Michele Curatolo – Water and sand


On the first days of February 1941 the desert climate was already hot. The dispatch riders, two bersaglieri covered with sand as far as their eyes, reached us at dawn in our camp, north of Antelat, on the rocky ridge overlooking the caravan routes along the Cyrenaica desert depression. We officers formed a circle, excluding the troop. The bersaglieri stepped inside and made their report.
They told us they had moved during the night to avoid the English vanguard squads. As the Tenth Army HG could not use radio communications not to let the enemy know their position, they had recourse to riders to communicate with the units deployed on the plateau. With few, short words the bersaglieri informed us that Derna had been captured two days before, and that the enemy was rapidly advancing westwards. General Graziani’s order to all units was to withdraw as quickly as possible towards Tripolitania.
«Don’t go to Benghazi. It’s not safe any more», eventually one of the two bersaglieri shouted as they were restarting their bikes to roar away to the caravan route leading to Antelat. «Take the coast road. Direction Agedabia.»

 Ours was a ragtag company, like a lot at that time. No more than seventy men, some mortars, a machine-gun, ammunitions, food and three lorries. After Tobruk had been lost, the company had been formed putting together the soldiers from the few surviving battalions of the Division Catanzaro, and a group of infantrymen from the Division Cirene, where Giorgio and I belonged to.
Giorgio was a lieutenant, and the only medical officer in the company. I was a lieutenant, too, but just a newly appointed officer. After the heavy blows received from the English in the first days of the Offensive, a lot of vacancies for officers had suddenly become available in the Army. The English firepower – I had seen their troops in action at Bardia for the first time, and then in Tobruk – was really unbearable for all of us. Their tanks were much bigger than ours. And how fast their units moved! They seemed to be everywhere.
One day, many years after, we all will have learnt in the history books that those English were “brave soldiers”. And we will have read of the genius of the Operation Compass, of the 7th Armoured Division Desert Rats, of Matilda tanks, and of General Richard O’Connor. But that was not the time for mutual respect. Respect is something that must be given willingly only when the war is over. At that time the English were just a tough and wild enemy, whose fire blew our soldiers to bits. They were more than enemies for us. They were death messengers. We feel no respect at all for those soldiers, no chivalry. I believe it was the same for them, too. Only rage and hatred in both sides, mixed with fear.

Giorgio and I were from Milan, both of us from Lambrate. We had known each other since when we were kids. We had attended all the schools together, from the primary to the high school. Then Giorgio had enrolled at the Medical School, and I had begun working with my father and my big brother at the agency we managed for Assicurazioni Generali insurance company.
When Mussolini had declared war on the British Empire and France, both of us were in the Army, Infantry. Later on, both of us applied for serving in the Libyan fighting zone. In a word, we were volunteers. We were fascists. We believed in fascism and, above all, in Mussolini. Not because we liked violence, as somebody would have said later, or because we hated democracy. We did not want to hit the Bolsheviks with clubs, or to teach unruly workmen good manners with castor oil. Those were behaviours of fanatics, of people belonging to the thugs’ squads. These things had happened long before, in the Twenties. Facts we did not know. Giorgio and I saw themselves as new fascists. We were modern fascists or, in the wake of Mussolini – he, an old member of the Socialist Party – we were revolutionary fascists. Since when we were kids fascism had conquered us for the sense of honour it had restored in our country, for its determination to oppose the abuses of the western powers, for the impulse of energy and youth it had infused into the Italian people.
But, above all, for its strength of rebellion against the old world, and for the attention that Mussolini had always reserved to the humble, the simple, the poor. Like his own, our fascism went towards the people. In short, the fascism that we wanted was certainly a dream of greatness, but also of prosperity, happiness, equality and wealth for all.

