Marina Catena is an military officer and a humanitarian and she has just become the first woman in the Italian army to receive the French Order of Merit.
It was awarded for her peacekeeping and humanitarian aid work in Kosovo, Iraq and Lebanon and most recently after the earthquake in L’Aquilla, Italy.
Currently the head of the UN’s World Food Programme based in Paris, Marina Catena has also written two books about her experiences, donating the proceeds from sales to a multi-ethnic school in Kosovo and an orphanage for girls in Lebanon.
euronews went to talk to her.
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Marina Catena, welcome to euronews. Congratulations on the honour bestowed on you by the French government. What does it represent for you, as a woman and as an Italian?”
Marina Catena: “It was a really great thing for me. Because I am the first female Italian soldier to receive this French decoration. France is, in a way, my chosen country, the country with the language that I like most, where I spent time as an Erasmus student in Strasbourg; the country where I worked as a stewardess for Air France, the first non-French stewardess employed by Air France. It’s the country which has taught me how to live somewhat without borders. So, it’s a country to which I am profoundly grateful and getting this medal filled me with joy.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “You studied languages under the Erasmus programme in Strasbourg, you worked for the European Commission; you speak five languages. Do you feel European, Italian? How do you see Europe?”
Marina Catena: “I feel myself to be above all European. I think I’m really a product of the Europe of the Nineties. I was one of the first Italian girls to take part in the Erasmus programme. I believe strongly in Europe. And I must say that I get very saddened when I meet people who don’t understand what Europe is all about.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Between 1996 and 1999 you worked for ECHO, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Organisation, in charge of communications. Why didn’t you continued that career path within European institutions?”
Marina Catena: “I think that in Brussels I learned how to work in international humanitarian aid communications. But after that I wanted to do something, in that field, that was more hands on. I wanted to see for myself how humanitarian aid works. I spent two years in Kosovo alongside Bernard Kouchner. I saw women who had been raped, I saw the KLA
– Kosovo Liberation Army – soldiers, the Italian workers who were rebuilding the railways. I saw Europe working in Kosovo. We must not forget that Kosovo’s economic base was rebuilt thanks to the European Commission.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “You want to promote peace and be a humanitarian, so why become a soldier?”
Marina Catena: “It was my dream as a child. I come from a part of the Italian region of Abruzzo, called Ortona Mare, where there is a cemetery for Canadian soldiers killed during World War II. When I was child, I walked through that cemetary and it really inspired me. I think these two worlds – humanitarian and military – even though they look at each other with mutual suspicion, need each other. I saw that in Kosovo. The dialogue between civilians and soldiers was halting, very difficult. And then, gradually, this dialogue improved. The NGO
s came to understand that they needed to collaborate with the military. That can seem strange, but I believe that, with regard to the current conflicts, only dialogue between humanitarians and soldiers can produce real collaboration.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “While you were with ECHO
, you were one of those behind the campaign called “A flower for the women of Kabul” and in Kosovo, you focused very much on women’s causes. Should women deal with women in conflict zones?”
Marina Catena: “Yes, I think so. We have a different sensitivity, as women. We know what it means to suffer in a particular way. We know how we would feel if it were us, if these women were our sisters or our daughters. Therefore, I think that women – in my case, a woman who lives in a male world – make a contribution through our femininity. I was aware of that in Lebanon, where there was a regiment of woman soldiers – Team Delta. They escort the local Lebanese women. Why? Because if a male soldier were to touch a Shiite woman, there would be a diplomatic incident. Therefore, we women have the power to speak with other women.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Looking at the pictures of you in uniform, you’re the only woman.”
Marina Catena: “That’s true. It is true. All my life, I find I’m the only woman. Right now, approximately one percent of all the soldiers in the world are women, just one percent. There is a UN resolution that asks countries to increase the number of women in their peacekeeping missions. That’s because, as I say, we have a very important role being so close to the local people.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Does a woman soldier have feelings?”
Marina Catena: “Very many, very many. As I wrote in my book, one can also fall in love in the army. We have feelings about what we left behind. We even have feelings of guilt. Because, like my male colleagues, I’ve left behind a family, children who grow up; we’re gone for five, six month. I think being a soldier is a job for romantics.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Do you have a husband, children?”
Marina Catena: “I never wanted to marry. I didn’t, but I never wanted to get married. I am a free spirit, I recognise that. I am engaged to a person who – how can I say? – understand me very well, supports me – if they didn’t, it would not be possible. I believe we must be sincere with our decisions and I do not think that my life is one – how can I say? – where I can be married and have children.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “You were recently in L’Aquila, for the G8 meeting there. What were your thoughts when you saw that region, which you come from, so devastated by the earthquake?”
Marina Catena: “I’ve seen so much places devastated by war. But to see my own land, that’s different. I remember when I arrived that morning, and I cried every time I arrived in the centre of at L’Aquila. Taking part in the G8 was an extraordinary experience, to see that the world understood Italy’s decision to hold this political event in an earthquake crater.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Now you are the director of the UN’s World Food Programme, don’t you miss being on the ground?”
Marina Catena: “I’ll tell you something: I think that things are strange in the field, but when you return to a normal life, like here in Paris, something is missing, the adrenalin. I think that humanitarian aid has nothing to do with location. You can carry on the fight just as well from Paris. We must keep fighting, every day, so that relief from hunger around the world goes on, and the issue stays on the agenda of the world’s decision makers.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “Among all the things you’ve seen in the world, what did you find most shocking?”
Marina Catena: “Of course, the attack on our soldiers at Nassiria. On December 12, 2003, 19 Italian soldiers were attacked at our military base, in Nassiria, in the south of Iraq. They were my friends, I’d spent the previous evening with them. And when I was attacked in Pristina, in April 2000. You get to realises that life is, in large part, a matter of chance.”
Dulce Dias – euronews: “And what is your best memory?”
Marina Catena: “There are many. But I think the loveliest was these young Lebanese girls, in Al-Bazzuria, a small village in southern Lebanon, full of very bright flowers. These girls came over to me and told me that they wanted to become UN peacekeepers. I lent them my blue helmet, they tried it on, the UN blue helmet. So, I think that our role as women, when we are in these countries, is also to make it possible for people to understand that there is another world, another life, that exists. Which they can reach, gradually. It’s a gradual process to move from a burka to a uniform.”