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Mayor takes strength from mine victims

Mayor takes strength from mine victims

FOR Santina Bianchini, her week-long visit last month to Cambodia will add more fuel

to the "Valsella affair", which has made front-page and prime-time news

in Italy.

Bianchini is the deputy mayor of Castenedolo, a tiny town of 8,000 people in northern

Italy, and home to the Valsella factory that employs 50 women workers and more technicians.

The women used to produce a plastic moulding for Valsella. They knew it was for land

mines, but Bianchini said they had no idea of the dangers and terror mines held for

countries such as Cambodia.

"In our country it is difficult to make people understand because no one risks

stepping on a mine," she said.

That changed in July 1994, when a doctor back from Kurdistan spoke to Valsella workers

and bosses about the effects he saw of Valsella-made land mines during his mission.

He explained to the women how and for what reason the plastic shapes were used.

His stories and pictures struck a chord with the women: they boycotted the production

lines of Valsella.

As luck would have it, barely a month later the Italian government issued a national

moratorium against land mine production following a nationwide campaign.

Bianchini said her municipality began its own awareness campaign, and because of

the moratorium Valsella was obliged to change its production from mines to civilian

uses.

Forty of the 50 women workers began an activist group. They helped Valsella by looking

for money from regional authorities to help the factory convert its production.

Valsella management decided to produce spares parts for fridges and dashboards.

A worker named Franca Faita headed the Valsella's workers group. Faita had lost her

right arm in an industrial accident at work, Bianchini said.

Even though ten of the women workers did not join the "anti-mines" group

- for fear of losing their jobs once the moratorium ended - these were the salad

days for the rest of the factory staff.

The factory had capitulated, and they were about to begin production of non-lethal

products. A regional peace march finished in Castenedolo where the walkers were welcomed

with banners and slogans; and in October 1995, the Supreme Patriach of Cambodian

Buddhists, Maha Ghosananda, visited Castenedolo.

"He told us that we had to listen and learn from others. That was the best way

to explain the disasters of mines. He said we had to clear the mines we had in our

heart before clearing the mine from the ground," Bianchini said.

But the euphoria has ended.

Bianchini said in practise, Valsella management made no effort to change the production

lines.

In January, Valsella locked out its workers.

Bianchini said to make matters worse, Valsella technicians are still involved in

working out new designs for "intelligent" mines.

"In the catalogue of an armaments fair in Malaysia, Valsella mines still appeared.

It means that some people are making them. Anyway, we know that the technicians of

the company are still working on new process for intelligent land mines," she

said.

Recently, the staff have discovered that Fiat, the biggest Italian conglomerate involved

in areas from car and tank production to media, hold 50 percent of Valsella's shares.

"It may be political. Fiat's chairman's sister is the Minister of Foreign Affairs,"

Bianchini said.

"Valsella and Fiat never admitted their relationship during the anti-mines campaign

we had in the media. They were afraid the minister would have to answer for the reluctance

Valsella shows toward civilian production.

"The factory bosses do not make any effort to help the company to find new markets,"

Bianchini said.

Bianchini is returning home with lots of materials and ideas to share. "I think

after what I saw I can convince the last workers who need to be convinced."

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