Yet, today, in our military camp on the desert plateau north of Antelat, we were not fascists any more. Or perhaps we were not as fascists as in the high school days, when every Mussolini’s move, every word, thrilled and filled us up with pride. At least, I was not a fascist any more. Not only because of the war. Even though war was a dreadful prospect, I was expecting it. I even considered it unavoidable, as a result of the hostility that the English and the French had displayed towards us for years.
No, it was not the war. It was the confusion, the disorder, the disgust of that Libya campaign which had nauseated me. Since when, six months before, I had landed at Tripoli, and had got in touch with the Army high ranks and the party members, I had seen too much slyness, too many thefts, too many exploitations. If any of them was able to obtain a little bit of power, you could be sure that they would use it for their personal gain.
What about the people? The people meant absolutely nothing to them. They were as blind. They made their millions in Tripoli, they had fun with embassy parties and parades, but they had definitely lost contact with the ordinary men. Nobody was so far from the people like the fascists in Tripoli. And where is Mussolini?, I asked myself. Did somebody tell him what was happening in Tripoli to the ideals of fascism? No, nobody told him. Surely he had no knowledge of all this. In Tripoli the party leaders were stealing our country’s money, were strutting like peacocks in their foolish khaki jackets and hackle hats, were fooling around with their girlfriends, and sometimes they had some local rebel hanged, only to attend the public executions as if they went to a show.
Meanwhile, in Cyrenaica, the Tenth Army soldiers, in disarray and badly conducted, were ceaselessly destroyed by the English fire. Where was our country’s urge towards a new destiny? Where was the modern fascism, my own and Giorgio’s fascism? No, now I did not believe in this corrupt and rotten fascism any more. I didn’t even believe in the Army. I believed in nothing. No more dreams of greatness, of prosperity, of wealth. Too much disgust, too much death, too much sand I had met, in Libya.

In those months Giorgio had changed, too. Differently from me, though. Otherwise, comparing with me, he seemed not to be annoyed by the Tripoli khaki-jacketed fools. Giorgio had got listless, weak, passive, to such an extent that I could hardly recognize the cheerful and lively friend with whom I had shared my twenties in this pale, distant officer, sometimes lost in an inexplicable daydream. Giorgio regained himself only in action, when he performed his duties perfectly. I have never met a better doctor than him, in total control, efficient, serious. But, when the battle was over, once again he lost himself.
Like me, he certainly was, or had been, a fascist. Like I had done, he too had admired, and perhaps was still admiring, Mussolini. Like I did, he too loved Italy. Still, since when we had come to Libya, it was as if some disease had seized him. A disease invisible even to a doctor like him, but very clear to me, from the moment when, in the Tripolitania training camps, more than once I had seen him looking at the desert at sunset, motionless and with dreaming eyes.
In my opinion the desert was the heat, the thirst, the sweat coating the uniform to my skin. It was chaos, it was dissolution, it was death of consumption or following an ambush. To Giorgio, on the contrary, the desert was an unlimited source of fascination. Since when we had been taken from Tripoli to Cyrenaica, and the war had brought us in desolate places, where the landscapes were so beautiful and fascinating, Giorgio had fallen under a spell. During the last month of war on the plateau, at sunset, when our company camped near some muddy water well, I often spotted him outside his tent, far from the other people, with a dazed look on his unshaven face, his deep blue eyes wide open, looking westwards at the large spaces of rocks and sand exploding of reddish shades under the setting sun.
Just the evening before the dispatch riders took us the order to withdraw, while he was contemplating the sunset in his usual attitude, I had crept silently near him and, for the first time, I had heard him speaking. He talked to himself, just like madmen are said to do, mumbling indistinctly something I didn’t catch. I remember that I thought, you’re gone, my friend. You will be the next to die. Of madness. And soon after I will die, too. Killed by the English.

The next day, at dawn, after the dispatch riders had left, there was no time left for daydreaming. The whole company, officers and troops, had instantly realized that the only chance of salvation was retreating as soon as possible. After giving our orders to the units, we prepared to move, even if it was clear that we wouldn’t go too far: the coast road, that would have led us to Tripolitania, was almost 200 kilometres away. With the petrol left, we could go no more than 150 or just a little more. We had to cover the rest of the distance marching in the desert. The petrol shortage was one of the worst plagues of that war. We were 70 people, with arms, food, ammunitions, and lorries: but we had not enough petrol, because our commanders had swiped it all to run away to the sea coast as quickly as they can. It was sure that we will have run out of petrol, even though – so we actually did – we had left one of our three lorries to its fate.
Ironically enough, the two lorries left stopped four hours later, more or less in the same place, some hundreds metres far from one another. We officers had already realized that our calculations had been wrong, because we had not considered how bumpy the caravan routes we had to follow were. Actually we had gone no more than 100 kilometres. The coast was still very far. We ordered the soldiers to get off, to group together, and to leave immediately. Now our only option was to march in the desert. At least, a two days’ walk to reach the sea, I thought.

