Giuseppe Berto: Bombing produced cities of the dead
From The Sky Is Red (1947)
Translated by Angus Davidson
The boy said nothing. He looked at what could be seen beyond the policemen – houses wrecked and great plane trees with all their leaves torn off and the slope of the bridge rising to a certain point and then coming to an abrupt end. Father away, thick, dark smoke was rising from the fires and coming towards them, covering the whole sky…
There were dead bodies of women of all ages, some with children beside them with whom they had been found. Almost of all them had nothing on but a single garment reduced to rags, so that their naked flesh could be seen. And they all lay with their faces turned upwards, many with eyes staring and open, or half-open, and the whites of the eyes standing out clearly like china. There was a disgusting smell, of blood and dirty humanity and death.
The boy went in front, and the priest followed him all the time, avoiding the sight of the dead bodies. He murmured prayers, and his lips could be seen moving. They went down one line and back along the next. They were both rather pale, and were struggling with a feeling of nausea.
The people who had survived moved among the rows of the dead and the piles of rubble and the fire. Their faces were distorted, or indifferent, or dazed. They sought their dead and their belongings. From some places they were sent away, and then they returned again to search. There seemed to be some obscure purpose in the obstinate determination with which they searched. They rummaged among the ruins and put aside every kind of object, useful or useless, with equal care. Perhaps it was merely some little portion of their home, no matter what, that they were so anxious to find, so that they could carry it off somewhere else, to the new place, wherever it was, in which they were going to live…
Others, again, did not go anywhere. They stayed among the ruins; and they did not even search. They roamed about like crazy people, and when exhaustion overtook them they lay down on the ground to rest. They did not know where else to go. They had no wish to go anywhere.
And so the first day passed, and night came, and then another day, and the trains started to run again. The station no longer existed, but the torn tracks had been repaired. Laborers and soldiers had worked without ceasing to make good the damage, and now the trains could get through. And flames and smoke from the fires still covered the sky, and dead bodies still accumulated in the squares.
For two days the rescue parties continued to lay out corpses in rows in the Piazza Sant’Agnese and the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria. More than five thousand corpses were laid out in rows in the squares. Then they took them all away, including those which no one had come to identify. They had dug long graves near the boundary wall of the cemetery, and there they buried the dead. Five thousand dead. And others, perhaps seven thousand of them, remained beneath the ruins, and the search was abandoned. Just a few more were discovered, by chance, as the streets were cleared and toppling houses were demolished.
But there were some areas where they did not clear the streets nor demolish the toppling houses. There, it had been difficult to bring even the most urgently needed help, and only a few dead bodies had been collected. The rest remained where the bombing had caught them. And there the fires lasted until they went out of their own accord; and when at last they had gone out, men went in among the ruins and threw down large quantities of lime and disinfectants. Then they put barbed wire fences all around the area, and notice boards with “Infected Area” written in large letters on them, and huge skulls painted on them in black. People called these enclosures “cities of the dead.” Inside them were groups of half-wrecked houses, and corpses, and tottering walls behind which there was nothing, and uneven stretches of ruins, white and black from the lime and the smoke.