PALERMO, Italy—The Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, who ended up being collateral damage in an American drone operation in January was a good person. He had worked extensively in the Central African Republic and in Haiti, and had years of field experience in emergency food aid before he took a job with the German NGO Welhunger to go to Pakistan.
But he disappeared there on Jan. 19, 2012, along with German colleague Bernd Mühlenbeck, who appeared in a video later that year and was eventually released.
Lo Porto was never heard from after his abduction and there were never any official requests for ransom. Nonetheless, in 2012 then-Prime Minister Enrico Letta was accused of not trying hard enough to secure Lo Porto’s freedom. Italy has been accused of paying ransom for hostages in the past, and Lo Porto’s family and friends wondered publically why the Italian government wasn’t working for their loved one, too.
Tributes about Lo Porto’s death filled one of several Facebook support pages.
The 39-year-old grew up in a scruffy neighborhood on the fringes of Palermo where people sell long-stemmed artichokes and wild strawberries from the trunks of their cars and look out for each other. Now, his mother, Giusi, wants her son’s body back for a burial.
“I just want to hold him one last time,” she told reporters in Palermo upon hearing the news.
Lo Porto had four brothers, two of whom still live in Palermo with their mother. His parents divorced more than 15 years ago. Friends of Lo Porto’s mother said that when he was kidnapped, she “became another person” losing so much weight from worry that friends were concerned she was putting her own life in danger.
The last time anyone in the Palermo suburb saw their friend was Christmas 2011, shortly before he left for Pakistan. “He comes from good people,” a family friend Giuseppe La Rosa told The Daily Beast as he rolled a cigarette from a pouch of loose leaf tobacco near the family’s home in Palermo. “He got out. He left. He was going to save the world.”
Shortly after he graduated from university in Palermo, he moved to London to take a specialized course from the London Metropolitan University in peace and conflict studies. After he disappeared, Mike Newman, one of his professors told The Guardian, “He told me: ‘I’m happy to be back in Asia and Pakistan, I do love the people, the culture and the food of this part of the world.’ Pakistan was his real love and he felt he had done a good job there establishing positive relations with the local population and staff. He was so delighted to be back.”
La Rosa, the Lo Porto family's neighbor, said no one blamed the Americans for the death, but he does wonder why it took so long to learn the truth. “Those four months everyone knew he was dead were just four more months his mother hoped he was alive,” La Rosa said.
Italy’s foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni told parliament that counter terrorism operations like the one that killed Lo Porto must continue. “Giovanni was a generous volunteer and expert in development,” he said. “We are close to his family and I can assure them that we will do something to honor the memory of Giovanni Lo Porto.”
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi said he was only informed on April 22 that Lo Porto had been killed, although his government had been briefed earlier that civilian hostages may have been among the casualties. “We will do everything we can to recover the body to bring him home no matter how difficult that is,” Renzi said. “We have for these three years assured the family that we were doing everything we could. It wasn’t enough.”