A group of Libyan-born Italians who were among thousands expelled from the country carried out their first emotional visit to Libya in over 30 years. Most were convinced they were never to return to the country where they were born and grew up. But last month Colonel Moammar Gadhafi allowed former Italian residents back into Libya.
Seven Italians born in Libya attended mass at the Church of Saint Francis in Tripoli during their first visit back after more than 30 years. The seven were granted visas to return to the country and spend five days visiting the places were they used to live.
All their properties were confiscated when they were ordered to leave in 1970 after Colonel Moammar Gadhafi took power. In a sign of his improving relations with the West, the Libyan leader last month announced he was reopening his country's doors to all former Italian residents.
Giovanna Ortu was one of the seven who returned. She is president of the Association of Italians repatriated from Libya, which includes some 2,500 families.
"I'd say things went very well," she says, "and that our emotions grew during our visit as did our understanding with the Libyans because our role will not be only as tourists but we will have privileged contacts with the Libyans through the association."
Ms. Ortu says the association will provide assistance for cooperation and will strive to develop bilateral relations. 20,000 Italians were exiled from Libya when Colonel Gadhafi became the country's ruler.
Most of them had lived in the country since the days when the North African country was an Italian colony. And it was not easy for them to leave everything behind. Ms. Ortu says those who traveled with her wanted to see the places where they had lived.
"Everyone did," she says. "For some it was easier and for some more difficult because there are areas outside the capital where there have been changes as the country developed. But we found them."
Fifty-five-year-old Giancarlo Consolandi was 21 when he left Libya. He went back to visit the places where he studied when he was young. He visited all the classrooms with some of his old schoolmates and they will now exchange photos of those years. He was pleased with his visit.
"It went very well and we are very satisfied because we did not expect such a warm welcome from the Libyan population," he said. Mr. Consolandi hopes many other Italians who like himself lived in Libya will now go back. He sees their return as recovering an old friendship.
Traveling as part of the group was 34-year-old Ornella Sillano, who is thought to have been the last of the Italians to be born in Libya. She was only 5 days old when her parents were forced to leave and for her this visit was especially significant because, she says, she had felt like a piece of her life was missing until she was able to see where she was born.
"It's just a dream come true," she said. "I have been dreaming of coming here since I was born, since I was a little baby because I have grown up just listening to my parents telling tales about Tripoli, about how happy they were when they used to live here."
Ms. Sillano like the others said she felt very welcomed in Libya.
Relations between Italy and Libya began improving significantly following the 1998 signing of a joint statement in which Italy expressed regret and apologized for the damages caused by its occupation of Libya during the colonial period.
Italy has maintained good relations with Libya and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has visited Libya four times in the past two years. Italy has also successfully lobbied the European Union, which took a decision last month to lift sanctions on Libya and ease an arms embargo.