People & Power

Secret Sardinia

We investigate the consequences of NATO weapon tests on the Mediterranean island.

The Italian island of Sardinia presents many faces to the world, from the pretty harbours, sun-kissed beaches and fancy coastal villas of the super-rich to the famously stunning landscape of the interior, with picturesque towns and remote villages dotted among the mountains, woods and streams. Unsurprisingly, such things attract holidaymakers from all over Europe and tourism has long been one of the island’s main industries.

But few of those visitors will fully appreciate just how much of the island is barred to them – and indeed to locals as well. That is because about a third of Sardinia’s territory is controlled by the Italian military and rented out as a testing ground for war.

This restricted fiefdom includes places like Salto di Quirra – a huge weapon-proving range and rocket launching site near Perdasdefogu, one of the largest such bases in the European Union – and large sections of Sardinian coastal waters reserved for use by NATO for naval and amphibious warfare training and kept off-limits even to local fishermen.

Inevitably some Sardinians baulk at the constraints all this imposes on them, but their principle concern is not about restricted movement, it is about their health. In areas near the test sites, there have been high rates of cancer, birth defects and early death. In one village, in one year, a shocking one-in-four new baby had some kind of defect. Elsewhere whole families have been hit.

“My mother-in-law died of cancer. They cut my father-in-law’s leg off because it was cancerous. My father died. My sister died young of lung cancer,” says Sardinian citizen Guilio Angioni. Farmers and veterinarians say grazing livestock has also been affected, with numerous documented cases of animals giving birth to young with grotesquely twisted limbs.

All of these instances, say concerned locals, are a toxic side effect of the thousands of high-explosive bombs, missiles, and rockets that have been tested here by European armies over the years – weapons that in some cases have contained depleted uranium, thorium and other radioactive materials, about which the authorities have been less than forthcoming.

Despite the military’s alleged secrecy in covering up these health problems for decades, in early 2019 formal police investigations began to shed clarity on the issue. “The causal link between the exposure to depleted uranium and diseases suffered … has been confirmed at a judicial level. It is a milestone,” says Gianpiero Scanu, leader of a two-year parliamentary inquiry.

This film from Australian journalist Emma Alberici investigates the background to this disturbing story and the human cost of getting too close to the machinery of war.