Off the road
Welcome to Camorra country, the mafia-infested Wild West of Italy – but as in the best spaghetti westerns, the real tough guys aren’t mafiosos but nuns.
Sister Rita is a case in point: after almost two decades of sheltering trafficking victims and their children (”350 bambini since 1995 – I know the name of each and every one of them”), this former trade unionist doesn’t back down to anyone. Not even corrupt politicians.
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Her fiery letter to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, infamous for his association with under-aged girls, was read on national TV. She even speaks out on the local mafia when most others – including the local media – remain silent.
Walking around the crumbling city centre in Caserta, just North of Naples, a huge palazzo with once grand gardens can now best be described as a junkie Versailles.
The Casa Rut shelter, on the other hand, turns out to be a warm, vibrant and thoroughly feminine place, littered with children’s toys and with a scent of African cooking. But scratch the surface and it’s clear that life doesn’t magically fall into place once trafficked women have been freed from their tormentors.
Belinda arrived at Casa Rut two weeks ago and is still tense and suspicious. She’s been broken down and is used to obeying orders, explains Rita after Belinda quietly withdraws to her room. Felicity bears the facial scars of either a childhood clan ritual or a voodoo rite. We don’t ask.
With twin baby girls, she’s pragmatic about her future. Caserta ”has no other Africans” than her and her housemates (except the girls still stuck on the streets), so starting a beauty salon ”wouldn't work out customer-wise.”
"I’d be better off in a bigger city, like Milan or Bologna. But I should really get my education sorted first."
Fortunately, the staff at Casa Rut are practical, too. They’ve set up a design studio and boutique where the women gain both the therapeutic effects of hands-on handy work, as well as the sowing skills a lot of Casertanos are willing to pay for (yes, the materials are all fair trade, and yes, the girls get paid a small wage).
It’s quite moving to see the local Italian ladies carry colourful purses in a show of support for the newcomers. The neighbourly relationship wasn’t always this harmonious."
"There was much suspicion, even open hostility," says Sister Rita.
But as Casa Rut’s fame grew, the townsfolk began to feel proud of the shelter, tentatively trying to engage the shy girls in tasks such as babysitting. The name Rut could hardly be more apt. In the Bible, she’s a foreign woman welcomed to a new homeland, and the Hebrew meaning of her name is ”friend”.
Outside Naples is another shelter run by nuns, these ones from Nigeria.
The Casa Santa Maria Dell’Accoglienza (Saint Mary’s House of Welcoming) is located in the heart of Italy’s gangland, Castel Volturno, and on a street – Via Domitiana – notorious for its forced prostitution. Castel Volturno is something of the trafficking capital of Europe. Often, this is the first place victims end up in after arriving on the continent. Many are sent to work on the Domitiana straight away. Castel Volturno is also the criminal playground of not one but several mafias, including the Nigerian one and the Neapolitan Camorra.
According to a local lawyer, the syndicates have separate lines of business. Some focus on trading weapons,
others sell drugs and women. They mostly leave each other in peace, or even co-operate.
Driving up from Naples on the Via Domitiana, the first girl appears after about 30 minutes. Long hair, skyscraper heels, dead eyes.
As we roll into Castel Volturno, we’ve counted a handful of them, despite the broad daylight. We also seem to have entered a different country.
The former seaside resort resembles the set of a zombie movie, all derelict buildings, run-down hotels and empty gas stations. Castel Volturno is home to tens of thousands of people who entered the country without permission; one third of its 25,000 official inhabitants are black. It’s a place where many lose their hope, where unknown numbers of undocumented foreigners simply disappear. Some into forced labour or prostitution, others – like girls defying their madams – into black plastic bags.
"Tens of thousands of black people in that town, but is there a single African graveyard? No. The river is their graveyard. But the police have no interest in fishing for bones," one expert tells us with a shrug.
Sources whisper that something is not right at Saint Mary’s House of Welcoming. Girls are afraid, they want out, and those who have left never want to return.
"We can only gather that they’ll do anything not to be sent back," says one anti-trafficking worker who has tried to make inquiries.
But the girls seem fearful to say more than that. There are currently only four trafficking victims residing at the shelter, two with children. Conveniently, none of them is in when we decide to pay a visit.
If stepping inside Casa Rut feels like a warm, motherly embrace, entering St Mary’s is like a slap in the face from a stern stepmother. Sister Beatrice isn’t happy to see us; her boss, Sister Anthonia, avoids us entirely.
Around the house, with its bleached religious posters, worn-out furniture and dirty windows that we discreetly try to pry open (they’re all locked), the only signs of care and comfort are in the nuns’ private, much cosier apartment.
On one wall hangs a photograph of a big, tanned man with a broad smile. ”Joe Cistone” is written underneath. This turns out to be Joseph F. Cistone, CEO of the US-based charity International Partners in Mission (IPM), of which St Mary’s is apparently a partner.
In essence, wealthy, well-meaning Americans donate thousands of dollars to places such as this, and also pay IPM to visit the projects, who get a cut. The latest opportunity to visit St Mary’s was this New Year’s. Participants paid between $850 and $2,500 for a so-called Immersion Experience. In November, Sister Anthonia went on an American lecture tour.
Described as an ”IPM rock star” on the company’s Facebook page, she was honoured with an award at IPM’s glitzy annual luncheon.
But Anthonia and her colleagues didn't choose to be in Castel Volturno.
"We’re missionaries. We go wherever we’re sent. I came here straight from Nigeria four years ago," Sister Beatrice says.
She seems unfazed by the city’s extreme criminality, saying only that ”you have bad people everywhere." But what about the girls? Is it wise to keep them here, in the middle of all the Johns, madams and mafiosos?
"As long as you don’t bother people, they don’t bother you. Just keep yourself to yourself." This is all Beatrice will say on the matter.
The sisters do outreach work on the Domitiana two nights a week. Yet Beatrice’s view of the process of escaping the trafficking web is stunningly simplistic:
"Those who have faith in God will make it. The others won’t."
As opposed to Casa Rut, St Mary’s appears to be the worst kind of religious-run facility, where established research on victim treatment and shelter security is eschewed in favour of fatalism – everything is in the hands of God. Where you end up as a victim is hit or miss.
It’s unsavoury to see St Mary’s hailed as a marvellous place, with awards bestowed on its head nun. It feels like a prison, or a mental institution. There’s a constant chorus to our conversation of stray dogs barking at each other from the surrounding, semi-abandoned buildings. On our way out, we notice a thick chain and lock hanging across the front door.
"Some girls try to escape during their first nights," says Sister Beatrice.
This article was first published in Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden) and Spiegel Online (Germany) in Jan/Feb 2014 and is part of series of investigations into human trafficking.The series was made possible by a working grant from journalismfund.eu