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Italy's minimalist G8 summit

Tent camp on outskirts of L'Aquila for people displaced by the earthquake

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent, L'Aquila

Switching the venue of this year's G8 summit to an active earthquake zone sounded like a hostage to fortune.

Why invite the world's most powerful leaders to perch on the same precarious spot of the Earth's crust which in April killed 300 people and left 60,000 others homeless?

Just think what global chaos would ensue if - mid session - the ground opened up and swallowed them all.

When the town of L'Aquila was rocked by a new - though less powerful - set of tremors last Friday, the summit's prospects began to look decidedly dicey.

'A good idea'

In the town centre many buildings were already cracked and cordoned off. On every corner caved-in roofs and ripped-out walls hinted at the prospect of new collapses to come. It felt as though at any minute it could all start to shake again.

George Clooney in L'Aquila
George Clooney and other celebrities also pitched up in L'Aquila

I had visions of us journalists stuck, incommunicado and cowering under tables in the so-called media village. Reporters turned refugees, caught in a new disaster zone, while summit leaders were airlifted out to Rome.

But in the event, nothing happened. Not a tremble.

To my surprise earthquake survivors living in local tent camps thought the summit an excellent idea.

What better way to draw attention to the fact their lives had been reduced to rubble, than to pull in the likes of George Clooney and other celebrity hangers-on who tend to pitch up at major summits.

At one formal function, the eyes of a weary Barack Obama glazed over and his shoulders slumped. Not just us hacks, it seems, were getting by on hard mattresses with very little sleep

"My home won't get repaired for another three or four years. The entire tower block fell on top of it. Any publicity is welcome," said one woman, Anna, sitting with her neighbours under a sun parasol outside her blue canvas home.

The pathway between the tents was lined with drying washing and children's bicycles. A hand-painted notice, decorated in big childish crayon, announced it was Butterfly Row.

There was also Cat Alley, and Moon Street, all clearly marked. An air of semi-permanence had set in.

Roughing it?

In keeping with the earthquake tragedy, the summit itself had an air of austerity. So different from the usual lavish attempts to promote a country at its best.

Man plays a flute during a G8 protest
As usual protests punctuated G8 proceedings

President Putin revamped an entire 18th Century palace in St Petersburg. Tony Blair took over one of Scotland's grandest hotels.

But Italy's Silvio Berlusconi commandeered the local barracks of the Finance Police and required world leaders and their delegations to sleep in dormitories on site.

"How is the accommodation for VIPs?" I asked one UN official.

He sighed and replied wearily: "It's not quite what we're used to."

He was lucky. Some of the journalists unable to find places to stay locally were reduced to begging space among the tents of the earthquake refugees. Our BBC team drove back nightly over the mountains to a village two hours away.

Also minimalist and unpredictable were the communications facilities. It was almost impossible to find out schedules or contact numbers for delegations. The only truly reliable information was the time of the prime minister's late afternoon press conference.

Barack Obama (left) meets African leaders and others
Many other countries were represented beside core G8 members

That you could not avoid. On large screens, beaming down at you would be the unmistakable jovial grin of Mr Berlusconi.

And if you did miss it, never mind. It was played over and over again.

Press conferences by those with critical views, like the so-called G5 group of emerging countries (India, Brazil, China, South Africa and Mexico)seemed to occur with almost no prior warning or publicity.

It was almost as though these Asian and Latin American giants were G8 dissidents, deliberately kept to the fringe.

The same world

One morning we arrived at the media centre to find the broadband connection we were using had been cut off. Local Italian technicians claimed it was on the orders of the Italian authorities.

Carla Bruni, wife of the French president, tours the ruins in L'Aquila
Many summiteers took the opportunity to tour the ruins of L'Aquila

A few hours later it was restored. But in situations like this, you soon start to get paranoid. Was this an attempt to control our output to what could be monitored?

Probably not, but - instead of the usual eagerness for media coverage - it felt distinctly odd to be prevented from telling the world what was going on.

In some ways this new "bare bones" G8 style suits the mood of the moment.

For a change the journalists were not kept 50 miles away from the leaders, or worse - as has happened - sequestered on a separate island.

The summiteers were a short walk away. It felt as though we could keep them under our gaze.

At one formal function, the eyes of a weary Barack Obama glazed over and his shoulders slumped. Not just us hacks, it seems, were getting by on hard mattresses with very little sleep.

This year, in L'Aquila, we were all part of the same world.



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