Malta’s Mgarr War Shelter. A thought-provoking experience.
Il-Barri, meaning The Bull, is a regular restaurant for us when we go to Malta, says Lyn Funnell.
I knew that underneath it was a WW2 shelter where the villagers used to hide during the bombing raids.
And although I wanted to see it, the week’s holiday always flew by.
But this time I was determined to see it, so I made an appointment.
The Maltese are reticent about discussing the war. The island went through Hell, day after day, with air-raids, many deaths and long periods of starvation until the British were able to get some supplies to them.
In Mgarr, everyone knew where the shelter was, but it had bad memories for them, and it had become hidden under Il-Barri and a neighbouring house.
Then it was found in 1998 during refurbishment to the restaurant. They were digging out a pizzeria, and it collapsed into the shelter.
It was opened to the public in 2,000.
The Government claimed it, and now the Sammut family have to rent it and pay for the electricity and the upkeep of it.
We went through the restaurant and down the stairs, led by Rachelle, our guide.
She sat us down and played a very emotional 10-minute video showing the bombing of the area. Then she unlocked the gates and turned the lights on.
I gasped at the size of it. It’s massive! It was all dug out by hand in a short time by the desperate villagers and there are pickaxe marks everywhere.
‘What’s that noise?’ I asked Rachelle.
‘It’s the traffic above us,’ she replied.
I thought it was a recording of the planes and bombs. It sounded muffled and it added to the atmosphere. It must have been terrifying for the people, hiding down there for hours and days on end, listening to their homes being destroyed. They never knew what sights were going to greet them when they emerged.
The shelter is 224 mts in length, with tiny rooms carved out at the sides.
There is as much again buried under a neighbouring house.
Around 450 people hid down there at once.
Edgar Sammut, who is 74, was one of the last new-born babies to be kept in the nursery at the end of the passageway. He was lucky to survive. There were a lot of diseases spread in the damp, unhygienic shelter, including scabies and arthritis.
His elder sister died aged five months.
There was no electricity in the village. They used candles and oil lamps.
Day and night, the villages huddled together under the ground. The conditions must have been horrific. It must have stunk! They cooked, gave birth, prayed, went to the toilet, and even made love there. Well, it might have been their last day on earth, so why not?
The Mgarr Shelter is well worth a visit. You’ll never forget it. And as my brochure states, we mustn’t forget how the children suffered due to the conflict of others.
I highly recommend the Barri Restaurant. The service is very friendly. Their food is all freshly prepared and delicious, massive portions!
But I’ll never forget what is underneath it and how the villagers suffered!
The Mgarr Shelter is open Tuesday to Saturday, 09.00-13.00.
Tel +356 2157 3235.