalued.
Again, seismic tremors, even stronger this time. The construction of the dam advanced and with it the lake level rose. Over the years, the landslides increased, as did the rumbles coming from underground. There was a landslide and a worker lost his life. People began worrying and demanded explanations. They wanted to be reassured. SADE remained silent and denied everything: “everything is normal, all calculated” they said.
With the consent of the government and the compromise of political power it was decided once again to go ahead with the announced risk and proceed. The dam, built with public money and then repurchased with public money is, at this point of the story, finally nationalized and the Enel engineers now take care of it. That morning of October 9th the mount Toc slid 30 centimetres towards the lake. The trees on the surface bent and their roots were exposed. A worker launched the alarm, but incredibly even this time there was no one willing to listen. The fall of the landslide was imminent and nobody had the courage to admit what was going to happen. No one took responsibility to sound the alarm which would have allowed 1910 poor souls to escape and get to safety. They think of a way out, kneeling to pray, hoping to find forgiveness for their own conscience. And there it was, as expected, the end. In one brief moment the wave fell on the valley, erasing Longarone from the maps and with her the roots of entire generations.
50 are the survivors. Everything was done to take away their dignity, to convince them that nothing was due to them because no one could be held responsible for a natural catastrophe. They were marginalized, left to be annihilated by their devastating pain. They had nothing left to remember: the wave of death had taken away everything. Newspapers reported daily distorted news about the rebellion and the malignity of nature, talking about a natural disaster, about events that could not have been expected, nothing mentioned about those responsible. All the great writers of the time mobilized to cover up and hide the responsibilities of the government, changing the story and interpreting it at their own will, influencing the public’s understanding. It was necessary to make sure that the government was left out of all suspicion. The emergencies, the needs of all those without a family or a roof, the economic aid, cultural and even more importantly, psychological ones were considered elements of disturbance because they took time and energy away from the real target: the industrial development of Northern Italy.
One of the most abhorrent offenses, however, was the management of the flow of money. A massive transfer of wealth subtracted from the care of survivors in favor of economic, industrial and capitalist development. The ‘Vajont Law’ provided, for the reconstruction or expansion of disaster-stricken activities, public funding grants and loans with virtually unlimited subsidized rates for people in possession of licenses. Licenses that, according to the law, were transferable to third parties. People convinced by trusted ‘friends’, lawyers, geometers and accountants that, eyeing a deal, appeared in the homes of license holders, mostly street vendors of wooden spoons and slippers, ice-cream sellers, barbers, offering them small sums of money to buy the property: “Be smart, sell it now before it’s too late”. They had no interest in explaining to the owners the rights they would give up by signing that piece of paper. Nobody told them, for example, that the old business could be expanded without limitation of budget, that it could be converted into a new business, different from the original one. Over 90% of the survivors, many of them with debts to pay, accepted. Thanks to this law, Vajont became a profitable opportunity for those who were able to procure one or more of those licenses. Once in the possession of them, these people, for the most part free freelancers, proposed a large industrial complex. Companies that did not have any rights, not being involved in any way with the affected area, bought a license for hundreds of thousands of liras making millions out of the Government. In some cases with revenues of 10,000 times as much. Northern Italy became a land of conquest, a blank sheet to be rewritten and reinvented.
It has been more than half a century and the facts have become more and more distant over time. From that time, little or nothing remained. Miraculously the bell tower of a small church remained standing, a secular sequoia, a bell, and the statue of the Immaculate Virgin, patroness of the parish, founded over 100 km downstream on the bed of the Piave river. Longarone today is a modern and colorful town and the dam has turned into a tourist attraction. The survivors, as the only chance of survival, have learned to push the pain to the back of their minds, but that moment is and will always remain indelible on the skin. A unhealed wound, covered by a patch, under which the plague is still open and pulsating. The wave has broken their future and their life projects, leaving them socially and culturally to themselves. October 9, 1963 marked the end of the life lived up to that point and the need to restart another one from scratch, without affect, without socio-environmental references. An experience that affected their lives and those of their families. The survivors, the real ones, not the ones who have learned to do it “as a profession”, have never been able to talk about what happened, not even with their children. Many of them, still, do not want to talk about anything related to that night and all that has overwhelmed them since, preventing them from forgetting. They are wary of everyone and for this reason they are not united.
My grandmother, Placida, went to the cemetery, placing a flower and a red candle over my grandfather’s grave for over 40 years. His, among the two thousand, is one of 700 empty coffins. Those never resigned are especially people like her, those who, after the disaster, never found the body of their loved ones. Many had to be content with some sort of object, a jacket, a watch, a shoe. Many others, however, were left with nothing. She still wears black socks as a sign of mourning. She is only able to sleep a few hours a night, when she does not forget to take her pills, which she has on the bedside table, right next to my grandfather’s picture. In recent years, however, she no longer visits the symbolic resting place of my grandfather. She has not put a foot in the cemetery since they decided to restructure it “to give it a more presentable and decorative appearance”. It was cleansed of all the crosses. No more photos, the tombstones with the inscriptions posted by the relatives have been uprooted. The possibility of placing a flower has even been taken away and the right to feel those tombs as part of their heart. Another insult and a new pain for those who no longer even have a grave to cry on.
My mother was 12 when the wave snatched her father away. That night she was sleeping with her little sister; For her, it remains an indelible memory, the image and screams of my grandmother who, with that terrible whirling in the background, took them by the hand to run away.
“Your father is gone, we have to leave”, she said.
“We climbed barefoot to the top of the mountain and, once we arrived, we stood there motionless waiting for morning. The mist surrounded the valley and, even with the daylight, it was difficult to see what happened. Sometimes someone came by saying that down below there was nothing, but still we went back to find the house. Over the days to come your grandmother could not move, your aunt was too little, so it was up to me to take care of the supplies; going down to the village to pick up bread and milk. I remember the soldiers sifting for the victims between the earth and the mud. For months I woke up in the middle of the night finding myself, without knowing how, under the bedside table”.
Nobody ever asked them how they were, to talk and share the pain inside, to get rid of those crushing memories. The malaise of losing family, home, friends, a village, a church,roads, a culture, an entire dimension, but above all their own identity, has allowed the survivors to live with an unmistakable deficiency.
And then the silence.
It’s the greatest protagonist of this painful and infinite catastrophe. It always has been and still is. That silence that wounds the dead, the relatives, the survivors, the rescuers and all those who came after. The silence of political power and those who wanted to clash with nature. The desired and silent silence, that was convenient. A silence that covered what had already been buried by the mud. Still, the silence of a family, mine. For them, as for me, it’s a path, to get rid of a nightmare that began on that October 9th. A path to start talking again, to trust and to love.
Book By Mauro De Bettio