Homage to Martyrs at First Sikh War Memorial in Forli, Italy

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Young, vibrant business person and social activist from Ludhiana, an affable and humble persona, in the 1 million followers Social Media club, internationally acclaimed Twitter influencer and WSN associate, Harjinder Singh Kukreja pays homage at the First Sikh War Memorial in Forli, Italy to Sikh soldiers who died fighting the armies of Hitler and Mussolini during World War II and are celebrated by Italians as “saviours of Florence.”

With prayers on my lips, respect in my heart and pride in my mind, I travelled to the middle of nowhere to the heartlands of Italy to the town of Forli, Italy, nearly 200 miles from the Grand Canal in Venice to pay homage to my Sikh ancestors who get loving reverence as ‘saviours of Florence’ from Italians, as they died fighting the fascist forces of Hitler and Mussolini as part of the British-India Imperialist army in World War II.

Accompanied by Sikh friends and associates from various parts of Italy, I reached the world-famous Indian Army War Cemetery which is maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission and has to its side the mammoth Sikh Memorial maintained by the Municipal Corporation of Forli.

Forli Italy

Dr. Raoul Mosconi, Peace and Human Rights Adviser and Councillor of Forli was present at the War memorial on behalf of the Municipal Administration of Forli. He greeted me on behalf of the city and I respectfully presented him two Khandas and an Ek-Onkar insignia for the Mayor of Forli, Mr. David Drei and told him that I had brought for them from the Punjab. In his conversation with me, he was very proud of the Sikhs and repeatedly said, “We are very grateful to the Sikhs and I feel very happy to be associated with them. The Sikhs fought for freedom and democracy and we shall forever be indebted to them.” These words resonate in my ears and make me proud of our martial heritage.

Local historian Romano Rossi, whose ancestors fought alongside Sikhs told me that, “Sikhs fought in Forli between 1943 and 1945. According to the records of the prestigious Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 352 Sikhs died here.” Romano Rossi, spares time and effort on his own volition to trace the background and details of Sikh soldiers who died in World War II. He is a team mate of the classical Sikh chronicler of our times -who put the 82 thousand plus Sikh soldiers into focus -Bhupinder Singh Holland, through his vast travels and monumental published works on the subject. His associate Satnam Singh Novellara of Shaheed Military Yadgari Committee, Italy, ably assisted me in providing minute details of the Sikh soldiers. He also acted as a remarkable interlocutor translating Italian into Punjabi for me. He further informed me that as per data collected so far, 5773 soldiers died in Italy and a majority of them were Sikhs. Sikh soldiers also fought in Cassino, Florence, Ravana and Sangro River.

We are very grateful to the Sikhs and I feel very happy to be associated with them. The Sikhs fought for freedom and democracy.

I was amazed at sight of the marvellous gigantic sculpture of the Sikh soldier holding aloft the flag of freedom, and of another Sikh soldier accompanying him nursing an injured Italian soldier in the true spirit of Bhai Ghanaiya Ji. The sculptor Stefan Popdimitrov who crafted this first military monument has represented the true spirit of the Sikh soldiers. It must be pointed out that the position of the memorial sculpture is unmissable and prominent.

Significantly, unlike in Ieper in Belgium and the war cemeteries of Holland where Sikh soldiers were buried, Forli has the distinction of cremating Sikh soldiers as per Sikh and Hindu rites.

We are able to live with honour, dignity and independence. In the war, they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans.

I was humbled when Gursharan Singh presented me a copy of the book -Sikh Soldiers in Italy in World War II by Balwinder Singh Chahal, which gives extensive details of Sikh soldiers who died fighting in Italy. Jagjit Singh of Sikhi Sewa Society in Italy was kind enough to put Balwinder Singh in touch with me. In nearly a decade or so, Sikhs in Italy have built 46 Gurdwaras and are slowly and steadily creating a niche for themselves in social and public life.

My journey would not have been smooth and interesting but for the support of my friend Kuljinder Singh France who introduced me to an amazing individual Dilbagh Singh of Mantova who drove me from the Venice Marco Polo Airport and then back to my hotel in Abano Terme, Padua.. I am grateful to him for arranging the whole collective with love and affection. I am also grateful to my hosts, Inflow Summits who made this trip possible.

On my premier visit to this part of Italy, with as many Italians that I interacted with, I felt that they are like Punjabis -gregarious, lively, helpful and hospitable. Whenever they looked at me, I thought, they are seeing me “with respect in their eyes”.

In the environs of the monumental memorial, with the sun playing hide and seek, we all felt proud clicking pictures in front of the memorial. The young and old Sikhs and a couple of children added grace to the occasion. We were all one voice in expressing our gratitude to the Europeans for their gratitude in acknowledging Sikh contribution and respecting the Sikh attire including unshorn hair and the easily recognisable turban.

The plaque on the memorial, placed there not by any one organisation of the Sikhs in Italy, but by the generic “Sikh Community Italy” -as the board read, sums it all with the quotation from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “We are able to live with honour, dignity and independence. In the war, they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans.”

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Standing before the memorial, I felt as if I too was there fighting the war for Sarbat da Bhala -welfare for all humanity. With my visit, I have made my humble contribution to putting Forli on the global Sikh map.

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