In March 1981, following Italy's decision to install United States missiles in Comiso, Sicily, a group of seven or eight young Italian leftists made a trip to Brussels to take part in a peace demonstration.
These veterans of the 1968 student turmoil in Europe were the only Italians to participate in the Brussels demonstration. But they formed the embryo of what is today a peace movement, albeit a somewhat disunited one, that encompasses some 2,000 groups.
Giuliana Sgrena was one of the Italian peace marchers in Brussels. She is now a full-time peace activist and member of the Secretariat of the National Coordination of Committees for Peace (Coordinamento Nazionale dei Comitati per la Pace). The group includes at its headquarters in Rome a dozen or so full- or part-time workers who are also teachers, students, or journalists.
Since helping organize its first major peace march in October 1981 - it drew some 200,000 in Rome and 100,000 in Milan - the coordination movement has been trying to gather under its wing the many disparate groups of pacifists appearing in Italy in the last two years.
Ms. Sgrena describes the Italian movement as ''more global than restricted to combating missile base installations. We get involved in each new world problem from the military coup in Poland to the struggle in Central America and the war in Lebanon and third-world famine.''
The crescendo of activity for peace in Italy - September's demonstrations at Comiso, where construction is well under way, and the large peace march through Rome Oct. 22 - have seen her in the front lines.
But neither she nor many of the 10,000 others who work full time in the coordination movement throughout Italy believe they will change the government decision to begin installation of the missiles by the beginning of next year. Nevertheless, Ms. Sgrena is optimistic about the growing awareness of the peace question in Italy.
''For most of us, our experience in the peace movement so far has been a positive one in that it has given a common goal to people of so many different political persuasions.''
The Italians set up camp outside the Comiso base this summer and, as a nonviolent protest group, had their first tussles with the police. Ms. Sgrena describes the experience as ''enlightening,'' for the unity the onslaught of police with batons and chains fostered within the ranks of the protesters and for the demonstrators' relationship with the people of Comiso.
''For them, a relatively poor, underemployed, small Sicilian town population, both the missile base and our protest were totally extraneous to their way of life,'' she says.
Ms. Sgrena says the main difference between Italy's peace movement and those in Northern Europe is organization.
She comes from Domodossola, near the Swiss border, was educated in a European community school in Stresa, and holds a degree in languages from Milan University, so she is used to the industrious and organized mentality of north Italy. When it comes to organization of movements and committees, however, Italy shows itself up for the multistate nation it was a hundred years ago.
''We are certainly disorganized compared to the Dutch, German, and English movements,'' she says. ''That's because we're Italian first and by nature disorganized, and second we have no tradition of unified protest movements, like the English, nor the capacity to agree on basic policy, like the Germans.''
She insists the coordination movement must remain autonomous. ''We are obviously short of funds, since we rely on individual contributions, but it's still better than accepting party money and therefore a party line.'' Ms. Sgrena belongs to the Extra Parliamentary Leftist Democratic Party of Proletarian Unity. She rejects critics' accusations that Italy's peace movement is manipulated by Moscow.
''Certainly we have pro-Soviet elements in our group. We can hardly kick them out, since the movement is open to individuals and peace groups rather than party members as such. But we have our peace platform, which does not coincide with the Communist Party line of delaying the installation until the results of the Geneva negotiations. We ask first for nuclear disarmament and total denucleariza-tion of territories in both East and West, followed by conventional disarmament.''
However Utopian this goal may seem, she thinks it has awakened a hitherto passive Italian public to the reality of possible nuclear warfare.
As for disarmament, she is as anti-Soviet as she is anti-American. ''I've demonstrated outside the Soviet Embassy as well as the US Embassy. Last June ( 1982), we didn't send a delegation to the international meeting of peace movements in Prague, although invited, because there was no representation from individual Eastern European peace movements.'' On other counts, the coordination movement held one of the first European demonstrations against the Soviet military coup in Poland. It is in favor of withdrawing the Italian troops from Lebanon.
The coordination movement is drawing up a motion for parliamentary discussion on the missile bases. Ms. Sgrena asks, ''Do you realize that Italy is the only European country that has never held a parliamentary debate on the missile bases since the decision to install them was made in 1979?''
The peace movement's biggest problem at the moment is financial. It has bought 7,000 hectares of uncultivated land near the Comiso base, but has paid only $6,340 of the total $28,500 it owes.
Like many other activists, Ms. Sgrena is critical of the role assumed by Italy's soi-disant peace-committed intellectuals.
''They are rather laconic about expressing their feelings,'' she says. ''They write lengthy articles, sign petitions, but give little.''