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A compelling reading November 27, 2006

Posted by dorigo in books, personal, politics.

My mother’s elder brother Toni – Antonio Cocco was his name – died in Dien Bien Phu on March 29th, 1954. Enrolled by force in the foreign legion by France two years earlier, when he was not even 18 years of age, he had fought for the french colonial interests in Algeria for six months, and had then been transferred to Indochina despite endless attempts by my grandfather to get him back home.

Toni had left home with a friend to escape the pressure of a life he did not feel his own, crossing the border with France with no documents. He had been almost immediately jailed by the border police, then lured into signing a contract with the legion for what had to be two years but were in fact five.

Toni’s dramatic story is told in the tens of letters he wrote home during the 22 months of his slavery of the country who embellishes its symbol by the words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. Those letters are very hard to read, and I never found myself willing to do it. But there also remains a diary that my grandfather kept since Toni’s escape from home.

My grandfather Luigi Cocco was a very skilled writer. In his diary the excruciating anguish he lived through during those two years is told beautifully, and in detail, along with Toni’s story as his father witnessed it from home. I got my hands on the diary by chance – a copy has been made for each of Toni’s nine brothers, including my mother, but was not publicized too much in my family – and I was hypnotized by it at once: I read the 200 pages without a pause last weekend.

I will describe in more detail those two terrible years of my grandfather’s painful life in a future post. For now, I just want to report here a sentence in the diary which I think is remarkable.

Luigi was a very religious person, of the highest moral standards. He had been active in the Christian Democratic party in Venice, albeit just at the level of a civil involvement in the political battle. 

By touching with his hand what imperialistic powers were doing in communist countries like Indochina Luigi did not, in fact, change his political views much. However, he did change a bit his way of looking at the then strong opposition between catholics and communists in Italy. At a certain point, his faith in God still as strong as ever although shaken by the human tragedy he was living, he writes:

“I cannot help feeling a measure of admiration for our opponents. We (catholics) do what we do in the certainty of an afterlife reward, while their political action is carried out without the promise of such a payoff”. 

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