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The history behind ‘Guernica’

Ellie Hall | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Yiannis Lymtsiouslis’ “Guernica” is based upon a true historical event marked by the deaths of innocent civilians, but not the ones you might be thinking of after looking at the play’s title. The play “Guernica” takes its name from the 1937 aerial bombing by German and Italian fascists of the Basque town of Guernica, Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The bombings at Guernica were some of the first examples of terror bombing, as the town was not a military stronghold and had no aerial defense. The numbers are still a subject of deep controversy, but approximately 250 to 300 civilians were killed in the bombings. Pablo Picasso heard of the tragedy and created the painting “Guernica,” which brought international attention to the plight of the innocent in the ongoing civil war when it was first displayed during the 1937 World’s Fair. The painting remains a symbol of the horrors of war and a tapestry of the work hangs in the United Nations building in front of the entrance to the Security Council chambers to remind the delegates of their goals of peace and international cooperation. But “Guernica” is not a play about the bombings in northern Spain. Confused? Don’t be. “Guernica” is about the sinking of an Albanian ship, the Kater I Rades, in the Straight of Otranto in the Mediterannean Sea after colliding with the Sybilla, an Italian warship on March 28, 1997. Approximately 80-120 refugees were crammed onto this ship, which was built to hold a maximum of 30 passengers. Only 30 of the refugees survived the crash and these survivors claim that the collision was not an accident. The events leading up to the sinking of the Kater I Rades indicate the Italian government’s dissatisfaction with the influx of Albanian refugees. The de facto collapse of democracy in Albania on March 1, 1997, and Albanian president Sali Berisha’s simultaneous declaration of a state of emergency, sparked the immediate migration of over 10,000 Albanians to nearby Italy. Foreign governments pulled their citizens out of the country. As anarchy took hold in Albania, Italian officials, suddenly dealing with a refugee crisis, expressed resentment to the United Nations and asked for the organization’s support of a naval blockade to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. On March 27, 1997, the United Nations instead authorized a peacekeeping force to restore order in Albania and asked surrounding countries to provide protection for the refugees. The Kater I Rades sunk the next day.