They call it “Il Cuore Verde d’Italia” – the Green Heart of Italy, a vast triangle of mountains, forests and medieval stone villages, right in the middle of the country.
Less than one per cent of homes in Italy have insurance to protect against earthquakes – compared to around 20 per cent in seismic-prone Japan – so most families will struggle to rebuild their homes without outside help.
“This is a very small village and I fear it will be left to die. We have nothing now. We have no future,” said Monica Valle, 49, who sat on a plastic chair outside the remains of her house in the hamlet of Fonte del Campo, which sits in the valley beneath Accumoli, one of the villages worst hit by the quake.
Eleven people died in Accumoli when houses imploded as the 6.0 magnitude quake hit in the early hours of Wednesday.
“This is not a touristy place, it’s not Assisi,” she said, referring to the medieval town in neighbouring Umbria which was meticulously restored after being damaged by an earthquake in 1997.
Like many families in the quake zone, Mrs Valle has now moved into one of the large blue tents set up by the emergency services. “I’m afraid we could be living here a long time,” she said.
In Accumoli’s main square, Piazza San Francisco, the bronze bust of a local 19th century hero had smashed to the ground and the village bar was abandoned, its façade in danger of collapse and its windows shattered.
“The village is now totally uninhabitable and it would take many years of work to make it liveable again. I think it might be abandoned,” said Juri Pittaluga, from the Civil Protection Department, which coordinated the search and rescue operation in the disaster area.
A ghost hangs over the locals who have lost their homes and are now living in tent villages – the fate of the nearby city of L’Aquila, where 309 people died after a powerful earthquake struck in 2009.
Despite grandiose promises by Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister at the time, that the city’s historic centre would be faithfully rebuilt, much of the city still resembles a construction site, with buildings covered by scaffolding and propped up by girders.
The restoration effort in L’Aquila has been impeded by red tape, endless litigation in the courts over responsibility for buildings that collapsed, and mafia infiltration of public works contracts.
About 8,000 people who were forced to leave their homes after the L’Aquila earthquake are still living in temporary accommodation. “After seven years, L’Aquila remains an open wound,” said Stefano Petrucci, the mayor of Accumoli. “What’s going to happen to us?”
Matteo Renzi, the prime minister, has promised that this time around, rebuilding will be swift, devoid of corruption and amply funded. “We want those communities to have the chance of a future and not just memories,” he said. But his government faces immense challenges.
Dozens of villages and hamlets were hit and the area’s narrow, twisting roads make access hard for heavy machinery. Italy already has a huge mountain of debt, the economy has been stagnant for years, and predicted growth is dismal.
Medieval churches, towers and convents have been badly damaged, as well as religious artefacts such as wooden crucifixes, Renaissance frescoes and oil paintings. Much of Amatrice, where more than 200 of the quake victims died, has been reduced to rubble.
Voted one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, it is famous as the birthplace of spaghetti all’amatriciana, a seductive concoction of tomato sauce, pork jowl and pecorino cheese.
“Amatrice is too important not to be rebuilt. People come from all over Italy to eat spaghetti all’amatriciana here – it’s known throughout the world,” said Giorgio, an elderly man who has lived in the town all his life.
In the tiny village of San Lorenzo a Flaviano outside Amatrice, where eight people died in the earthquake, firemen lowered from a giant crane recovered precious religious icons and artefacts from inside a badly damaged church.
“There have been reports of looting in Amatrice, and the police patrolled our village last night. I was told that two thieves were caught nearby masquerading as firefighters,” said Gino Allegritti, a local man.
“It’s such a shame because this area was one of the undiscovered gems of Italy.
“Please tell the world about us. Everyone speaks about Amatrice, but there are 73 tiny satellite villages around it, and at least 40 have been just as badly hit. Tell people we exist, otherwise all these tiny hamlets will die out.”
Despite Italy’s dismal record in rebuilding quake-hit zones, some local people are optimistic that Mr Renzi’s centre-Left government will rise to the challenge.
“No night can last so long that the sun never rises again,” said Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of Amatrice. “I am convinced that Amatrice will rise again. We owe it to the people who died here.”