Producer of landmines becomes leading deminer, says “war is madness”

L’Osservatore Romano this week featured an interview with an Italian engineer who used to produce landmines but after a conversion experience has gone on to become a leading expert in demining. Here’s the transcript:
By Alessandro Gisotti

The life of Italian engineer Vito Alfieri Fontana changed forever, when his son asked him, “Dad, are you a murderer then?” The question still cuts to the heart today. And although many years have passed since that moment, it is not easy for this 72-year-old engineer from Bari, who has lived two lives: first as a designer and producer of lethal anti-personnel mines as head of Tecnovar, a financially successful family business. And then the second and diametrically opposed: as a head deminer in the Balkans, a territory devastated by wars and infested by these insidious and deadly weapons, landmines.

Vito recounted this dramatic, painful yet at the same time courageous and hopeful story in a book written with journalist Antonio Sanfrancesco of the Italian weekly magazine, Famiglia Cristiana. The book, available in Italian, has the title “I was the man of war.” In this interview with Vatican media, the former arms manufacturer turned humanitarian worker also reflects on Pope Francis’s appeals for disarmament and makes a heartfelt appeal to those who, like him in the past, produce and sell instruments of death.

You have said over these years, also in your book, “I was the man of war,” that you have lived two lives. That of a mine producer and that of a deminer, who tries to neutralize these instruments of death. The turning point did not come suddenly, but matured over time. And that’s thanks especially to your son…

When my son started to grow up, he began to ask questions. When by chance he came face to face with the reality that I was producing mines, making weapons, he asked me: “If you make weapons, then you are a murderer…” These are things that help you understand the perception coming from outside of what you do. It’s the simplest thing to understand, after all: whoever makes weapons, willingly or unwillingly, contributes to the harm of others. And my son also told me perhaps the most obvious thing: “Dad, maybe other people make weapons, many people in the world, but why do you have to make them?”. These words were the first stumbling blocks for me.

Then in your “conversion” Fr. Tonino Bello also played a role, in particular a young man linked to the Bishop from Puglia, president of Pax Christi…

Yes, in 1993, when the International Campaign to Ban Landmines started, I received an invitation to give an address from Fr. Tonino Bello, as he was president of Pax Christi. He wrote in the invitation: “Let’s try to find topics we can discuss. Is it not possible that men of peace and those who make war cannot talk to each other?” Fr. Tonino, who had organized this meeting, unfortunately did not attend because he died in the meantime. His group, however, wanted to have this discussion the same and I found myself in front of, incredibly, two hundred people who questioned me, also pointedly. I answered without difficulty, until a young volunteer from Pax Christi at the end of the discussion shocked me when he asked: “Mr. Fontana, you are a nice person but at night, when you go to sleep, what do you dream? Is it possible to dream of a beautiful war, or do you dream of a war to sell many more mines?”

Your company, Tecnovar, was a company that made a great amount of income. A family business. Your change of life also came with many misunderstandings, difficulties. But you went ahead on your journey of change. What motivated you to take such a difficult path?

When things hit you and awaken your conscience, how can you go back to the drawing board and design things that can harm others? At that point, you can’t do it anymore. Why should I do it? Indeed, my son was right. Of course, this entails misunderstandings, that you break with part of the family, that you find yourself, not exactly in a void around you, but you understand that others don’t want to understand… but, you go forward.

What did it feel like when you were on the other side of what you were doing before? You started to work with the organization Intersos on demining areas infested with anti-personnel mines – particularly in the former Yugoslavia – similar to those your company had produced until recently…

You feel bad because a part of you feels it underneath. It’s a strange feeling, that is, you say to yourself “look at what you’ve done.” The first five minutes are of fear because you don’t know if you will be able to go against yourself. Then, in the end, the fear goes away … But, at the beginning, it’s embarrassing. I really felt badly and I was very hard on myself.

You have said that, in your life as an arms producer, you attended trade fairs and events where you met more or less always the same people. Events where the harm done with these weapons was not take into consideration…

On those occasions, human lives were never talked about. An anti-personnel mine is a good mine if it can pierce a metal plate of 50 cm x 50 cm x 5 mm. We don’t talk about people, there are no children being considered. There are no soldiers spoken about who then lose their legs or their lives… the perforation of the plate, that is the goal and that is what you work on.

