Over the last few years, the Western world has witnessed the escalating wars in Syria with an almost detached stance. But as in every war, there are scenes and stories that will always have the power to make the entire world pause and reflect, and regrettably, they all seem to feature children. After all, we all felt a measure of sadness and shock watching five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting bloodied, dirty and confused in the back of an ambulance in the city of Aleppo. The reason for this response, according to Kate Nelson from the Independent.uk, “[…] is the innocence, or more precisely the loss of it. Someone who should be playing games has instead been involved in the most violent act that humanity can commit”.
With these images fresh in my mind, it has become painfully clear to me why the city I live in, Anzio, has chosen to remember the horrors of World War II with the statue of a little girl, Angelita. Her legend is famous among the locals, and it eerily mirrors many Syrian children’s stories we read about these days.
A small seaside city near Rome, Anzio bears great historical significance as the site of the crucial landing of the Allies during the Italian Campaign of 1944. According to British officer Christopher Hayes, he found the five-year-old girl soon after the landing, lost and frightened on the beach in the midst of heavy bombing. She was adopted for a brief time by Hayes and his comrades, who assumed she was an orphan. The soldiers cared for Angelita like a princess, taking turns at holding her, and making funny faces to make her laugh. But the story, just as happens today, has no happy ending. The men entrusted the child to the Red Cross, but just minutes after leaving her, they heard an explosion from a shell behind them. Hayes recalled coming back and finding Angelita’s lifeless body, holding the little girl to his chest one last time.
Hayes never forgot the little girl, and after the war he attempted to track down her family, even inquiring after her in a letter to the Mayor of Anzio in 1961, but to no avail. Many local historians have wondered if the soldiers got Angelita’s name right, and others, like Amerigo Salvini, have labelled the tale as false for lack of consistency in Hayes’s story.
However, Angelita’s story passed into legend. She became a symbol of all the innocent victims of the cruelty of war, inspiring a popular song by Los Marcellos Ferial in 1964. Today by the shore of Anzio, a life-size bronze statue of a girl with her hair in pigtails, surrounded by seagulls, looks out to sea. After many years of passing her statue without a second thought, today I can’t help feeling a note of sadness at the thought of Angelita, as I realize that stories like hers will be enough to make the world pause and reflect, but not change.