Death is a cliche in the city of fear

SICILY'S foreign overlords - Arabs, Normans, Angevins and Bourbons - built old Palermo. Its Baroque palazzi and palm- lined avenues, its churches hewn of ochre stone, turn their backs on the city's raw, scorched hinterland and face resolutely out to a sea of stunning beauty.

Its people - many of whom live in high-rise blocks built with Mafia money - try to do the same. After the killing of Italy's leading Mafia investigators within six weeks of each other, there is, it is true, a new willingness to condemn Cosa Nostra publicly. Some have even hung out sheets bearing defiant slogans. But life goes on, with a fatalism born of a history in which violent death is an everyday thing.

Driving into the city from the airport, past the spot on the motorway where the Mafia blew up judge Giovanni Falcone in May, it is impossible to ignore the peaks that ring the city. Chunks have been bitten out of them by quarries and cement works, and one finds oneself wondering how many bodies have disappeared into these white coffins. By the time the taxi enters the city, the sense of oppression is complete.

Before flying to Palermo, I had been warned by a Sicilian colleague to beware the old cliches: 'On one level, Palermo is a perfectly normal city, peopled by normal people going about their daily business. They're not living in a state of siege, you know.' But a Roman colleague added: 'Sure, Palermo seems just like any other city at first. But after a couple of weeks, it starts. A friend says, for example: 'Listen, if I were you, I wouldn't go and have my hair cut at that barber's just at that time tomorrow, because I've heard that someone will be there that you shouldn't be seen with . . .' '

On the plane out, I talked to a Sicilian heart specialist, Giorgio Cortesiano. It was hard to follow everything he said, for, unlike the popular image of southern Italians, Sicilians tend to speak quietly and almost in a monotone. Perhaps it is the legacy of centuries of distrust of their foreign rulers; a shrug or raised eyebrow often implies a meaning far beyond what is actually said.

After a pause, he sighed and said: 'Ah, we're nearly there. Every time I return from a trip abroad, I feel myself filled with hatred.' What? 'Yes, I can feel it doing me good,' he continued. Then I realised, shamefaced, that what I had heard as 'riempito d'odio', filled with hatred, was actually 'riempito d'iodio', filled with ozone - Mr Cortesiano adored the sea, and suffered when he was away. I had fallen straight into the cliche trap.

Unfortunately, however, many of them are true. Behind the city's luxurious shopping arcades grubby children play in broken, dirty alleys. One street is lined with smashed cars, gutted for parts. Many sport Milanese or Venetian number plates: very possibly they are among the thousands stolen without trace in the wealthy cities of the north.

Omerta (the code of silence), that other Sicilian cliche, also persists. While the evils of the Mafia are now discussed openly, no one has come forward with hard information about the latest killings. The waiter in my splendidly gloomy hotel confided: 'We will all be finished, signora, if this continues. The tourists have stayed away as never before this summer, after those incidents . . .' His voice trails off. He can't quite bring himself to mention the murders by name.

At Mondello, Palermo's beach resort, there's a semblance of business as usual. Families sit on the beach, with food in huge cold- boxes. But no one can ignore the blood-curdling wail of police sirens. 'What sort of holiday is this? Every time I think it's some other poor soul who's been massacred,' a local matriarch complains. Heavily armed police patrol the streets - young boys sweating under their flak jackets in the sticky heat. 'I feel sorry for them, especially those from northern Italy, but what are they doing here anyway? We're just poor, honest people. The real Mafia is in Rome,' says Giovanni, a student.

I take a taxi to the Cimitero dei Rotoli, where Falcone's colleague Paolo Borsellino, the latest judge to be murdered, is buried. It is a vast, deserted necropolis of heavy monuments and pungent cypresses crouched under one of those harsh limestone peaks. The driver offers to wait, but adds: 'Rather you than me. You wouldn't catch me going in there alone.' Does he fear the Mafia, or the supernatural? In Sicily it could be either. When I tell him, facetiously, to call the police if I don't return, he looks appalled. 'You must be joking. I'd drive home and keep quiet about it.'

Later we discuss the murders. 'All these troops, all this security, it's useless. The Mafia got Borsellino and Falcone, and they'll get all the others on their list,' he says. 'If you're on the list, you're as good as dead . . .' Not if people start telling the police about what they see, I suggest. 'What? When there's a Mafia plant in every station? People have learnt from bitter experience that no one really wants to listen. Talking is the surest way to get yourself into trouble. And who's got so little to lose that they don't mind dying?'

Nunzia Agostino feels she has very little left to lose. On 5 August 1989, her brother, Antonino, 28, was due to join the family at their beach house near Palermo. He had been married a month, and was bringing his pregnant wife, Ida, aged 19. As they arrived, two men stepped out and riddled the couple with bullets. They crawled, dying, into the front garden. 'They finished them off just inside the gate, we saw everything,' says Nunzia, her voice trembling. 'It's very hard, partly because we've never had a proper explanation of what happened.'

Antonino was a bodyguard in Falcone's escort, and in June there had been a failed bomb attack on the judge. The authorities, however, told the family they believed Antonino had been killed over an affair with the girlfriend of a mafioso. The family was devastated - and unconvinced.

'He had just got married. They were very much in love,' says Nunzia, a slight girl in her twenties. She says a colleague of her brother believed the real motive was more sinister. 'He told us Antonino had discovered evidence suggesting that the attack on Falcone was an inside job,' she said. That colleague has been posted away. No one was arrested for the murders. The police declined to give more information.

'My father went to the police headquarters every month for a year. One day, the police chief asked him, 'Why the hell do you keep coming here?' '

The family has given up hope of getting a satisfactory explanation. 'It has broken my parents. My father has refused to shave since the day they killed Antonino; he stands out at all the anti-Mafia demonstrations. There's nothing much more they can do to us.'

Heavy security precautions surrounded a visit to Palermo yesterday by Italy's Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, to boost morale and pay his respects to victims of the wave of Mafia killings.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
tv

First full-length look is finally here

Life and Style
life
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Film director Martin Scorsese
film
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballI have never seen the point of lambasting the fourth official, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer - PC/Mac

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are cur...

Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer (PHP & Wordpress) - Central London

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Web Dev...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee