Nato dump: the poisoned paradise

On Sardinia, the military and defense companies test weapons. Residents die of cancer, children are born without fingers. Now a prosecutor is investigating for murder.

Salto di Quirra has served as a shooting and scrap yard for decades. The German arms company MBB is said to have tested uranium rockets there for the Bundeswehr. Picture: Pitzente Bianco

The prosecutor Domenico Fiordalisi wants now first of all 10,000 sheep, goats and cattle expelled. They should no longer graze in Salto di Quirra, on the military training area in southeastern Sardinia. The livestock farmers are upset. But if Fiordalisi were to be intimidated by this, he would be the wrong man for this whole affair anyway.

When Domenico Fiordalisi moves in public, three men with large-caliber pistols under their shirts accompany him.

The prosecutor’s office of Lanusei, Italy’s smallest provincial capital, sits in a beige functional building. When Fiordalisi walks into his cool office on this sunny evening, he ducks his head. The door jambs are low, and Fiordalisi is quite a giant.

The island: Sardinia is the second largest Mediterranean island after Sicily. It has had the status of an autonomous region in Italy since 1948. The capital is Cagliari. 1.7 million people live on the island. It is the richest region in the Italian south – or the poorest in the north.

Military: Of the 16 restricted military areas on Sardinia, the "Poligono Sperimentale e di Addestramento Interforze del Salto di Quirra" is the largest, encompassing the mainland portion with headquarters at Perdasdefogu and the maritime base at Capo San Lorenzo. With the sea area regularly closed, it has an area of 28,000 square kilometers and is larger than the island itself.

The German Armed Forces: Since 1960, the German Air Force has maintained the Decimomannu military airfield on Sardinia. With NATO partners, it hosts air combat training there, and nearly every German flying unit deploys detachments to the island for two weeks a year.

The uranium: DU munitions are made from depleted uranium, a cheap waste product of the nuclear industry. DU stands for the English "depleted uranium." The temperatures and forces generated by the impact are so high that the projectile melts and partially atomizes. As a result of the ignition, melting and atomization of the uranium, carcinogenic suspended particles are released into the ambient air – and thus also into the lungs and stomachs of humans and animals.

The prosecutor has just seized the largest restricted military area in Europe: Salto di Quirra. And he is investigating its former commander for murder. The military training area is almost as large as the German city of Darmstadt, 116 square kilometers. Military operations may continue there for the time being. The land may only no longer be used as pasture.

So now farmers are protesting. But many cheese dairies refuse to make the hard cheese pecorino sardo from the milk of sheep that give birth to lambs with eyes behind their ears anyway.

Prosecutor receives death threats

In fact, the farmers are probably the least of Domenico Fiordalisi’s problems. For decades, a citizens’ initiative has denounced the high death rate due to cancer in the area surrounding the training ground. And at the very beginning of Fiordalisi’s confiscation order, one finds a suspicion against a German arms company and the Bundeswehr. It is about uranium warheads. Which is why Domenico Fiordalisi contacted German authorities.

For many, Fiordalisi is the last hope after years of silence. Others spray death threats against him on house walls.

50,000 euros per hour, the prosecutor has been told, is what companies pay to the Italian Ministry of Defense to have any substances rise into the Sardinian sky, penetrate the soil and water that only they know about.

Serene as a bear, Fiordalisi sits in the bright office with its practical leather furniture. On the desk, everything is in order. Only under the table do Fiordalisi’s feet become restless when he asks some questions.

The place that seems to make him a little nervous after all is in the mountains of Sardinia. The countryside would make a good backdrop for a Karl May movie. Thyme and lavender grow among crooked cork oaks. High granite rocks, steep ravines, dilapidated houses.

Largest NATO military training area in Europe

The huge dome of a radar facility arches on a hill. Hidden here is part of NATO’s largest restricted military area, which extends far into the sea. "Crown jewel" is what Italian generals call it. There is a missile launch site on the site. The Bundeswehr used Salto di Quirra in the 1980s. Other European NATO partners, Turkey and Israel test weapons systems.

