Pratobello, ghost town or breeding ground for revolution?

“Does anybody live here in Pratobello?”

Smirk. “Who would want to live here?!”

A shepherd from Orgosolo was guarding his sheep grazing early morning and didn’t seem to appreciate much our question, and due to Orgosolo reputation we opted not to insist.

Mural at the very entrance of Pratobello. It’s in Sardinia’s native language and reads: “Out the military State/ Out the nuclear State/ Out the State of threats from Sardinia”

At first sight, from the road, that small cluster of wrecked buildings give for a moment the romantic idea of a ghost town, abandoned for God knows what reason. The reality, however, is different, certainly less romantic, but definitely more uplifting.

If you ever happen to travel to Sardinia, mention Orgosolo and locals will immediately retort: “Mmmm…. You don’t mess around with Orgolesi! (Orgosolo‘s townspeople)” True, the village, of no more than 5000 people has built its fame throughout the years around the fact that most of the bandits of the island have originated right here.

Mural that Orgosolo devoted to the revolt of Pratobello. It reads: “Work, work shepherds of Pratobello, with the herds of goats don’t throw yourself into the fray. Watch out the artillery that plays target shooting”

Nestled among the harsh mountains of the Supramonte, infamous for being the hostile place where kidnappers of the “Anonima Sequestri” used to hide their victims, Orgosolo has managed to hit the frontpage of local newspapers for long time.

Sardinia has always evoked the idea of being a wild and ungovernable land, inhabited by savage people who live clinging onto their prehistoric manners and who want their independence from the Italian State so that they can be free to live in their wilderness. Although sometimes the thought that Sardinia was better off as an independent region has crossed my mind, and although I do think its natives are a bit anarchic and “unmanageable”, it’s also fair to say that the definition of “bandits” has often been used in the wrong context and in a misleading way.

Inside the settlement of Pratobello

As it happens, history gets written by the winners, and such “official” version of the events is what the world knows, studies, memorizes, and natives of a place are bound to accept the fact that nobody will ever ask them what actually happened. This is, in a nutshell, Sardinia’s tangled past.

The island has been invaded, colonized, conquered, divided, looted by countless foreign civilizations and other Italian rulers before the country’s unification. As long as such rulers, first among all the Savoia royal family of Piedmont, came, took the raw materials they needed, enslaved the natives, and left undisturbed, everything worked fine, but when locals revolted against such raids, then the scary word “bandit” showed up accordingly.

One of the abandoned buildings of Pratobello

For some reasons that I can’t really explain, the area of Barbagia, in Nuoro province, has always been the most difficult to subjugate, and needless to say, Orgosolo has often been the reference of grassroots movements.

The revolt that involves Pratobello is still topic for debate, but to me, it’s pretty easy to understand.

Since the end of World War II, when Italy came out of the war on the losers’ side of the table, the newly created Italian Republic thought appropriate to amend our sins by transforming Sardinia into a huge military station. From the northern island of La Maddalena, to the southern base of Decimomannu, passing by the south-eastern Salto di Quirra, big military polygon (officially Interforze, meaning created by all Nato members) where extremely dangerous and polluting tests are carried out, provoking birth defects and cancers, Sardinia has often been considered militarily occupied by the US army.

The abandoned church of Pratobello

Following this trend, in 1969, the Italian government started to build the umpteenth military settlement, and since it was in plain Cold War, we have enough reasons to believe it was going to be another US base.

However, the choice of Orgosolo for such a project has proved quite unfortunate.

The town had never shied away from showing their intolerance towards any foreign interference, and a US command in their land was simply out of question. In the good and in the bad, when something happens in Orgosolo, its townspeople are very likely to protect each other and sort out their businesses within their borders. Reason why, a military settlement just beside town was inconceivable.

The inner spirit that I like to believe once upon a time belonged to all Sardinia’s natives, and that now seems to be resting only in the impervious Barbagia, arose, and the whole population took part in the revolt. Women, children, elderly, everybody mobilized and lined up on the fields around Pratobello to prevent the military drills from starting. Still today the Orgolesi remember those days with pride: “We were really all united against any military claim. Adults and children alike stayed there for days defying the police sent by the government.”

Mural in Pratobello. It reads: “There’s never been Italian who has known the natives from Sardinia, how natives from Sardinia know Italians!” Here pun is intended, as the word “Stato” (with capital S) means “State”, so the sentence can also read: “There’s never been Italian State that has known the natives from Sardinia, how the natives from Sardinia know Italians!”

The facts of Pratobello are among the most important antimilitarist revolts happened in Sardinia, and certainly gave the rest of the island food for thought for quite some time.

