Missiles threaten tradition in Sicilian town

Some of the world's most modern and devastating nuclear weapons are being deployed here in this rural Sicilian community surrounded by cactus- and vine-covered hills.

But the people of Comiso seem more concerned with the risk of being uprooted from their centuries-old traditions - and with the threat of money-seeking Mafia - than with the dangers of nuclear war.

They are more worried by the onslaught of peaceniks and pacifists from Northern Europe than by the carefully low-key presence of the American servicemen manning the new cruise missiles.

''The pacifists represent an alien culture,'' says the town's only journalist , Lino Rimmaudo. ''Their basic mistake is their failure to understand the local traditions. They come from another world, with their long hair, rings in their ears - and even in their noses - while here the people believe in the family, work, and peaceful living.''

The arrival this past weekend of the first of the 112 cruise missiles to be placed at the NATO base here caused little stir. Comiso, founded more than 2,600 years ago by the ancient Greeks, has learned to survive through centuries of invasion and domination - by the Romans, Byzantium, the Arabs, and the Normans.

And, up to now, the hills seem to have shielded the town from underdeveloped Sicily's more recent scourges: feudal landowners and the Mafia.

Comiso vaunts the highest average income in Sicily and holds its own against industrialized northern Italy. Its small, privately owned fields and scattered greenhouses provide Italians with more than half of their vegetables.

The town's political traditions also go against the southern conservative grain. For 30 years, including the iciest period of the cold war, the Communist Party has dominated the local government. Today 40 percent of the population still votes for the Communists.

Town landmarks include Karl Marx Square, Patrice Lumumba Avenue, and Ho Chi Minh Street. But it would be a mistake to think the American missiles will end up in a Soviet enclave. The only revolutionary thing about Comiso seems to be the names of the streets.

For decades, as in other Italian regions, the Communist Party has focused more on nurturing old traditions. And when the wave of international pacifism swept into Comiso after the missile siting decision was announced two years ago, it broke against the ancient but rock-hard values of a rural Mediterranean society: an almost mystical sense of private property; a deeply rooted matriarchal system within the family (although local women cannot be found in the main square); and a profound respect for the social proprieties.

To make matters worse, Comiso became a stage not only for peace demonstrators but also for many who link antinuclear protest with demands for individual liberation. The sight of hippies, gays, punks - and foreign women in the main square - is seen as an affront to Comiso's way of living and thinking.

Even a local pacifist, Raffaele, who worked for several years in West Germany and who acts as interpreter for the peaceniks, complains, ''They do not want to understand us but demand that we understand them. These pacifists will never succeed in mobilizing the people of Comiso. Our problem is lack of leadership.''

Two years ago 13,000 of the town's 27,000 citizens signed a petition against the missiles. But now the local people have withdrawn to their main square. None take part in the sporadic demonstrations around the base.

The men, clustering around the central fountain, voice a sense of impotence toward a decision taken by higher spheres of power. Some speak fatalistically of their history of foreign domination.

The peaceniks appear to be exclusively ''foreign'' - itself a comment on the frailty of the Italian peace movement. In a country where all political activity and every form of popular mobilization traditionally take their cues from the national political parties, Italy's peace movement started life as an orphan. Operating on the margins of political life, it has been unable to organize itself on a large scale.

And here in Comiso, too, admits Paolo Naso of the Italian Protestant peace movement, ''we didn't succeed in becoming the voice for their instinctive rejection of the missiles.''

As the town reels from the impact of the peaceniks' foreign cultures and confronts its own ambivalence toward the missiles, the first several hundred American servicemen have quietly moved in.

So far, the operation has gone smoothly and is considered a public relations success. The Americans were carefully briefed on the local customs and habits. In town, they keep a low profile, wearing civilian clothes and trying to speak Italian. Two of them are already officially engaged to local women, and their basketball team is training the local boys in the elementary school gym.

The strident contrast with the behavior of the peaceniks has won the Americans warm praise. Comiso's Socialist mayor, Salvatore Catalano, observes, ''They respect our traditions and our way of living. That's why they have been accepted by our society.''

But the arrival of the servicemen carries with it what the local people see as the biggest threat to their traditions: the intrusion of the Mafia - lured to Comiso by the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent to build the base and by the 5,000 Americans who will be stationed here.

The connection between the Mafia and the missiles was first suggested by the government's top anti-Mafia official, regional prefect Emmanuele de Francesco. He pointed out organized crime's desperate need to recycle and invest its enormous drug profits.

Local officials deny that the ''honorable society'' has its grips on Comiso. But they acknowledge that in the last year Mafia-style crime has spiraled throughout neighboring towns - protection rackets, prostitution, and drugs.

The local chapter of the Catholic workers organization, ACLI, says it has evidence that one-third of the land around Comiso has been bought by Mafia-front companies. It denounces the vicious circle of building contracts on the base turning into subcontracts and sub-subcontracts.

This familiar enemy, held off for centuries, represents a much more disruptive threat than either peaceniks or missiles. According to Raffaele, ''The Mafia may succeed where the peace movement failed in rallying the people against the base.''

Radical changes seem to be in store for Comiso. Even Mayor Catalano, a strong supporter of the missile base, is worried about the future of his town, shaken by so many intruders. ''I have a dream - to see my town the way it was five years ago.''

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