Tiny villages that dot the valley around the town of Amatrice, which was levelled by Wednesday’s earthquake, were home to generations of families who once farmed the land, but later moved to cities for work and now return for the holidays.
They are hamlets where children are free to play and roam day and night, without fear of traffic or strangers, because everyone knows everyone and keeps an eye out.
“The fear is that they will now be abandoned,” said Giancarla Celli, 50, standing outside the 300-year-old family villa that withstood the quake, but which has been badly damaged and is now unsafe, cracks zigzagging up its walls.
Most of the other homes in the hamlet of Sant’Angelo, where more than 100 people pass the hot summer months but which is sparsely populated in winter, have been reduced to rubble.
“I spent every summer here when I was a little girl,” she said, tearing up. “I have so many memories.”
Sant’Angelo, San Lorenzo e Flaviano, Saletta, Rio, Cossito, and Retrosi are some of the more than 60 small villages near Amatrice at risk of becoming permanent ghost towns, like many others in Italy following past earthquakes.
The Sicilian towns of Poggioreale, Gibellina, Salaparuta and Montevago were emptied after a 1968 quake, and deadly tremors have left a string of abandoned communities along Italy’s rocky, 1,200 km-long Apennine backbone.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government has promised to rebuild the devastated area, where at least 290 people died following Wednesday’s disaster.
However, red tape, corruption and organised crime have given Italy a terrible track record for post-quake reconstruction.
Complicating the matter is the fact that only an estimated 1% of Italian households buy earthquake insurance, the other 99 percent seeing it as an expensive luxury.
That means the cost on any rebuilding – probably running into the billions of euros – will have to be shouldered by a state that already has one of the highest debt mountains in the world that it is perennially struggling to keep under control.
Cemetery of rubble
“Sant’Angelo will end up a cemetery of rubble,” said Pasquale Belli, one of Giancarla’s neighbours, who drives about 150 km (95 miles) from Rome every weekend to get away from the chaos of the capital.
A little further down the leafy valley is the town of San Lorenzo e Flaviano, also badly damaged. Firemen used a metal basket on the end of a crane to lower themselves into the church, whose roof has collapsed, to rescue relics such as an antique icon and a broken crucifix.
While in the United States kids go to summer camp, during Italy’s long summer break, children often go to stay with grandparents in small towns like San Lorenzo where they forge a lifelong tie to both the place and the people.
“All of my most cherished childhood memories are from here,” said Barbara Bonifazi, 32, who lives and works in Rome but returns often to San Lorenzo.
“At night, you can see every star in the sky.”
Roberto Nibi, 67, is an architect who lives in Rome but was born in San Lorenzo. He was sleeping in the same room where he was born when the quake hit. “Imagine how ironic it would have been to have been killed in the same room I was born,” he said shaking his head. Luckily for him, his house withstood the jolt.
Nibi’s 31-year-old son Eduardo said the survival of the villages depends on whether Amatrice, the biggest town in the area with more than 2,000 residents, is rebuilt.
Voted one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Amatrice was hammered by the calamity, almost every house in the historic centre destroyed and even the school, which was meant to have been earthquake proofed, torn apart.
“That’s where the grocery stores, shops and restaurants were, and these little villages depended on it,” he said.
Back in Sant’Angelo, Giancarla holds up a picture of her great grandfather that she has saved from the family home. “He had 27 children,” she said.
The various strands of this large family, some of whom now live in the United States, visit the family home when they can, she said, and her elderly mother and aunts were spending the summer there when the earthquake smashed the night calm.
“My mother and her two sisters, 96, 88, and 83 years old, walked out of the house in the dark on their own,” she said.
“They are all very upset because they know they won’t see the house rebuilt in their lifetimes.”