Bologna bombing: Newly found tourist footage finally gives families hope for justice

Catherine was only identified from her signet ring and the watch she’d borrowed from her father, her boyfriend John from the passport he carried on him.

The newly graduated British couple were doing what hundreds of other carefree young people do every year: travelling around Europe by rail before setting out on their careers.

But by an awful stroke of fate, and a last minute change of plans, Catherine Mitchell and John Kolpinski found themselves at Bologna railway station in northern Italy on August 2, 1980.

Here, at 10.25am, a bomb planted by a fascist terror cell devastated the packed air-conditioned waiting room, killing them both along with 83 other people, in the worst terrorist attack in Europe until the Madrid train bombings of 2004.

Bologna Central station after the terrorist bombing that killed 85 people and wounded more than 200 others in 1980

Credit: AFP

Now, more than 40 years on, newly discovered images from a tourist film placing a key suspect near the scene of the devastating blast could finally lead to justice for the victims’ families.

As a result of new analysis of the film, a former far right militant called Paolo Bellini is on trial, accused of playing a central role in the planning and execution of the plot to blow up Bologna station.

The families of Catherine and John – who had been a week into a four-week Interrailing holiday through the Mediterranean – have told The Telegraph of their hopes that all those suspected of having planned and carried out the attack will be fully held to account.

“We want justice. And we have had to wait a long time to get it,” said Catherine’s younger sister, Susan Kennedy, speaking publicly for the first time about her death. “All those who took part and planned it need to answer for their actions. This trial is an important part of that process.”

During a previous investigation, two witnesses claimed Bellini had been in Bologna the day of the attack.

Although he was initially acquitted on the basis of what was deemed "credible evidence", Super 8 film footage shot by a German tourist from Geneva has recently been re-examined using modern forensic methods.

Paolo Bellini, who is on trial for his part in the bombing of Bologna Station

The film shows a figure closely resembling Bellini on Platform 1, making his way from the scene shortly after the blast.

Bellini is accused of having transported the explosive used in the bomb to Bologna.

Although the ex-far right militant continues to deny he was there, his former wife, Maurizia Bonini, told the trial it was definitely him and that the previous alibi she had given for him to police was a lie.

The case at Bologna’s Court of Assizes holds out the prospect of a measure of justice for the victims’ families and ensures their loved ones will continue to be remembered.

“Catherine was a lovely girl. She was so outgoing, with lots of friends and loved her time at university,” said Mrs Kennedy. “She’d really come into her own there. She was 21 at the time, just graduated from Birmingham University with honours in economics and geography and had a job lined up with a big accounting practice in Birmingham, so it was the big holiday on a limited budget before settling down to work.

“John was also a very nice lad. He’d graduated from Birmingham with Catherine but hadn’t got a job lined up at the time and was still deciding what he wanted to do. They were very happy together. They were only just starting out on their lives and they were cut short. It was terrible.”

Mrs Kennedy, 61, spoke as Bellini’s trial resumed following a two-week adjournment to allow the now 68-year-old to rest after suffering heart palpitations.

Catherine Mitchell with her parents on her graduation day at Birmingham University in July 1980

For Mrs Kennedy, a retired secondary school teacher, talking about the case brings back painful memories of the agonising days that followed the bombing.

“After Catherine and John set off on their trip there was no contact from her apart from the postcards we received. That’s what it was like at the time. No phone calls home. No mobiles of course,” she said.

“As soon as I heard the news of what had happened I thought ‘My God, how terrible’ then immediately thought ‘No, they wouldn’t have been in Bologna’ because it wasn’t on their route. “But then it turned out they had suddenly changed their plan. I think they’d been to Venice and were on their way to Florence and then Rome and just happened to stop at Bologna.”

Mrs Kennedy, speaking in her front room in Launceston, Cornwall, its mantlepiece decorated with a portrait of Catherine looking radiant in her graduation gown and mortar board, continued:

“It happened on a Saturday and we didn’t hear anything until the police rang us on the Sunday to say John was dead and Catherine was missing. They’d found his passport on him, that’s how they knew.

“It wasn’t until the Tuesday, when the British Consul went up from Florence to Bologna and identified her, that we finally found out Catherine was dead. They identified her by the watch she’d borrowed from our dad for the trip and from the signet ring she was wearing with the initials CM, which had been a present from our grandmother.

The grave of Catherine Mitchell and John Kolpinski

“I was 20 months younger than Catherine and I still remember the shock when we found out. It was just devastating.”

Few in this country remember the attack, or that two young Britons were killed in it.

But Bellini’s trial has once again exposed the painful history of modern Italy and the fault lines that ran through the country at a time when "il bel paese" was still the westernmost front line of the Cold War and the setting of a violent struggle between left and right on its streets and piazzas, lasting through the Seventies into the mid-Eighties.

“We felt tremendous anger at first, but we didn’t hold it against the Italian people. How could we? You can’t be angry all the time against an entire nation. The Italians can be so lovely and you wonder how on earth could that happen? But there are terrible people everywhere,” said Mrs Kennedy.

In the months and years that followed Catherine’s death her family became aware of Bologna’s symbolic importance in Italy’s post war history, and the reason it was targeted.

Italy’s troubled past

The town had long been a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party and was recognised as one of the most efficient municipal governments in the country. Bologna’s citizens had also been in the forefront of the wartime resistance against Mussolini’s fascist regime and the Nazi invasion that followed its collapse.

That made Bologna station – packed with Italian and foreign tourists – a strategic target for the far right, who were suspected of being aided by eversive elements of the Italian state and secret services as part of the so-called "Strategy of Tension", designed to keep the left from taking power nationally.

“Catherine and John were just so unlucky to be caught up in that awful violence that Italy was going through at the time and to be in that particular city at a time when it was targeted because of its history. You become aware of that when you see the photographs in the main square of all the people who died in the resistance against fascism and the Nazis during the war,” said Mrs Kennedy.

Suspected collusion by some state officials hampered the official investigation, delaying until 1988 the trial and conviction of four members of the neo-fascist Armed Revolutionary Nuclei for their part in the bombing.

Catherine’s father Harry, who died in August at the age of 90 – still distraught at his eldest daughter’s death – followed closely the fight for justice mounted by the Victims’ Families Association and its own investigations into what Italians call "la strage di Bologna".

At his home in Launceston, to where he had retired from Bath with his wife Shirley after a career as a designer with the MoD, he accumulated more than half a dozen heavy boxes of documents and materials about the attack.

Both Mr Mitchell and his wife attended the first trial, despite the emotional ordeal it involved for them.

Mrs Kennedy is grateful for the help and support her family received from the Association and for the pension awarded by the Italian government to her parents, in recognition of the state’s failure to protect their daughter.

Support from Bologna City Council

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of support from the Association and from Bologna City Council. They have fought for everybody. Many people caught up in disasters don’t have that,” she said. “My parents even received a pension until their death from the Italian government, after they passed a special law for the victims’ families, even though they weren’t financially dependent on Catherine. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was a recognition that the state had failed to keep people like my sister safe.”

Mrs Kennedy last visited the scene of her sister’s murder – where a huge dent in the station wall caused by the blast has been preserved as a permanent memorial – in 2005, for the 25th anniversary commemorations.

“It’s always very emotional,” she said. “You march down to the station with all the families. I’ve never been anywhere where people line the streets and applaud you like they do in Bologna on those days. They are huge gatherings.

“Even though it was born of tragedy, we’ve met so many lovely people and made very good friends. That has helped a lot, to meet other people who had gone through the same terrible thing as we had.”
 

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