When Giulio Regeni was 17, he was interviewed in his role as ex-mayor of “Government of the Youth” organization. They asked, “What is freedom to you, Giulio?”
“It’s a chance to express yourself intellectually in a social system that can support you in your choices,” he replied.
Regeni, who was killed in Egypt sometime between Jan. 25 and Feb. 3, could not have imagined then that this phrase, remembered at his funeral and translated into English, would become his last message to the world.
“Think independently” was the message that echoed in the large gymnasium where the community of Fiumicello, Regeni’s hometown, and dozens of friends and colleagues from around the world, stood together for hours, transfixed in a stunned silence, around the family.
“Think independently, and strive to obtain the most righteous goals your conscience dictates,” said the parish priest, the Rev. Luigi Fontanot, in a bilingual ceremony. A Coptic Franciscan friar from Cairo was the first to bless the corpse and welcome the Regeni family.
They celebrated a ritual that was religious and secular at the same time. It was also in English because Regeni was “a true citizen of the world,” “a cosmopolitan man,” although he “had not lost his simplicity and interest in people.”
He bequeathed to the community the so often repeated concepts of understanding, respect, curiosity, passion, justice, freedom and rights. Almost everyone repeat these words, the young and very young who, after the mass, walked to the pulpit to remember their friend who was killed.
The ceremony has lasted nearly two hours, broadcasted through speakers set up outside the gym to the hundreds of people who could not fit into the large hall and stood under the rain.
But “peace cannot be built without justice,” was posted on the school’s gates. And Father Fontanot knows this: he wore a stole — a priest’s sash — from South America “in honor of the many disappeared” and began his homily like a liberation theologian. He was aware that his words would be heard in Rome and Cairo, conveyed by the media, whose cameras were left outside the door, and by the few authorities present.
In fact, the family rejected the state funeral and the two soldiers in dress uniform that President Sergio Mattarella offered to send yesterday. “But this is not a gesture of closure,” clarified Fiumicello Mayor Ennio Scridel to il manifesto. “On the contrary, the Regeni parents wanted to make a sign of openness to all this way, without distinction of institutional roles.”
And so among the faithful, but a bit on the sidelines, stood the president of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Pier Ferdinando Casini; the governor of Friuli, Debora Serracchiani; and some parliamentarians, as well as the public prosecutor of Rome, Sergio Colaiocco, who is investigating the murder. In addition, there was a substantial yet discreet team of investigators who arrived to Fiumicello to make contact with Regeni’s Cambridge and Egyptian friends, whose testimony is increasingly important in the search for truth.
Just the beginning
“Are we confident that we can build peace with justice and rule of law?” asked Father Fontanot. “Too often we confuse law and justice by reducing the latter to the mere defense of the balances of the dominant society. But Giulio, who worked so hard on the protection of the weakest, has taught us that justice is respect. It is love for mankind in all its diversity, and the removal of all boundaries.”
The mother of the young researcher, Paola Deffendi, could not find the strength to stand at the pulpit and entrusted her brief farewell to a family friend to read. “Thank you, Giulio,” she said, “for teaching me understanding and tolerance.”
Peter Nolan, director of the department of development studies at Cambridge University, remembered Regeni as one of the most brilliant and intelligent researchers, “a wonderful student who had gained a deep knowledge of Egypt and its social dynamics.”
“Passionate and full of humanity and love of freedom,” added one of Regeni’s colleagues with a speech in English. “Despite being so young, he was very serious and was pursuing respect for human rights everywhere. We spent hours arguing and then, in the middle of our discussions, he would let a burst of his contagious laughter, gay, joyous, childlike. He has forever changed the way I look at the world.”
Just the beginning
“In this tragedy, the biggest we’ve ever had, we have not written an indifferent story,” Scridel said in a passionate message that transformed the gym into a frontier church. “We took part in it. As Gramsci said in 1917, we were partisans and citizens of this country. And we will favor truth. This story does not end here: Starting tomorrow, it’s up to all of us, while we bear a great weight in our soul, to carry the duty of Giulio’s ideals and values to honor his memory.”
The Democratic mayor quoted Walt Whitman, while describing the monotone noise of the footsteps of a “peace march” that accompanied the coffin in silence from the church of San Lorenzo to the gym and then, after the funeral, magnified by thousands of people, up to the cemetery.
Side by side came a Trieste imam, Nader Akkad, and a representative of the Jewish community, Alessandro Treves, who were in attendance all day.
“Whitman sang to the individual and the mass: democracy,” Scridel said. “And to Modern Man. This was Giulio.”