In Lanusei that evening, the prosecutor is wearing an off-the-rack gray and blue suit. His shirt is open one button further than one would expect of an official – even in Lanusei, 595 meters above sea level, it is still 35 degrees at seven in the evening.

Domenico Fiordalisi knows that he is walking a fine line. Prosecutors in Italy are quickly stylized as heroes or declared communists. They make careers in television and politics – like Antonio Di Pietro, once chief investigator in the donations affair that destroyed the Italian party landscape in the 1990s. Today, Di Pietro is chairman of the anti-Berlusconi "Italy of Values" party.

According to a recent poll, more than half of Italians trust the prosecutor’s office. There is now the Facebook page "Support for Domenico Fiordalisi." Those who are lifted so high can fall low.

Fiordalisi has only been in the mountain village of Lanusei, with its 6,000 inhabitants, for three years. It’s probably not the career high this man from a prestigious legal family dreamed of. Fiordalisi investigated the Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, in Calabria in the nineties.

He has also uncovered organized crime structures in Sardinia since taking office in the summer of 2008. As a result, his wife had her car tires slashed. Someone put an envelope with bullets in front of his house.

The prosecutor receives a complaint from the vets

The local press writes that Fiordalisi made a mistake: taking the dusty files out of the cupboards and stubbornly working through the cases.

Domenico Fiordalisi has been in the judicial service since 1986. He has survived several disciplinary proceedings during this time, and in the end he has always been fully exonerated.

Probably that made him cautious, at least that’s what he sounds like: "In January of this year I received a complaint from veterinarians from the health departments of Lanusei and the capital of the Sardinia region, Cagliari: veterinarians who had made an investigation into deformities in animals grazing in the area of the Salto di Quirra military firing and training range," he says.

"The headquarters of this restricted area is located in the municipality of Perdasdefogu, which belongs to the province of Ogliastra and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the Lanusei Prosecutor’s Office. Therefore, there was a need for us to initiate a criminal investigation.

The deformities were considerable and suggested possible radioactive contamination – for example by uranium munitions used by NATO in wars, but – according to their own statement – not by the Italian armed forces.

The German armed forces also practice on the island

Since foreign troops and private companies also conduct tests in the area, suspicion could not be ruled out." The foreign troops included the German Bundeswehr.

Fiordalisi continues, "Uranium was then found in the bones of a lamb that belonged to a herd grazing on the site. This was the site of the central disposal point for the weapons of the entire Italian Air Force.

Further, the investigations revealed that the blast site had been used intensively from 1984 to 1989, and then only in a limited way until 2008, and was contaminated with metallic nanoparticles that, according to our information, are carcinogenic." The prosecutor recites this calmly and matter-of-factly, as if he has told it many times. "That’s what we’re dealing with, nothing else," he says.

Fiordalisi has ordered more than twenty exhumations of deceased herders – a measure that is causing considerable unrest. Livestock breeders have paraded with sheep in front of his office, accompanied by peasant officials, mayors and ex-militants. They demanded an extension of the eviction deadline. Decent people exercising their rights, Fiordalisi says, not chaos.

Mariella Cao has been fighting against the military presence for over twenty years.

He is a man of order. In Germany, he would be called a right-winger. But Italy is different, and Sardinia anyway. Strange coalitions arise here – for example, between someone like Fiordalisi and someone like Mariella Cao.

Mariella Cao has been fighting the Poligono, the training ground, for more than twenty years. She is 60 years old, very slender and seems almost fragile. With slender fingers, she brushes a strand of hair from her face and lights a cigarette. Her voice is deep, she speaks quickly. Cao barely gets to drink from the iced tea that stands in front of her in the cafe in Cagliari.

In 1956, the military had confiscated the land for the military test site, but had to continue to grant the landowners the right to use it. The communities received compensation payments. The poorhouse of Ogliastra did not become a rich area.

But Cao knows people who previously had nothing to eat and who could now even send their children to school because of the training area. The bond between the military and the population in the area is strong, also because of numerous marriages.

