MALTA DIARY: Respect: For the dead and buried or the alive and kicking? “Give us back our village please!”
Bahrija is a small and rural village in the northern western part of Malta, one of the smallest villages of a few hundred residents but currently at the centre of an almighty storm as residents have rolled up their sleeves and shown their umbrage and anger at what they term as “procrastination” over road and sewage works that have now been stretched out for 18 months.
In Maltese, the word “bahrija” refers to a species of large moth, classed by some to bring good luck, seen as an ill omen by others. Whatever, the villagers are angry and contend they have been put in moth balls and have been left in suspended animation for more than enough time.
Bahrija (near the larger town of Rabat) is one of the highest places in Malta (hills of a few hundred feet) and commands beautiful views of a number of bays, Fomm ir-Rih being the most noteworthy but there are also views of most of the northern part of Malta and the south western tip of Gozo. On clear and still nights the electricity lights from the southernmost tip of Sicily – 300 or so kilometres away – are visible.
It is in a rural and agricultural area where not much goes on above the ground but growing in popularity as a peaceful get-away spot for new residents seeking a bit of peace and quiet in an otherwise noisy Malta. Its most noteworthy features are a number of restaurants that serve fried rabbit (a traditional Maltese feast) and an annual fair with modest prize-winning lotteries, the money going to charity.
All the turmoil and trouble lies underground – and that’s the rub of contention.
Eighteen months ago Government employees and machines from the Water Services Corporation moved in to begin work on a much needed sewage project for main drains to be installed, a €3.5 million project cofunded by EU Funds. This required extensive road excavation on the main thoroughfare road linking Bahrija to Rabat as well as surrounding arterial roads.
The work was expected to take a few weeks at most and residents resigned themselves to road communications disruption as a necessary evil for a better end product.
Then the trouble started underground. Almost everywhere in Malta it’s a situation of dig and ye shall find and in Bahrija they dug and they found.
So far 12 ancient tombs and two catacombs have been discovered and work came to a stop for long periods as a team of five archaeologists and their supporting staff continued to unearth and preserve the historic remains.
The tombs range from the Roman era eighth Century BC while the catacombs are from the early Christian era between the third and fourth centuries AD. In addition a number of burial structures have been uncovered, several cart-ruts hewn in the rocks and a series of water channels, all pointing to a fairly busy and bustling ancient period.
One archaeologist said the work entails slow detailed excavation and examination of deposits and anthropological remains and the exhumation of human remains all of which have to be surveyed and dutifully recorded.
This has meant a stop-start process of new works and old remains and has inevitably caused lengthy stoppages as posterity has taken a preference over the present and has inevitably put the Government in an enormous quandary. If heritage is overlooked there will be an almighty clamour from local and international sources accusing the Government of disrespecting earth heritage; however, the stoppages are now causing the umbrage of Bahrija residents claiming the Government has been making “excuses” to delay the project and they are the ultimate sufferers.
This naturally is a case in which both sides are right and have their good reasons. Bahrija residents have suffered wholesale upheaval over the last 18 months with road closures, route deviations, delays and lengthier times, machinery noises and the resultant dust caused by diggers. Roads are in such a state of turmoil that delivery men are now simply refusing to deliver to shops and retail outlets in the village.
Last week the villagers took to the road in protest, clearly stating “enough is enough” putting the blame at the Government’s door by using the antique finds as an excuse to interminably delay works.
One irate protest organiser did not mince her words.
“Almost 2,000 residents are being diverted through very poor roads. We have suffered and are still suffering from this situation. We are wrecking our cars, getting stuck in traffic, risking our lives due to poorly lit roads, taking 20 more minutes to get to a destination and spending much more money on fuel.
“This is impossible and a big discrimination. We pay taxes as much as other Maltese citizens and we want our lives back to normal. Residents of Baħrija and the surrounding areas are being abandoned and isolated. Even our deliverymen are not bringing goods here”.
The crux of the problem is that the whole of the Rabat area is an archaeological treasure trove with an underground honeycomb of catacombs, tombs, burial chambers, human remains, pot and utensil shards and anything else possible. These include Punic and Roman remains and tombs of pre-Christian, Christian, Jewish and Islamic remains.
The latest update is the Government’s promise that everything possible will be done to finish the project as quickly as possible. It’s a wait and see situation. The issue is whether to respect the dead and buried or the alive and kicking.