The lasting contributions of World War ll Italian prisoners of war in the arts, technology and social sectors in South Africa have been remembered at a moving memorial at Zonderwater outside Pretoria.
Members of the Italian community, descendants and families of the POWS – some who made the journey from Italy – and military veterans attended the service which also marked the 78th anniversary of the opening of the military cemetery.
Speaking at the event, the President of the Zonderwater Block Ex-Prisoners of War Association Emilio Coccia said 78 years ago, Italian POW Michelangelo Campesi was laid to rest in grave number 1 at Zonderwater. He was the first of 312 POWs buried in South Africa.
Coccia said while it was sad that so many young men lost their lives as prisoners, thousands of kilometres away from their families, considering that 109 000 Italians were detained in SA, the number of dead was limited. And for that they had to be forever grateful to the detaining power, South Africa, for having appointed competent, fair and wise officers to run the camps. One of these was Colonel Hendrik Prinsloo, who strictly applied the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners.
Under Prinsloo he said: “Thousands of men attended school; others had the possibility of expressing their artistic skills; many more found their fulfilment in different sports. “
The Italian Ambassador Paolo Cuculi, who was attending the memorial for the first time, said Zonderwater is a powerful symbol of the friendship between South Africa and Italy. From war and imprisonment, to peace and partnership, this was the journey the Italian prisons of war chose to embark on.
Air Force Chief, Lieutenant-General Fabian Msimang, also spoke of the contribution to a lasting friendship between the two nations. He said many returned from Italy to take up permanent residence in South Africa. Looking to the future, he encouraged all South Africans work together to turn the country into one that is respected and cherished by all who live in it.
He said: “Protect it like you protect your homes, nurture it like you nurture your families and appreciate it like you appreciate yourselves.”
The last survivor of the Zonderwater camp, Paolo Ricci, who will celebrate his 100th birthday later this year, received a round of applause as he was assisted to lay a wreath. He has attended every memorial since 1947 to pay his respects to former comrades-in-arms who are buried in the cemetery.
In tribute, wreaths were also laid by the Italian Ambassador to South Africa, the Chief of the South African Air Force, the Department of Correctional Services, the military attaches of the United Kingdom, Brazil and Germany and military veterans organisations such as the South African Legion.
Zonderwater was the largest Allied POW camp in Word War ll. At its height, the camp established in 1941, was home to 86 000 Italian soldiers who had been captured in the Italian colonies of Abyssinia and Somaliland in East Africa, and Libya in North Africa.
The camp was only closed as late as 1947, because of the lack to transport to take the Italians home when the Second World War ended in 1945. The remains of 277 soldiers are buried at Zonderwater. Thirty-five are buried in the Pietermaritzburg war cemetery.