Sometimes military people ask the farmers for help. Once they had a missile recovered by ox cart. At the entrance to the village of Perdasdefogu, a mural tells the story.

The teacher calls it military enslavement

Since the mid-nineties, Cao has worked as a primary school teacher in the village of Villaputzu. Rumors of strange deaths persisted. In 1999, a young soldier died of cancer. He had returned from a NATO mission in Bosnia.

"That’s when people first heard about uranium munitions, which NATO troops also used in former Yugoslavia," Cao recalls. One conscript died of leukemia. His parents approached the mayor. No one wanted to hear their story.

The military leadership dismissed the story, calling it a tragic isolated case, and again referred to the NATO missions. Although the young conscript had never been stationed outside the island.

The weapons that Nato used in its missions had been tested on the island for decades, Cao says. She founded the initiative "Gettiamo le basi," which means "get rid of the bases," but also "lay the foundation for something new."

Cao found fellow campaigners such as the medical scientist Antonietta Gatti, who has been researching the consequences of military pollution for years. Gatti specialized in the pollution caused by nanoparticles that are dispersed in the atmosphere during weapons explosions. Together, they increased pressure on politicians. A parliamentary committee of inquiry was set up.

For some, it all fits into thousands of years of history: the Carthaginians, the Romans. Genoa, Pisa, the Catalans. They had all colonized the Sardinians. And then Sardinia also became a military dumping ground for NATO and the nation state. Mariella Cao speaks of military enslavement.

A nurse calls the malformed baby a "monster".

Now Domenico Fiordalisi is investigating, and Cao doesn’t really know if she should be happy. For now he has ordered what the military has always wanted, Cao says. The shepherds and their animals should disappear. If the shooting continues without witnesses, but the land remains occupied: What then has Mariella Cao gained?

Stefano Artitzu, whose daughter is missing five fingers, can see the radar tower in Salto di Quirra from his house. He lives in Escalaplano, a village of 2,500 people. Artitzu runs his small photography business here. He is 50, tall and slim. Artitzu wears a dark shirt and a gold bracelet. He looks older, his teeth would need to be done.

Artitzu is not against military and bases in Sardinia in principle. He is not a pacifist. He is just angry because of all the lies. His daughter was born 18 years ago without fingers on her right hand. At the time, he and his wife didn’t care. Fate. The daughter was as happy as other people, Daniela is her name.

Occasionally he heard shepherds tell of deformed lambs. But it took years before they also heard about other malformed children. That’s when they first got together, exchanged ideas. In 1988 alone, 14 newborns were born with deformities. Artitzu tells of the "monster." That’s what the nurse called a baby she saw in his mother’s arms at the clinic. They, the local residents, tried to find out the causes.

Nobody helped them. Not the health department, not the administration, not the church. When more and more deformities appeared, they had turned to the press. The mayor of Escalaplano at the time insulted the small activist group, saying it was throwing mud at his town.

Work beats health in Sardinia

Artitzu says it is fear of politics that protects the Poligono. A hundred people from Escalaplano lived off the grassroots. Work beats health. "My sister died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was nine," Artitzu says, looking off into the distance. Cancer.

And then came Domenico Fiordalisi, the new prosecutor. Artitzu made a statement. He handed over material to the authorities, newspaper articles. And a malformed lamb. "I had that in my cellar for a year, preserved in formalin." Artitzu smiles proudly like a little boy. All his hopes are now pinned on Domenico Fiordalisi’s investigation.

"We have our ways there." The prosecutor smiles confidently. His institution, the "Magistratura," has made contact with Germany to find out more about the Kormoran missiles made by the German arms manufacturer Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blom, or MBB, that were shot down by Tornados of the German air force.

Fiordalisi is still a little offended that Giancarlo Carrusci spoke to the press first, not to him, the prosecutor. The press immediately elevated Carrusci to "super witness." "But of course," Fiordalisi says he considers the witness "very credible."

