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Milan refuses to remove statue of journalist who had Eritrean child bride

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Red paint is seen on a statue of late Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, in Milan, northern Italy, Sunday, June 14, 2020
Red paint is seen on a statue of late Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, in Milan, northern Italy, Sunday, June 14, 2020   -   Copyright  Antonio Calanni/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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The colonial past of a highly revered Italian journalist has become a flashpoint in Italy's Black Lives Matters protests. Detractors defaced a statue in his honour and sought its removal from a city park near where he was once attacked by the far-left Red Brigades.

Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala on Sunday resisted calls to remove the statue of the late Indro Montanelli, who had acknowledged having had a 12-year-old Eritrean bride during Italy’s colonial occupation in the 1930s.

Sala said in a Facebook video that he was perplexed by “the lightness” with which Montanelli had confessed to having bought the child bride from her father, in a widely circulated video of a 1969 talk show appearance. But he said “lives should be judged in their totality.”

“Montanelli was more than that. He was a great journalist, a journalist who fought for the liberty of the state, an independent journalist. Maybe for these reasons he was shot in the legs,” Sala said, referring to the 1977 attack on Montanelli by two members of the Red Brigades terror organization near the park that now bears his name. “For these reasons, I think the statue should remain.”

Black Lives Matters protests has put a renewed focus on Italy's colonial past, with calls to remove the Montanelli statue and rename the park. Activists also are pushing for automatic citizenship to foreigners born in Italy to parents with permanent residency and to do away with laws that limit immigration.

Over the weekend, protesters covered the statue with red paint and scrawled “racist” and “rapist” on the base. The statue has been covered previously in pink paint in feminist protests, but this is the first time that Montanelli’s past has faced a serious reckoning.

On Sunday, city workers and volunteers removed the graffiti and paint and covered the statue with plastic. Italian special operations police were investigating who was responsible, the LaPresse news agency reported.

Later, a group calling itself the Milan Student Network claimed responsibility in a video showing two people wearing hoods and gloves defacing the statue.

Subjective truths

The defacing sparked a huge debate in Italy on whether this kind of protest is acceptable.

An Italian writer known as Wu Ming 2, from the Wu Ming activist group, which published a handbook on non-violent urban-war techniques concerning names of public places, believes that "urban space is also a space of conflict."

"Statues have always been torn down just like they've always been built", he told Euronews, adding that "it is wrong to insist on teaching that people [the protesters] how they should demonstrate against something that they believe is wrong".

"I'm a white European male. The way I feel [about that statue] is different from the way somebody else, who knows that statue is linked to a racist past, may react".

"You can't go to those people and say 'look, you don't understand, or you can't impose your will on others'. That would be just like trying to explain to somebody who was raped what sexual violence is. I would never dare to do so".

At the same time, he argues that the current debate on statues can't be boiled down to a mere decision on whether it is right or wrong to remove them,

"It is possible to choose every single time. We don't necessarily have to decapitate thousands-year-old relics. The best weapon is ingenuity".

Mariana Eugenia Califano, from the Resistenze in Cirenaica cultural group, argues that the narrative of history is always a subjective matter.

"History is made of narratives. The problem arises when we only have a dominant narrative, which freezes, and whose predominance is accepted with no interferences."

"History and memory keep changing. That's why I don't believe you can make a net distinction [on what can or cannot be the object of a debate]."

According to Califano, choices like erecting a statue or naming a street are always political.

"The city is used like a chessboard upon which political consensus can be won. It's a symbolic battlefield, and everybody fights with the weapons they have".

Legacy

Montanelli, who died in 2001 at age 92, was honoured by the Vienna-based International Press Institute in 2000 as among the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes.

A noted foreign and war correspondent, Montanelli chronicled contemporary Italy from its colonial-era through fascism, Italy’s postwar reconstruction and the anti-corruption scandals that overturned Italy’s political class in the 1990s.

He worked for many years at Corriere della Sera, before becoming the founding editor of Silvio Berlusconi’s il Giornale. He famously quit the paper when the media mogul became a politician. He mentored some of today’s top Italian journalists.

But his legacy is being challenged by his having taken a child bride when he 24 years old and leading a battalion of 100 Eritreans during the Fascist regime’s colonial rule.

One of his protégés, Beppe Severgnini, wrote in Corriere della Sera this week that “while toppling a statue of a dictator can be a gesture of liberation, removing the statue of a free journalist stinks of fanaticism.”

The child bride

Montanelli himself, on several public occasions, freely acknowledged the relationship with the girl named Desta.

“I think I chose well. She was a beautiful girl of 12 years,” Montanelli told the 1969 talk show appearance, adding a smiling “excuse me. But in Africa it was another thing.”

The Eritrean-born journalist, Elvira Banotti, who was in the audience, challenged his romantic account, accusing him of rape and of “violent” colonialist behaviour.

He defended himself, saying there was no rape because girls in Eritrea married at the age of 12, but acknowledged that it would have been considered rape in Europe. “What difference is there physically, or psychologically?” Banotti pressed.

Montanelli, writing in Corriere della Sera in 2000 in response to a letter from a reader, put the girl's age at 14 and said she married an Eritrean after he left, and named her first of three children Indro. He travelled to Eritrea in 1952, and she “received me like a father,” he wrote.

“I hope I haven't scandalized you,” he wrote, in conclusion, to the 18-year-old who solicited the account. “If I have, it's your fault.”