I’m perfectly aware of the fact that many genuine bandits originated from Orgosolo, and of course I won’t justify their crimes, but when it comes to military seizing of what should be considered lands for shepherds and natives to make their living, I can’t restrain myself from wondering if also the other areas where military settlements were actually built and still are operational had mobilized, now the island would have been free from settlements and polluting tests.

Countless parliamentary inquiries have been, and still are, carried out on the too many deaths of who lived around these settlements, especially the one of Salto di Quirra, where many researchers allege the use of depleted uranium, so I guess it’s only normal to wish more people had acted like the Orgolesi did.

The council of Orgosolo, the most photographed wall of the town, with the bullet signs well visible on the door and the window. On the balcony painted is a man holding the sign “Fertilizers, not bullets” with clear reference to Pratobello

Today Pratobello looks like an abandoned wrecked, not really a ghost town, more like the breeding ground for revolution, where for once the national government didn’t manage to get away with its arbitrary decisions, and from where many people took inspiration for new actions in those already turbulent years.

I’ll end this story with the words of writer Gianfranco Pintore who, in his book Sardegna, Regione o Colonia? (Sardinia, Region or Colony?), reports a conversation between an officer of the army and a shepherd from Orgosolo:

“How many are you in Orgosolo?”

“We are 5,000”

“You will never make it against the State”

The shepherd smiled and retorted: “Oh don’t worry, we will make it”

Might be a coincidence, but also that time Orgolesi did make it.

20 Comments
  1. Quel bel article! Et les photos!Elles font ressentir l’atmosphère de Pratobello: abandon,mais aussi esprit libre des “Orgolesi”

  2. Peccato non aver ancora visto questo posto, che è una pagina importante nella storia della Sardegna. Le fotografie sono molto suggestive e con il testo rendono bene il pensiero degli abitanti di Orgosolo!

  3. I’m obsessed with your Iran trip. It is so strange how familiar we get with a place, even if we’ve never been, through our crazy blogging world. But you are a true pioneer — I am learning so much!

  4. Very interesting story of Pratobello’s rather complicated past and present. Actually, your article has given me a lot more information about Sardinia’s political history than I’ve known before. The Orgolesi are quite interesting, too!

    • Actually, before going to Pratobello myself I hadn’t really researched the story, I had heard of it, but didn’t really know what was about. Glad I went, it did shed a new light on Orgosolo’s past, that usually is only painted in a negative way.

  5. What an interesting story, Angela! I’m drawn to rebellious places and people. Now I’m thinking Orgosolo should be in the plans for my next time in lovely Sardinia.

    • Yeah, rebellious is the perfect word for Orgosolo, they are just unruly. By all means visit Orgosolo, they absolutely love tourists, and the whole area is wonderful, make sure you also visit Mamoiada and Dorgali, plenty of things to see.

  6. so interesting – and such haunting photos!

  7. Reply
    jamie - cloud people adventures November 7, 2011 at 1:57 am

    wow, i didnt know about this at all. the murals are amazing. they remind me a lot of the zapatista ones around san cristobal in mexico. you have just inspired me to do some research!

    • All Orgosolo is painted with murals, absolutely stunning street art. Haven’t visited San Cristobal, would love to though, I like the street art that comes from a political and social background.

  8. Great post Angela
    I love ghost towns…Have you been to Fatehpur Sikri? It’s a World Heritage ghost town :-) I would definitely love to visit Pratobello sometime. And nice pictures too :-)

    • Thanks Nikhil, unfortunately I haven’t visited Fatehpur Sikri, I would love to, and also to learn the history behind it, maybe next time I come to India :) Pratobello is mainly considered a ghost towns by who refuses to accept it’s a failed military attempt to establish another base, but you won’t find proper houses and remains from daily life, just empty and half-wrecked buildings, kind of creepy though…

  9. I love a good revolt. It shows just how passionate people are about something. I agree that while I don’t condone the acts of the bandits, I side with the people of Orgosolo in their antimilitarist revolts for their lands. Such an interesting place with such a complicated history. Makes for a great place to get lost in for a day.

    • True, I absolutely agree with their antimilitarist revolt because I know how poisonous are the settlements in other parts of the island, where they carry out very dangerous experiments.
      Of course, the other crimes such as stealing a car (I heard it’s quite common here), have nothing to do with it and are to be condemned, especially because they put the whole village in a bad light. Orgosolo is indeed peculiar, citizens are very closed, their business is to be sorted out within the village, and they are very loyal with each other. But at the same time, they are super hospitable and the guest is sacred.

  10. Great post! I’ve never been to Pratobello, you’ve certainly given me some food for thought. Thank you.

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