MBB tested Kormoran missiles for German armed forces

Former Captain Giancarlo Carrusci sits at his desk, in the basement of his house in a suburb of Cagliari: "Reinforced concrete," he laughs, "no cell phone reception." And bug-proof. Carrusci, 60, wears a polo shirt, sailing shoes and an accurately trimmed mustache.

He’s an energy conservation consultant. From 1976 to 1992, he was in charge of operational activities at Quirra. "All missile launches have to be meticulously planned to make sure the population is not endangered."

Carrusci says the defense company MBB also tested weapons on Poligono. Today, MBB is part of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, Europe’s second-largest defense contractor. MBB had been developing the Kormoran, an air-launched anti-ship missile, for the German armed forces since 1962. In the early eighties, tests began for the "Kormoran 2" version.

"The plan was to launch three missiles," Carrusci recalls. At the briefing, he says, were engineers from MBB and four Tornado pilots from the German Air Force. They had wanted to analyze the penetrating power of the missiles into a steel-reinforced ship. To do this, a Bundeswehr Tornado fired the missile at the target, with the second fighter jet flying behind to document the launch.

The downed ship has now disappeared

"The missiles had warheads with uranium munitions," Carrusci says. He could tell by the smoke from the explosion, he said. Normally, he says, the smoke is gray. However, the hotter the temperatures, the lighter it becomes, he said. "In these two launches, the smoke was very white; it must have gotten 2,000 to 3,000 degrees."

temperatures that no normal rocket can develop. The first attempt in the fall of 1988 had failed, the rocket landed in the water. The impact site forty kilometers away in the sea off Porto Corallo has since been called "secca dei tedeschi", "shoal of the Germans".

The second attempt in October 1989 had worked better. The missile hit the target. The ship was secured and the missile was fixed in the position it had hit. Then the ship was towed into the port of Cagliari, into the military cordoned-off area. There the trace is lost – the missile and the ship have disappeared.

A fact that also preoccupies the public prosecutor. But more than twenty years later, it is difficult to find any useful evidence. That is why Fiordalisi has asked the German judiciary for assistance.

It is a morning at the end of June. In the historic Council Chamber of the Provincial Government in Piazza Palazzo in Cagliari, the Italian nature conservation association Legambiente has convened a meeting on the "Quirra case". About sixty listeners have come. Pictures from Sardinian history decorate the walls.

What game are the local politicians playing?

Mayors, scientists and deputies are supposed to enlighten the citizens. Is the soil, the water really radioactively contaminated? Does the Poligono have to be closed?

The politicians are evasive. What is hypocrisy, what is helplessness? Does the mayor of Villaputzu really believe that the poligono can be cleaned up in half a year? Does no one here know that in Germany and the U.S., similar facilities lie dormant behind barbed wire for decades until people start thinking about reuse?

Mariella Cao sits on a wooden bench in the audience and calls out again and again. "Cao, what do you want again," someone replies from the podium.

One senses in this historic council chamber what the difficulties are in Domenico Fiordalisi’s investigation. Things could get even tougher in Germany.

A spokesman for the German Defense Ministry says it does not comment "on alleged investigations by a foreign authority."

The EADS group does confirm that MBB developed the Kormoran missiles for the Bundeswehr. But the spokesman says, "I can definitely rule out the possibility that MBB or EADS ever used uranium munitions." He then refers to the Air Force.

The Bundeswehr refers to the Ministry of Defense

No, says the spokesman of the Press and Information Center, they do not want to comment. No, a visit to the Decimomannu air base in Sardinia is not possible, he says. Then he remains on the line. He is told a little about what is happening on the island.

The spokesman is silent, but doesn’t hang up. Is he sure that the Bundeswehr does not know about the deaths and deformities around Quirra? After all, German soldiers and their families are stationed there. At some point, the spokesman decides that the Ministry of Defense should deal with this.

It is half past eight in Domenico Fiordalisi’s office. The evening light falls ever more mildly through the large windows. The best thing to do in Germany is to treat the cormorant issue in a sober manner, says the prosecutor. That is always most effective.

Pitzente Bianco, 48, has supported the research significantly.

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