Niscemi, Sicily – 46 enormous antenna masts, spread out over a vast stretch of Sicilian countryside, protected by tall fences and hedges of razor-sharp concertina wire. Further away, hidden from view, three enormous satellite dishes receive and transmit communications that direct US military drones and fighter jets across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. Here, in the heart of Sicily, is one of the most sensitive footholds of the US military-industrial complex, the Mobile User Objective System, MUOS for short.

Over the last fifteen years, the NO MUOS movement has brought together anti-militarist activists from across Italy, calling for the dismantlement of the MUOS and an end to the ongoing militarisation of Sicily and of Italy as a whole. In early August 2023, the movement held a week-long protest camp, marking ten years since the first camp was organised in 2013.

This year, against the backdrop of an increasing escalation in the global arms race, the assembly convened by the NO MUOS movement set itself the task of putting war and militarisation at the heart of all grassroots struggles in Italy today. A nationwide day of action has been called for October 21, which will see multiple demonstrations and pickets across the country. Putting an end to the transnational war machine is seen as a common unifying cause for social movements in Italy today: from environmental struggles to social justice struggles to the labour movement, the appeal sent out by the NO MUOS movement to recognise the central importance of war across all these struggles is an urgent appeal to create a unified movement that cuts across all these issues.

Challenging the consolidation of a war economy in Italy, activists say, is not about taking sides in global geopolitics, but about putting an end to the destruction of livelihoods, environments and communities. The assembly, which took place on Saturday, August 5, brought together activists from across the country, each involved in their own struggles: against the expansion of military bases, against the redirection of post-pandemic public funds towards military investments, and against the so-called “dual use” of civilian infrastructures for military purposes such as the notorious bridge over the Messina straits, now openly touted as a military infrastructure. Later that day, a demonstration saw several hundred people set off on foot in the direction of the military compound, calling for the base to be decommissioned and the area restored to its natural state: Smuntamulu, let’s dismantle it, as the banner at the head of demonstration reads in Sicilian dialect.

As Italian anti-war campaigners sound the alarm about the country’s increasingly central role in the current global arms race, the MUOS is today one of many targets for protest: others include the 120 US military bases across the Italian isles and the mainland, the NATO bases where nuclear warheads are stored in the North of the country, and several strategic EU-priority infrastructures. On top of this, the Italian military is openly recruiting in schools, holding outreach events targeted at children as young as 10, and many university departments receive external funding from arms manufacturers such as the public-private behemoth Leonardo. In many ways, Italian society is being regeared towards a war economy.

In all of this, the story of the MUOS and of the NO MUOS movement is a particularly telling example of the struggles facing a modern-day anti-war movement: the MUOS is built on what was once a centuries-old forest of cork oaks in the hills outside the town of Niscemi, and many of the trees were uprooted when the base was first opened in the early 1990s, leaving only a small grove on one side of the base. For years, the compound was all but ignored by the local population, until the late 2000s when the construction works began on the three enormous satellite dishes that now dominate the landscape. 

The NO MUOS movement quickly grew from a local protest to a nationwide grassroots effort, and on multiple occasions the base was swarmed by thousands of activists, forcing the infrastructure to be temporarily suspended as protesters attempted to stop the satellite dishes from being built. The mobilisation also involved local elected representatives, and the regional courts, which ruled in favour of the movement. However, this did not stop construction works from going ahead, and the satellite dishes were completed in 2015. Despite this significant setback, in the years since the MUOS has continued to remain a target of opposition, seen as a powerfully visible example of how the global military industrial complex can have profoundly harmful effects on local environments and communities.

Like almost every year, the NO MUOS protest camp took place on a piece of land a short distance away from the military base itself. For ten days across late July and early August, activists gathered to share their insights and experiences on the current escalation, and to contribute to the local protest movement. For many in the Sicilian anti-militarist movement, this yearly gathering has been a moment to set the agenda for the coming months, but for many others (myself included), who had never been to Niscemi before, the protest camp also provided the opportunity to learn about the issues up close, seeing with our own eyes what it means for a place to become entirely taken over for the sake of the war industry. The land, which is normally an empty field, was populated with tents, running water, electricity and a mobile kitchen, not to mention long tarpaulin shaders that provide shelter from the blistering heat of the Sicilian summer.

