I saw my grandfather crying once. Only once. He was telling a wartime story. In 1943, he was 17 and enlisted in the Italian navy. On 8th of September, the Allies signed the armistice with the Italian government. The civil war had started. Granddad was in Venice at the time. The Italian army had no orders from central government and northern Italy was occupied by Nazi forces. He had two choices: joining the fascist army in northern Italy or run away. Granddad and a group of fellow youngsters decided for the latter option. Maybe it was fear, maybe hope, maybe it was the recklessness only 17-year-olds can muster.
It was a dangerous journey. He was a deserter and the Nazi occupiers were not exactly a conciliatory bunch. After many adventures, he reached Civitavecchia where he hoped to board a ship back to Sardinia. I’m sure he must have known fear, but his tale was always upbeat. There was almost a hint of self-complacency. We asked what was Civitavecchia like. The town was still occupied by Germans and grandad had to hide. In the meantime, the British were bombing the area. And as his memory went back to the bombings, the sirens, the shelters, civilians dying, buildings reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds, something inside him broke. He started crying. He could bear going back to his escape from Venice, the perilous journey through occupied Italy, hiding in Civitavecchia, but the bombings were still an open wound. I don’t know why, but I can try to imagine. The explanation I have given myself is that somehow he had agency over his desertion and his journey but he had no power whatsoever over death falling upon you from the sky. A faceless enemy, constant fear, not knowing what you would find when you come out of the shelter.
Years later, I found out that Grandad took medications for anxiety all his life. He rejoined the navy after the war, but he quit in the early Sixties, probably because of his panic attacks. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I can’t help wondering to what extent the war had shaped him.
Family stories emerge as I watch the news coming from Aleppo, as I think about the displaced, the dead, the injured, the city in rubbles. Even if the war ended tomorrow, reconstruction would take decades and it would only fix the material damage. The memory of violence shapes individuals and communities. Aleppo will never be the same again. Scars will be visible, wounds will remain open, survivors will wake up in the middle of the night paralysed by fear, they will have panic attacks and burst into tears many decades from now. Just like my Grandad.
I would like to write about my extraordinary first term at Exeter, about my students, about teaching, research, about the exciting feminist theorists I’m studying, but everything seems redundant now. All I can do now is contemplate the senseless violence humankind is capable of. I think about the survivors, racking my brain for solutions, focusing on the minuscule acts of charity within my reach. All I can do is think about the living, hold my loved ones close. Time will come for philosophy, for art, for beauty. Not now. Not yet.