Don's Diary

June 1, 2001

I am one of several academics taking part in the Monte San Martino Trust sponsored walk from Sulmona to Sangro in the Abruzzi mountains.

In 1943, many Commonwealth prisoners fled south to Allied lines aided by local people. In reprisal, the Germans wiped out whole communities. The trust raises money for bursaries that commemorate and express gratitude by enabling young villagers to study abroad.

Crowd on to a bus with Brits from 13 to 81. Everyone is asking: "For whom are you here? Was your (grand)father a prisoner? Did he become a partisan?" Thursday

In Sulmona, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi - himself imprisoned in 1943 - starts us off. It is also a celebration of Italian identity, as Ciampi notes: "Up and down the country, Italians behaved humanely; we struck out for civilised values; our national values." Then it is all uphill. Fried in the heat, 400 of us struggle up goat tracks for three hours. Alpine Troop veterans sing opera choruses and marching songs, a distraction from the pain. Reach Campo di Giove, where we retire to campsite with communal showers in which Somerset Rugby Club, policemen, local schoolboys and professional gents sing and curse.

Get to know tent-fellows: Bill, stuntman ("died on the Titanic 20 times; sometimes I'm a star's bottom"); two squaddies; Sue, art lecturer; Bernardo, whose father hid escapees in his barn, and his children, Camilla and Filippo. At the Guado di Coccia pass, which our forefathers crossed in 2m of snow, we inaugurate a monument to the first-known killing of an Italian soldier trying to reach the Allies. Camilla is in awe: "This is history."

At each hamlet we are greeted by a band, bunting, clapping and homemade food. In the evening, the Alpine "vets" cook and I answer questions from Italian professors. How much do you earn? Are the English still brought up to despise Italians? Do they learn anything about our culture?

Palena. We gather round and hear a man describe how as a child he saw the Germans arrive and put a cross on every other door. Those with crosses were expelled. He saw his grandparents machine-gunned. The professoressa from Edinburgh weeps as she translates.

At Roccaraso, 122 women and children were slaughtered. We lay a wreath. At last we cross the River Sangro. Although exhausted and sodden, we are thinking about how easy it is for us compared with our fathers.

Concluding ceremony where this year's San Martino bursaries are awarded to students who have excelled in academic merit or community spirit. The veterans look happy. One says, "We owe these people our lives." He looks at me. "And so do you."

Hugo de Burgh is senior lecturer in media and communications, Goldsmiths College, London. His father was a fugitive in Italy in 1943. He is external verifier of the European University of Economics, Rome.

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