Beneath the shaders, volunteers take turns preparing meals when they are not making some improvements to the camp. The first days are quiet. The daytime heat is intense, and the sound of crickets fills the air at night and early in the mornings. Day after day, we get to know the place and one another. During the day, some people leave the camp and travel around the area, getting a better grasp of the landscape and its issues. In the evenings, workshops and discussions are facilitated, bringing the ‘liberation pedagogy’ of Paulo Freire and the revolutionary practices of the Kurdish movement in Rojava into the space of our discussions. Occasionally, when the temperature drops at night, a fire is lit and some of us gather around for quieter discussions, each of us sharing stories from what we have seen and heard in other places. 

A few times during the early days of the camp, I joined in on a walk around the base. The dirt road that runs along the fortified perimeters lined with the typically hardy vegetation of the Mediterranean brush, and on the other side of the fence, a US Navy dune buggy keeps close to us, the soldiers on board never letting us out of their sights. Behind us, an Italian police vehicle is escorting us on a late afternoon hike. Heading clockwise around the base, we walk for almost an hour, past the heavily fortified gates and up a steep hill. Aside from the barbed wire fence, the law enforcement personnel and the antennas, the place looks more or less like many other places in inland Sicily: rugged, dry yellow fields, beautiful in its stark emptiness. It’s only once we reach the top of the hill and look towards the base that the scale of the MUOS becomes apparent. Far away from us, in the middle of the vast expanse of land that is taken up by the military compound, stand the three satellite dishes, so big that they make the military jeep parked below look tiny in comparison. Turning our backs to the MUOS, the green forest of Santo Pietro at the foot of the hill gives us a sense of what the old forest of cork oaks might have looked like before it was chopped down.

What is left of the ancient forest is on the other side of the base from where we are standing, at the top of the hill. To reach the small grove of cork oaks, the next day we walk for almost an hour around the military compound in the opposite direction, heading counter-clockwise around the perimeter. During the walk, I meet Cristina Di Pietro, a local activist and the author of Oltre le Reti, a memoir of the most intense period of the mobilisation that was published in 2018. “Just living in Sicily is a struggle,” she tells me. During our conversation, I am reminded of what others have told me during the protest camp, and I begin to understand the difficult predicament faced by Sicily today. The crux of the matter is that the island has long been one of the most marginalised regions of Italy, plagued by environmental problems (water scarcity, extreme heat and wildfires), endemic political problems like corruption and the mafia, and the terminal underfunding of public services that is seeing more and more hospitals and schools close down. The fact that the island also happens to be considered by the US military as one of the most strategic sites in the whole Mediterranean adds a whole new layer of strain on an already difficult situation, diverting funds, resources and political energy away from the urgent matters that make a place livable, which always come second to the island’s strategic role as a military outpost.

As we come to the edge of the ancient grove, the razor wire now far from view, we get a sense of how the place once was. At the heart of the grove, we stop in front of the so-called grande quercia, Italian for “great oak,” a majestic 450-year-old cork oak that is still surviving, a strong testament to the natural will to live in spite of adversity. Cork oaks are hardy trees, highly resistant to drought and extreme heat, even to wildfires when they are not too intense or too frequent. The ancient cork forest that was decimated by the arrival of the US military in the 1990s was the only forest of cork oaks in the whole island, but if the wildfires continue to ravage the island as they have done this year even this small part that has survived risks being lost. 

Meanwhile, we learn, some local people have started attempting to buck the trend by reforesting another part of the Niscemi countryside, restoring underground water storage spots. A reminder that the war does not only kill and maim those caught up in actual conflicts, but is also a threat to the communities and environments that find their livelihoods turned inside out for the sake of a worldwide escalation. 

Ultimately, it is from within these communities that a real sense of an alternative can begin to take hold.