In the afternoon, after more than eight hours of walk, the company arrived at a large plain, surrounded by dried bushes, and dominated by a rocky hill. In the middle of the dusty area a marked dip in the ground, almost a hole, indicated that, a long time before, this had been a spring. However, the deep waterhole was dry now, and its clay sides were cracked and creased by the sun. Our eyes looked at those yellowish edges, deeply carved with wrinkles. Our feet stood on that desperate land, crumbling under us, dried and clotted in fragile clumps. The place was not pleasant, but the night was coming: we decided to camp there.
The dark began to fall languidly and slowly, like a translucent curtain, while the soldiers were putting up the tents. Soon after, Giorgio and I both noticed we were near and, after so many times we had carefully avoided each other, we nestled side by side, close to the drained spring. Maybe it was the call of our old friendship to draw me once again towards him, maybe the feeling that those would have been our last moments together, maybe it was only my curiosity to scrutinize his strange actions.
For some minutes we remained motionless, both silent before the glory of the sun setting down in the West. Then Giorgio made a sudden jerking movement and began to talk. He spoke slowly, differently from how I remembered, and said strange words. He didn’t mumble. Now I could catch everything, but still I could hardly find a sense in what he was saying. As if he was in a daydream, at times he evoked ancient scenes, at others he narrated the Fabulous East to an invisible audience:
«Just think of this water, at the time when the sand had not still extinguished it. It flowed and murmured, it ran into well-grown, pleasant, fruit-scented gardens. Men were happy when they gathered around this spring. Here they built their home, here they settled their trades. Perhaps this was the centre of a rich and celebrated oasis, full of brave warriors and of veiled, beautiful women…».
His voice, so bewitched and chanting, annoyed me, as it had done many times before, when I had seen him sinking in his daydreaming. I retorted sharply:
«If there was a time when this place was an oasis, today even its memory is lost. Where are those women and warriors now, if really there was a time when they lived here? They are gone, they have passed away: even their bones have been lost. The life you’re celebrating, if really there was a life here, it’s over now».
Giorgio paused, as if he woke up from a vision. Then he answered, still with a dreamy voice, but vaguely upset:
«Why are you questioning even the memories? Why so many uncertainties about a past that was real, as – he indicated the dusty plain, that the shadow was beginning to cover, with a large and slow gesture – its traces still appear, here, in every instant, and also in your own conscience, in your words, in your actions?»
Who was this man? Where had my old friend gone? His complete lack of common sense, this mawkish dive into sentimentality annoyed me deeply, even if I couldn’t understand why. I tried to be the more cutting that I could and, almost shouting, I told him:
«What does it matter, today, if all this did not or did exist in the past? If life at that time was as beautiful as a dream, or just better than this filthy existence we are leading today, can it change our condition, now? Open your eyes to reality and see where we are: the spring has dried, and the nothingness is before you, the nothingness made of dust and thirst, of arid sand and thorny thistles. And the enemy is out there, is around here, and he will soon attack and kill us all like dogs. Or perhaps he is already by the sea, waiting, ready to destroy us. Wake up, Giorgio! We are here, now, and here we have to lead our life!».
I stopped talking, determined to speak no more. He, too, gave no answer and before soon, without saying a word, we both rose and went for our tents. As soon as I stretched on my camp bed, I fell into a black and dreamless sleep.

The morning after, when the sun rose, it found the company already marching. Merciless, it gradually occupied the whole horizon: in slow streams, like sticky molasses waves, its light struck us hardly. Shortly afterwards, we all were sweating. Perhaps the sea was several kilometres away from us. What would have we found in Agedabia, on the coast? Our units in withdrawal? or the English troops advancing to cut us off? Salvation or death? Nobody knew, at that time.
Turning back, during our march, for some minutes Giorgio and I could still see that cluster of dried plants behind us. Pretty soon, concealed by a group of rough and rocky hills, it disappeared from our sight and, eclipsed by the thought of the withdrawal, it vanished also from our minds.


Translation by the author (edited by Emman Riddington)