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'I'm a victim of the earthquake, I saved lives - and they arrested me'

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'I'm a victim of the earthquake, I saved lives - and they arrested me'
Destroyed homes in Arquata del Tronto, Enzo Rendina's hometown. Photo: Marco Zeppetella/AFP
13:14 CET+01:00
58-year-old Enzo Rendina tells The Local he is "living a nightmare" following the August 2016 earthquake which destroyed his house. Since the disaster, he has refused to leave his town - a devotion to the land which led to his arrest earlier this week.

"I'm a survivor of the earthquake in Pescara del Tronto," says Rendina by way of introduction.

READ ALSO: Earthquake survivor arrested for refusing to leave his town

Pescara del Tronto is a fraction of Arquata del Tronto, which after nearby Amatrice was the town worst hit by the 5.2 magnitude quake. It was home to 50 of the 299 casualties.

Rendina remembers the moment the earthquake hit, which he says was "like a film".

"I was in the kitchen, half-asleep. Then I heard the noise, the crashes, things falling like dominoes. In my house, two storeys and the roof collapsed. "

He was able to escape from the crumbling house through the window, and joined other villagers standing outside, before moving on to other parts of the region to help with search and rescue efforts.

"I went to see who was missing," Rendina recalls. "It was nighttime so there was only moonlight to see by. People were crying, the whole village was destroyed."

Rendina remembers pulling at least four people from the rubble, and when, seven hours after the first tremors, he heard a voice coming from deep in the ruins, he alerted rescuers and helped save another family of three. 

The area was rocked again by a series of tremors in late October, just as people had begun to come to terms with the first quake, and the remaining residents were evacuated. While most of those made homeless by the disaster moved to hotels and hostels, Rendina refused.

"I spent 70 days in the 'red zone' of the town. I'm angry with the local authorities, who have received billions of euros in funds but haven't made any progress [in the recovery efforts]," he says. He has asked for temporary accommodation, but despite promises from the government, it has yet to arrive.

"I can't stay in a hotel; I simply can't sleep in a place made of bricks after seeing my house collapse and rescuing others from ruins. The earthquake has changed my spirit, I no longer feel calm, I feel unwell. The authorities have never understood that, and just wanted me to leave."

For several months, the Marche native lived in tents, provided at first by rescuers and later by the local Civil Protection Department. Extreme snowfall early this year - the worst the region had seen in decades - made it too dangerous to carry on in a tent, so he looked for help.

"I cleared the snow around the area and was able to contact some firefighters. They had never left the area."

Rendina describes the rescuers as "exceptional people" and praises their ongoing efforts to help the affected residents in retrieving belongings from their houses and clearing blocked-off roads, which left several hamlets isolated last month.

The firefighters showed Rendina to their temporary operations centre, which included a canteen and an office. Though they advised him once again to move to a hotel, he wanted to stay and help. 

"I helped them around the area like a scout, saving them a lot of time and manpower because I knew where to go and what had to be done.

"But someone reported me to the police. They said I was disturbing their work, bothering them, which wasn't true. I'd only taken up a very small bit of the office which was usually empty, sleeping on a chair or a blow-up mattress. I was helping, I didn't talk and made myself useful whenever anyone needed information."

"Then at 6am one morning I was given the envelope," says Rendina, referring to the original cease-and-desist order he received. "The authorities are using me as a scapegoat - all the inefficiency is down to them, they have received lots of public money and not achieved much."

On Monday this week, police arrived and when Rendina again refused to go to a hotel, he was handcuffed and taken to the police station. "They put handcuffs on me, but I was most scared about my backpack. I had all the documents I'd got from the fallen house - photos, documents, sentimental objects - I had never left them in all this time, and I didn't want to lose them.

"I thought it would end there at police station in Ascoli, that they would be reasonable, I was the victim, I saved other human beings, and put all my energy into helping. Then they put me in prison."

Rendina spent two nights in jail, where he recalls he had to swap his shoes for "old slippers" and was unable to sleep or even lie down.

"It's offensive, shameful. I didn't understand the legal terms they used. When I signed the documents, I saw the word 'detenuto' (inmate) - I wrote: I don't feel like an inmate. I couldn't sleep properly in the tiny room, I spent most of the time standing up, I felt like I was living a nightmare."

Through a friend, he contacted a lawyer, Francesco Ciabattoni, who got in touch with Italian media and a humanitarian group which had assisted with post-earthquake recovery. Rendina was released on his second morning, but only on the condition that he doesn't return to his hometown until at least after a hearing in late March.

For now, the 58-year-old is staying in a hotel, where he says he struggles to sleep. "Hopefully I will get help. I'm free for now, but for the moment I am banned from my town," Rendina said, his voice cracking with emotion. "My lawyer has told me it's unfair and I agree, so we'll see what happens."

As for why the land is so important to him, Rendina enthusiastically lists the religious, cultural and historical importance of the region.

"The central Italian mountains are beautiful, we have two grand parks - Arquata del Tronto is the only town in Europe located in two national parks - we are very close to the land, and we have important religious artefacts. Bad management has left the region in ruin."

"It's the land of my family, and it should be a land of many possibilities."

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