Inside the ‘arsenal of peace’
Inside the ‘arsenal of peace’
As volunteers prepare aid for Ukrainian refugees, Simone Lai writes about Italy’s biggest arms factory – it still works 24-hours a day, but for social justice.
At the Arsenale della Pace. The words say, ‘Goodness is disarming’. Credit: Simone Lai
Daniele Ballarin’s phone rings many times as we speak. He says sorry and that he and his colleagues are very busy because of the war in Ukraine and he shows me materials waiting to send east for the war.
We are thousands of kilometres away, in the northern Italian city of Turin – inside a very big arsenal. But these aren’t the usual things to send from a weapons store. They are sending from Arsenale della Pace (meaning ‘Arsenal of Peace’) foods on the way to Romania to help some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence.
As soon as the news came of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Ballarin and the team got to work. He shows me dozens of shopping trolleys full with donations. ‘Here we work 24 hours a day, it’s a factory of peace,’ he says.
‘This was an important weapons factory,’ he says and it was Italy’s biggest weapons factory in the First World War.
But for almost 40 years Arsenale della Pace has been the home of a new army: thousands of, mostly young, volunteers. The doors are open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year.
Home of a community
Arsenale della Pace is north of Turin’s historic centre, behind the big Porta Palazzo market – one of the biggest open-air markets in Europe – in one of the most multicultural neighbourhoods of the city.
Turin has had migration from southern Italy, and from countries around the world. By 2019, more than 15 per cent of its residents were born abroad, mostly in Romania and Morocco, followed by China, Peru, Egypt, and Nigeria.
Entrance to the Arsenale is through buildings made with dark-brown, small bricks. There are dozens of rooms and courtyards. It has educational activities for young people, a music ‘laboratory’, a café, events with local schools, and public talks.
A Covid-19 vaccination centre is in a big room with very high and partly-glass ceilings. A long line of people wait to go in and get their vaccinations. They are speaking different languages – Romanian, Arabic, and Italian.
‘I slept here for a short time two years ago, before Covid,’ says 42-year-old Mohammed as he stands by the building’s entrance waiting ‘to meet a friend, one of the many volunteers’.
Christian charity Sermig runs the Arsenale della Pace. When it found that the old weapons factory was empty, they asked for permission from the city to use it for its activities. In the early 1980s, the charity worked on collecting donations for projects abroad.
Ballarin is one of 30 people living and working in the arsenal full-time. An army of volunteers supports them - not all of them are religious. He says, ‘Two things happened to change the group’s history.’ First, a homeless person arrived and asked for a place to stay – others followed. Second, a group of young missionaries moved in and it was then ‘the home of a community’. Since then, there has been more and more activity. But Ballarin says teaching people about Christianity is not something they do and people of all religions and none enjoy the Arsenale della Pace.
With the homeless shelter (the biggest in the city, with 300 people), there is a clinic with dozens of volunteer doctors. They see about 50 patients a day, mostly migrants perhaps finding it difficult to get health care. ‘If you arrived in Italy recently, and you have problems with your documents, you can’t get the national health service,’ Ballarin says – only in emergencies. ‘But you can still get sick, or need a dentist, or break your glasses.’
The city of Turin still owns the arsenal, but Sermig can use it rent-free. It took many years to get this arrangement, but now the city is also one of the Arsenale’s donors, but only 0.6 per cent of its budget.
Ballarin says that 93 per cent of Sermig’s budget comes from ordinary people from donations of money, time, and materials like the food ready to send to Ukrainian refugees. The rest comes from public organizations, including the city, and donations from banks.
A small model of the Arsenale. Credit: Simone Lai
A unique project
Around the world there are old military buildings used or could be reused for other reasons. Often they lie emptyor private owners have them for homes, offices, or luxury hotels.
‘I think it’s a unique project,’ says Italian academic Federico Camarin of Arsenale della Pace. In 2019 he wrote a book, with another academic Francesco Gastaldi, about empty military areas and urban regeneration in Italy.
He says that there is ‘no precise data on reused military sites, or even empty ones’, but there are many examples reused by universities.
‘Often reusing sites creatively start from citizens,’ Camarin says. ‘There are protests from citizens and local groups’ and they are ‘self-organized actions. So they are outside the law.’
British academic Celia Clark gives examples of other reused military sites – from art to dance spaces, and the Academy of Music in Turku, Finland, in a reused naval base. Clark co-edited a 2016 book titled Sustainable Regeneration of Former Military Sites. She says that the UK Ministry of Defence is criticised for not using sites for the needs and plans of communities and councils. She gives examples of historic sites reused as luxury event venues and hotels, but she agrees the Arsenale della Pace is something different, ‘I haven’t heard of a site used for poverty and social needs before.’
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)