Inside the ‘arsenal of peace’

As volunteers prepare aid for Ukrainian refugees, Simone Lai reports from Italy’s largest arms factory – which still works 24-hours a day, but for social justice.

An installation with words reading: Goodness is disarming'
An installation at the Arsenale della Pace. The words read: ‘goodness is disarming’. Credit: Simone Lai

Daniele Ballarin’s phone goes off multiple times as we speak. He apologizes and explains that he and his colleagues are particularly busy because of the war in Ukraine and points to materials waiting to be shipped east for the war.

We are thousands of kilometres away, in the northern Italian city of Turin – inside a massive arsenal. But these aren’t the usual items one might assume would be transported from a weapons store. Arsenale della Pace (meaning ‘Arsenal of Peace’) and the shipments organized from here are packaged foods on the way to Romania to help some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence.

As soon as news broke of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Ballarin and the team got to work. He gestures with pride towards dozens of shopping trolleys loaded with donations. ‘Here we work 24 hours a day, it’s a factory of peace,’ he says.

For almost 40 years Arsenale della Pace has been the hub of a new army: thousands of volunteers involved in its cultural and humanitarian projects

‘This had been an important arms factory,’ he explains, describing how it was Italy’s largest such facility during the First World War, producing ‘almost all the artillery’ used by Italian forces in that conflict, as well as much of that used in the Second World War.

But for almost 40 years Arsenale della Pace has been the hub of a new army: thousands of, primarily young, volunteers involved in its cultural and humanitarian projects. The doors are open 24-hours a day, 365-days a year.

Home of a community

Arsenale della Pace is located north of Turin’s historic centre, behind the vast Porta Palazzo market – one of the largest open-air markets in Europe – in one of the most multicultural neighbourhoods of the city.

Turin has long been shaped by migration from southern Italy, as well as from countries around the world. By 2019, more than 15 per cent of its residents were born abroad, primarily in Romania and Morocco, followed by China, Peru, Egypt, and Nigeria.

Entrance to the Arsenale is via a vast labyrinth of buildings made with dark-brown, small bricks. There are dozens of rooms and courtyards. It hosts educational activities for young people, a music ‘laboratory’, a café, events with local schools, and public talks.  

A Covid-19 vaccination hub has taken over a large room with extremely high and partly-glass ceilings. A long line of people wait to go in and get their shots, speaking different languages: Romanian and Arabic, as well as Italian.

‘I slept here for a bit two years ago, right before the whole Covid situation started,’ says 42-year-old Mohammed as he stands right by the building’s entrance waiting ‘to meet a friend, one of the many volunteers’.

The Arsenale della Pace is run by Christian charity Sermig which, on finding the old weapons factory abandoned, applied for permission from the city to use it for its activities. In the early 1980s, the charity focused on collecting financial and other donations for development projects abroad.

‘Then two things happened that changed the group’s history,’ says Ballarin, who is one of 30 people who live and work in the arsenal full-time, supported by its army of volunteers (not all of whom, Ballarin explains, are religious). First: a homeless person arrived at the facility and asked for a place to stay – others followed. Second: a group of young missionaries moved in and it became ‘the home of a community’. Since then, activity has boomed. But Ballarin says converting people to Christianity is not something they do and Arsenale della Pace is enjoyed by people of all religions and none.

Along with a homeless shelter (the largest in the city, housing almost 300 people), a clinic offers the services of dozens of volunteer medics. They see about 50 patients a day, primarily migrants who may otherwise struggle to access care. ‘If you’ve arrived in Italy recently, and you have problems with your documents, you can’t access the national health service,’ Ballarin notes – apart from in emergencies. ‘But you can still get sick, or need a dentist, or break your glasses.’

The city of Turin still owns the arsenal, but Sermig is allowed to use it rent-free. It took years to secure this arrangement, but now the city is also among the Arsenale’s donors (though contributing only 0.6 per cent of its budget).

Ballarin says that 93 per cent of Sermig’s budget comes from ordinary people via donations of money, time and materials like the food ready to ship to Ukrainian refugees. The rest comes from public entities, including the city, as well as donations from banks.

A miniature model of the Arsenale
A miniature model of the Arsenale, on display in the complex. Credit: Simone Lai

A unique project

Around the world there are old military structures that have been – or could be – reused for other purposes. In many cases they lie abandoned, or have been taken over by private owners for homes, offices, even luxury hotels.

‘I think it’s a unique project,’ says Italian academic Federico Camarin of Arsenale della Pace. In 2019 he published a book, with fellow academic Francesco Gastaldi, about disused military areas and urban regeneration in Italy.

He explains that there is ‘no precise data on converted military sites, or even abandoned ones’, though there are many examples, particularly of barracks, being reused by universities.
‘Often creative conversions start from below,’ Camarin adds. ‘They are protests from citizens and local groups against decay’ and are ‘self-organized actions. So they are outside the law and the regulations that allow for the reusing of these spaces.’ As an example he points to the Cavallerizza in Turin – old Savoy royal family horse stables that have been occupied and turned into a social centre.

‘If you’ve arrived in Italy recently, and you have problems with your documents, you can’t access the national health service. But you can still get sick, or need a dentist, or break your glasses’

British academic Celia Clark notes other creative examples of reused military sites – from art to dance spaces, as well as the Academy of Music in Turku, Finland, which was set up in a reconverted naval base. Clark, who co-edited a 2016 book titled Sustainable Regeneration of Former Military Sites, says that the UK Ministry of Defence has been ‘under pressure to dispose of its surplus land holdings’ but that it has been criticized for both for not meeting sales targets and for not responding to the needs and plans of communities and councils.

Clark explains that historic contamination from armament manufacture can be another barrier in reusing military buildings. Meanwhile ‘what reuses are achieved are influenced by the high prices the Treasury insists on... the UK system demands sale to the highest bidder.’

She cites historic sites being repurposed as luxury event venues and hotels, for example, but agrees the Arsenale della Pace is something different: ‘I haven’t heard of a site used for anti-poverty and social needs before.’

This article is part of our From The Front series, featuring fresh perspectives on conflict, peace and environmental protection around the world. The series is funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and you can find out more about it here.