The epilogue of your book is titled “The past that does not go away.” The seriousness of the first of the two lives is also felt on the second, inevitably… Two and a half million mines produced, a few thousand disarmed. An unequal balance, you note bitterly. Even for your conscience…

Yes, if we consider only one life… My commitment now is also in favor of about ten thousand people who around the world who are doing my final job as a deminer. People who break their backs every year, every day, every hour of the day to remove mines. I hope to have also contributed by having brought this problem to light, having encouraged these people who are making “miracles” happen over these years. I’m not only talking about the Balkans, I’m talking about Asia, America, Africa, with incredible success stories. So, certainly my work overall as a person has been uneven, but I am part of an incredible group of people who are doing a great job.

Regarding this final theme, you have also collaborated with Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams in favor of the Global Campaign Against Landmines, which led to the Ottawa Convention. An agreement positively cited by Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation “Laudate Deum”. Today there doesn’t seem to be a grassroots movement on disarmament as there is for other issues like the ecological crisis for example…

Let’s say that the Ottawa Convention had in reality a quite limited scope in addressing the issue of landmines. The manufacturers of mines were a minimal part… Environmental issues involve many more people and therefore naturally have much more following. I say, however, that Christians at least should always have in mind – and I don’t think I’m wrong – that, in the Gospel, the peacemakers, the peace workers are the only human group that Jesus defines as children of God: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” We should always remember that, it is a big responsibility. We may be one, we may be ten thousand, but if we are called in a certain way we cannot back down.

We have the wars in Ukraine, the Middle East and so many other forgotten conflicts from Syria to Yemen. The Pope has highlighted many times a paradox: we arm ourselves to feel more secure, but wars increase and consequently so does global insecurity. He reiterated this addressing the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See last Monday… Can this vicious circle be broken in your mind or do we have to unwillingly accept living in this situation?

Never give up! Unfortunately, however, 2024 is a troubled year: there will be presidential elections in the United States. So, in my opinion, all international events will revolve around that reality, and there will be great international turmoil. It is clear that at some point conflicts must stop because wars cannot continue indefinitely, and at that moment we will have to do something. We will have a difficult year, after that we will have to roll up our sleeves and try to heal the wounds that we all, as a human community, have inflicted on our brothers and sisters.

The Pope also said on Christmas Day that people want bread, not weapons. Mother Teresa had made a similar appeal when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979…

We must be aware that weapons are held by more or less one percent of the population when there is a war. Weapons are maneuvered, used, or programmed by very few people compared to the damage they do. What I saw in visiting these war situations, in these devastated realities, is that people need – as the Pope says – bread, they need work, to rebuild, and they certainly do not need weapons! And this applies to 99 percent of people. I was always impressed by this fact: that you could bring together former enemies as long as you put them to work, that is, give them a job, an adequate salary so they could return home with dignity. Then I saw the old rivalries really die down. With me, in the work of demining, I worked with Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, but also many atheists… And there was no problem when a person collaborated with others and brought bread home: that is the perspective that politics should have: to distribute bread instead of weapons! Not bread that is given or stolen, but bread that is earned. Work should be planned, clean-ups, reconstruction… irrigation, alternative energy should be implemented.

“To say ‘no’ to war, we must say ‘no’ to weapons,” the Pope said on Christmas Day. “Because,” he added, “if man, whose heart is unstable and wounded, finds instruments of death in his hands, sooner or later he will use them.” What do you think about this, also based on your personal experience?

I would like to add to these words of the Pope like this: making a war is like cutting down a tree. Making peace is like planting a tree. To cut down a tree, you don’t need anything, just a weapon! To make peace, you have to plant the tree, you have to sow it, take care of it to see it grow. So, the suffering reality of war follows with great challenges, efforts, and the suffering of reconstruction. It’s crazy. The use of weapons is madness! There are all the possibilities of living together through cooperation even if we see things differently. Work and dignity. In short, I don’t know why we can’t come to understand this.

You are now 72 years old, lived intensely and a unique life journey. What would you say to those who, like you in the past, produce and sell weapons? Why should they stop doing it, as you did?

I would address more than anyone else those who have any religious faith. I have talked to many people about this. If you tell me to produce the engine for a car or the engine of a tank, I should have no doubts… So I say this: if you have faith, you have to follow through with it. Especially those of us who believe in the Word of God, in the Bible, how can we hate each other to the point of destroying the hopes of others, our brothers and sisters? That’s all I would like to say.