Photo: Photo provided The conversion of Vito Alfieri Fontana (in the foreground in the photo) also led him to campaign for the banning of antipersonnel mines. In 1997, a few years after closing his business, he was invited by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines to attend the Oslo conference.
January 26, 2024
There are inspiring stories that give hope, like that of Vito Alfieri Fontana. Following a striking conversion, this Italian manufacturer of antipersonnel mines became a deminer. “I had to do something to try to right [the wrong I had committed],” he explains to Devoir.
Until its closure in 1993, the family company Tecnovar — which Vito Alfieri Fontana headed for many years — manufactured, among other things, 1.3 million anti-tank mines and 1.5 million anti-personnel mines. Evil weapons that maim and kill long after wars end.
“This type of production was very profitable”, indicates the ex-arms manufacturer in writing. “The factory [originally] belonged to my father, who started working in this field in the early 1960s.” Until 1977, Tecnovar supplied mines to the Italian army. Then, in 1978, the company from the Bari region of southern Italy began selling mines and mine components to other countries, primarily Egypt.
“I assume [that our mines have been used] in all the wars in which the Egyptian government, according to its foreign policy, has been directly or indirectly engaged,” he specifies, citing in particular the involvement of Egypt in the Iran-Iraq War and assistance to the Taliban against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
It was when his son, then eight years old, started asking him questions about his work that Vito Alfieri Fontana began to have a startling realization. “Dad, I know a lot of people make weapons, but why are you ? Are you a killer ?” the boy had asked him.
Then, in an assembly, a young man asked him what he dreamed of at night. “Let another war break out so you can produce more mines and make even more money?” A second terrible blow that advanced his thinking.
At the time, the man had also been contacted by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Catholic movement Pax Christi. “They pushed me to make a decision about what the victims were going through. » Mines above all sow terror among civilians, he recalls. “I understood that 90% of the victims [of mines] were civilians and not soldiers. Once you understand that, it's a shame. »
Closing the family business, however, was not enough for Vito Alfieri Fontana, who decided to act directly on the ground to try to redeem himself. In the late 1990s, the now-repentant arms manufacturer became involved with international organizations by becoming a mine clearer in the Balkans. “I worked as a field director for several demining teams [from 1999 to 2016],” he explains. It was hard work. »
In the book Ero l'uomo della guerra (meaning “I was the man of war”), which Vito Alfieri Fontana, now 72 years old, recently published in Italy by Editions Laterza in collaboration with the journalist Antonio Sanfrancesco, the ex-businessman sums up his life thus:
“I designed, manufactured and sold two and a half million antipersonnel mines. I removed thousands, over nearly twenty years, all along the mined ridge of the Balkans, from Kosovo to Serbia to Bosnia, restoring homes, schools, factories, farmland, aqueducts and stations. These numbers symbolically summarize the two lives I have lived. From a numerical point of view, the results are uneven. From the point of view of my conscience too, because the evil committed remains. For ever. »
Ban of antipersonnel mines
The conversion of Vito Alfieri Fontana also led him to campaign for the banning of antipersonnel mines. In 1997, a few years after closing his business, he was invited by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines to attend the Oslo conference. “On this occasion, the articles of the Ottawa Convention were drafted and I helped to clarify and clarify the technical issues,” he emphasizes.
The Ottawa Convention, officially called the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, bans the use, stockpiling and transfer of mines and calls for their destruction. To date, 164 countries have signed the text.
“It was a great success,” says Vito Alfieri Fontana. Even though the largest mine-producing countries have not signed this treaty, it is certain that they have stopped developing new types of mines. Without new “surprises” on the ground, deminers can improve, year after year, the speed of demining operations. »
In the months that followed, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the Nobel Peace Prize. From weapons manufacturer to mine clearance, Vito Alfieri Fontana thus contributed, through a transformation at human level, to a significant advance for humanity.
Designed to maim
Anti-personnel mines, first used on a large scale during World War II, have been used in several armed confrontations, including the Vietnam War, the Korean War and the current war between Russia and Ukraine. Inexpensive, they were originally designed to mutilate rather than kill — since treating a wounded person requires more resources on a battlefield. Mines can now be dropped from the air, which makes mapping them much more difficult.
In 2022, 4,710 mine victims were recorded worldwide. Among them, 1,661 were killed, reveals the Landmine Monitor linked to the International Campaign to Ban Mines. Civilians represented 85% of victims in 2022, and children, half of civilian victims. The highest number of casualties was recorded in Syria in 2022, followed by Ukraine, Yemen and Myanmar.
Countries that still produce antipersonnel mines today are Armenia, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore and Vietnam.