Wednesday, July 8, 2009

G-8 Summit Opens Today in L'Aquila

L'Aquila, Italy -- Driving to the site of the 2009 G-8 Summit this morning was an eerie experience. After numerous security checkpoints, there was no more traffic and, other than security personnel, no more people -- except for the tents housing the thousands of local people without homes.

Until April, the summit was going to be held at a luxurious seaside resort in Sardinia. But then a devastating earthquake hit L'Aquila, in the mountains northeast of Rome, killing 300 and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

So the Italian government moved the summit to an out-of-the-way military school here in L'Aquila to draw attention to the plight of the victims and give a boost to the local economy.

As a reminder of the forces of nature at work here, a powerful aftershock hit the town last Friday, just days ahead of the arrival of world leaders.

But there are few hotels here even in the best of times, and this is not the best of times. For that reason, the 3,000 to 3,500 journalists descending on this region to cover the summit -- as well as the 200 or so of us from civil society -- are being housed an hour-and-a-half drive from here in a "Mediterranean Village" built specially for the 2009 Mediterranean Games which just concluded a few days ago. The accommodations are comfortable but spartan -- though undoubtedly far superior to the tents of L'Aquila -- and we have almost round the clock access to computers, food and wine.

Here at the Summit, I am working out of one of several media centers. The one I am in has space for perhaps 200 journalists and is divided by the language of the journalists -- there are Arabic, French, Italian, Portuguese and Chinese sections among others. Initially, I settled in at an Arabic computer but I quickly discovered my mistake.

The summit will focus on the global economic distress but expected to produce more of a progress report than new policy. Iran, climate change, food security in Africa, Middle East peace and trade are also on the agenda.

L'Aquila is the capital of the Italian region called Abruzzo, and was the second most important town in southern Italy after Naples for centuries. This area, in the Abruzzo's desolate interior, is one of the least touristed parts of Italy even though it boasts considerable rewards, particularly if you are in search of wild mountains and villages where strangers a novelty.

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