Oriente Antonello: A diplomat’s espresso

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From ancient tombs in North Korea to the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Italian Consul General to Hong Kong, Antonello De Riu, shares the liveliest experiences as a foreign envoy who witnessed vital events that shaped modern history.

Photo: Italian Consul General Antonello De Riu (from left) alongside press officer Marco Lorenzo Flavio Cappuccino and commercial attaché Luca Formentini.

Being a diplomat is like liquid espresso sealed by chocolate. Sure chocolate is sweet and tasty, but only those who enjoy the bitterness within it can truly appreciate the excitement of the whole journey. For Antonello De Riu, the current Consul General of Italy in Hong Kong and Macau who serves up the bittersweet delectable in his office, every of his previous overseas posting has been an espresso-ed chocolate.


Evacuating elephants

As a foreign envoy it’s tough to beat a revolution and evacuating elephants. The two came in pair when De Riu was Deputy Head of Mission in the Italian Embassy there between 2010 and July 2014. The year of his arrival marked the Arab Spring which started in December 2010 in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution and later spread throughout the Middle East.

For the Embassy and De Riu, their job was to assist in evacuating Italians who chose to leave the country. There were some 2,500 Italians visiting Tunisia on top of another 3,000 who were living there when the revolution erupted, but what raised greater attention was an Italian circus that found itself surrounded by rioters in Sfax, a coastal city located 270 kilometres southeast of Tunis. Two other Italian circuses and an amusement park were also demanding immediate attentions.

“There were people awaiting evacuation, but the media headlines were all about lions [being] under attack!” De Riu says, showing a wry smile.

About 300 trucks and vans were deployed throughout the evacuation operations, and about 250 Italian nationals were eventually shipped home, with their animals, through evacuation procedures set up by the Crisis Management Unit of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassy.

On top of settling circus animals, the embassy also had to prepare for negotiations between Rome and the newly established Tunisian government concerning an influx of migrants from Tunisia. All these had to be done with team of just 15 staffers, with the chancery being located in the most dangerous part of the capital, and with a curfew in place which left De Riu no choice but to stay in the embassy for one week.

“That was a hell of an experience … but at the end you find a solution,” De Riu says. Long hours and heavy pressure meant smoke filled days and repeated nights on sofa in the office as he and his team scrambled to evacuate not only a small core of expat businesspeople and their families, but elephants, lions, tigers, bears, circus equipment – and multiple teams of ‘carnies’ that were putting on amusement park entertainment in the country. In between puffs on his vaping, signs of a healthier lifestyle, the hard-charging diplomat is more relaxed in his Central Plaza office.

De Riu (left) accompanying Special Envoy for humanitarian emergencies Margherita Boniver (mid) on a visit to a refugee camp in Ras Ajdir, a coastal town on the border between Tunisia and Libya, in March 2011.
De Riu (left) accompanying Special Envoy for humanitarian emergencies Margherita Boniver (mid) on a visit to a refugee camp in Ras Ajdir, a coastal town on the border between Tunisia and Libya, in March 2011. (Photo from Italian Embassy to Tunisia)

Although De Riu left Tunisia for Hong Kong before the incumbent president, Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected in December 2014, he still observed the increasing influence of jihadists amid plausible but failing state-building plans. “I was in charge of monitoring the jihadist movement.… many showed criminal drug dependence records and felt they were left behind by the newborn state,” he explains.


Umbrella Movement: no big deal!

For De Riu, leaving Tunisia for Hong Kong might have offered the prospect of greater relaxation, if it had not been for the start of the Umbrella Movement two months after his arrival. Nevertheless, he was surprised by how “civilised” the protest was compared to those in Western societies.

“In the beginning of the movement, we did caution Italians here to stay away from the occupied zones…. It turned out to be a civilised protest movement. None of our citizens was in real danger,” he says.

Read also: Bellissima Italia, amica di Hong Kong

Expedition to the Koreas

While Seoul isn’t, aside periodic stage managed industrial riots, in a state of upheaval, the threat of fratricidal violence is never distant.  North Korea comes as part of the Korean diplomatic package.

As the officer in charge for inter-Korean relations, he had the opportunity to visit North Korea for 10 days on a mission to get companies into the still mysterious Communist state. In 2000, Italy became the first G7 country to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea.

“At that time the Italian government was paying great attention to the North Eastern Asia situation and to the inter-Korean dialogue so it decided to make such a gesture [to North Korea], and the North Koreans appreciated it a lot,” Mr De Riu recalls.

De Riu himself took part in a US$300,000 cultural project in cooperation with the Japanese in support of the World Cultural Heritage registration of the tombs of Goguryeo, an ancient kingdom which occupied most of the Korean Peninsula as well as the southern part of Manchuria.