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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)