The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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Bingemma Fort - ‘Don’t call us squatters, we’re paying rent’

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 11 June 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

A family that for more than 40 years has been occupying a fort built by the British does not like the label it has been given.

“We’re not squatters,” Jessie Buttigieg, a pensioner, said adamantly. “To be a squatter is to break into a property and stay there for free, but we are paying rent.”

The fort was leased to the Buttigieg family by the Labour government in 1981 and the family said it has been paying rent since then.

The family continued to pay rent even when it started to receive eviction notices in 2009 and “we will not move until we are offered another decent place to stay” which fits into the family lifestyle, Jessie’s son Steve, the other person who lives in the fort, added.

This newsroom was invited to visit the fort by Steve after contact was made with him via the social media. Jessie and Steve were happy to show us around the place, where they also keep some animals.

The “occupation” of the fort has been the subject of numerous newspaper stories over the past years and which have been rekindled of late. The government for years has been seeking to remove the family from the fort but, in recent comments to The Malta Independent, Lands Minister Silvio Schembri said he could not understand why, lately, there has been such a fuss and so much insistence that the family is forced out. “Nobody wants them out in the streets,” he said, adding that he cannot “understand the persistence on evicting them.”

Fort Bingemma is a 19th-century site which is part of a series of fortifications built by the British that can be found along the Victoria Lines, stretching from Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq on the east coast to Fomm ir-Riħ on the west coast.

 “We have been here for more than 40 years,” Jessie explained, adding that it was under a Nationalist government in 2009 that the family had started to receive eviction notices.

“We are not going to move until we are offered a decent place,” Steve, known also as Tal-Landa, added quickly.

Jessie said that the family had been handed over the property on a government rental agreement back in 1981, under a Labour government led by Dom Mintoff. At the time they used to live in a property in Rabat, which they gave up a few years later to move permanently into the fort.

Back then, now deceased Gaetano Buttigieg, Jessie’s husband and Steve’s father, was using Fort Bingemma to breed pigs.

“Everything was in accordance with papers back then, we fixed the rooms which were used by English soldiers as a farm for the pigs,” she said.

The lease of the Buttigieg family expired in 1997, but was renewed on an annual basis by the Labour government, and then also by the successive Nationalist government until 2009, when the family was told to evict the premises.

Jessie said that back then the family’s lawyer Anglu Farrugia, who is now the Speaker of the House, started to deposit the rent they owed in court, a process which the family never stopped doing till this very day, using another lawyer.

“We pay a yearly €508 in rent,” Jessie said.

Their stay at the fort has not been without controversy. For one thing, daily fines had been issued against the Buttigieg family for the development of a concrete platform and two brick walls without permission. Steve explained how he had carried out these works where the British army used to raise their flag pole, as he liked these types of things and wanted to regenerate that part of the fort. Today the concrete has been destroyed and the area is overgrown.

The family was also accused of building a swimming pool. Steve said that the “suspected pool” was there before the family moved into the fort. He said that all he did was paint it blue with the blessing of MEPA, which is now known as the Planning Authority.

“They said they did not care what colour it was to be painted, as long as I didn’t touch the rock, which I obviously didn’t,” he said.

Late last month Times of Malta published an article accompanied by photos of Steve in the “pool”, which he said were taken three years ago. The photos show Steve with a friend he has not spoken to for a long time. He added that he has not used the pool, which is just one metre deep, in months. When The Malta Independent team visited the fort a few days ago, the pool did not have any water.

Steve said that if anyone was going to build a pool, it would be “at least one storey and a half deep to make sure anyone could dive into it”.

“They picked on us,” his mother said. “They sent us an eviction notice just six days before the last general election” (March 2022), she added, but “we have nowhere else to go.”

Asked whether the government has offered them alternative accommodation after the latest eviction notice, Steve said that they have been sent to view two places. One was a farm without a ceiling, he said, while the other property still had people living in it.

This was not the first time that the government has tried to negotiate its way to “take back” the fort. Back in 2012, the Nationalist government of the time had tried to provide an alternative residence to the Buttigieg family.

At this time, Jessie said her husband was suffering from cancer. The PN government had offered accommodation in the heart of Rabat. In describing this property, Jessie said it consisted of approximately two rooms, which had very low ceilings, a very small window and a balcony which was going to fall. Additionally, access to the property was through stairs.

“If this was offered to me now that I am alone, I would have accepted it, but back then I had to take care of my sick husband,” she said.

Jessie also spoke of another episode when her late husband was still alive and had been approached by former then Lands Minister George Pullicino to serve as a curator of the fort. If they had accepted the offer, the family was to hand over a copy of the keys, live in just one part of the fort and allow visitors. The family had not accepted; Jessie said the family did not feel that their safety was being prioritised with this proposal.

There was yet another time when the family had been approached by former Nationalist MP Josie Muscat who had encouraged them to move out. No agreement had been reached.

Following the Labour Party’s electoral win in 2013, the attempts to evict them stopped for a time and the family continued to deposit the rental money in court. In recent months, however, the eviction issue has been brought to the fore again. Last January, Minister Schembri said that “procedures” had started and that the Buttigieg family “would eventually be evicted”.

But the family is adamant that they will only accept to move out if they are given another place where they could keep up their lifestyle.

“We are ready to move out as long as the place (we are provided) is decent and has a garage,” said the mother. She added that Steve also keeps animals and that he has no intention of giving them up.

In total, the family has 20 chickens, three roosters, a billy goat, seven dogs and a pig.

Apart from this, Steve owns two cars with red plates, which are not licensed to be on the street.

The Buttigieg family claimed they cannot afford to buy alternative accommodation. Up to a decade ago, Steve was married and owned his own family home together with his ex-wife. However, following separation, his wife kept the house because it was to serve as a home for the children the couple shared, and Steve said he still pays alimony.

Although working on a full-time basis, Steve said that it would be very hard for him to take out a loan given that he is in his 50s.

Both Steve and his mother questioned the government’s interest in the fortification given that it “has nothing, no cannons”, as was the case with Fort Delimara, which was constructed between 1876 and 1878 to guard the harbour in Marsaxlokk. It still has four old 38-ton cannons, the only ones of their kind left in existence.

The fort had served as a pig farm for 25 years before it was abandoned in 1956. In 2005, Heritage Malta assumed ownership.

The family noted how back then the occupiers were offered a lump sum in exchange of evacuation.

“We want a house with a decent rental price,” Jessie concluded.



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