Race wars in the orange groves of Italy

They came from Africa for a paltry wage, then were driven out when the work dried up. Michael Day reports from Rosarno on the sinister forces behind last week's violence in Calabria

Via nazionale in Rosarno used to be busy just after dawn. Every day in the half-light, hundreds of black faces jostled to get the nod from men in estate cars and MPVs; immigrants from Ghana, Burkino Faso and Ivory Coast, each of them desperate to earn €15 for a punishing 12-hour day picking fruit in the surrounding citrus groves.

This week, however, there were no black faces to be seen in this small town in the region of Calabria on the "toe" of Italy, just a few Moroccans and eastern Europeans, loitering in the hope of a day's work.

An uneasy peace has settled on Rosarno after last week's pogrom, which saw over 1,000 immigrants flee to detention centres for their own safety following confrontations with police and locals. The remaining Romanian and North African immigrants walk the streets quickly, with their heads down, in this poor, shabby, agricultural town, with its earthquake-torn centre of hastily built concrete. The locals now talk matter-of-factly about an immigrant population that is chiaro – light-coloured. Elhafian Boubker is a 35-year old Moroccan who works with the Omnia immigrant association. "There are still a few blacks here," he said, "but they're frightened to come out of their homes."

Their fears appeared justified late on Monday night when one of the few remaining black Africans, a 35-year-old Ghanaian, had his car torched just hours after locals had marched to protest at media accusations of xenophobia. Police and magistrates are now poring over video footage from 400 surveillance cameras in the area as they try to understand who was to blame for the violence that took place between Thursday and Saturday, and how it could have escalated into the country's worst-ever race riots.

According to Boubker, the reason behind the Africans' rioting was, in part, the untrue rumours that one of their number had been killed by the unprovoked air rifle attack that triggered their protests. But what about the resulting backlash against them which earned the town unenviable comparisons with Apartheid-era South Africa? Speaking to locals, immigrants, union workers and officials in Rosarno, a picture starts to emerge of an inflammatory mix of xenophobia, economic hardship and organised crime.

Church figures in Rosarno said last week that the squalid barracks which housed the Africans resembled something from Dante's Inferno. The Vatican also criticised local residents on Tuesday for the "savage hatred towards another skin colour" in its official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

However, another local priest, Don Pino Varrà, dismissed the suggestion that the ugly events at Rosarno were exclusively the product of racism. "What happened was a result of several factors," he said. "The economy, the involvement of criminality, and the absence of the state."

The weakness of the Italian state is proverbial, but in Rosarno, as in several other towns in the region, the process has come full circle: the local council became so thoroughly corrupted by Calabria's 'Ndrangheta mafia that Rome installed an emergency commission in its place.

Antonino Calogero, a local representative of the big CGIL trade union, also pointed to a shift in the way that farming is financed as playing a crucial role in the town's social breakdown. For the local fruit-pickers, "a crisis in the agricultural industry" was made worse two years ago when orange farmers were no longer paid EU subsidies for the amount of fruit they produced but instead according to the amount of land they farmed. This meant less incentive to produce fruit – apart from the better quality clementines and oranges that sell for higher prices earlier in the season.

"Everyone's buying cheap orange juice from Brazil or Mexico these days," Mr Calogero said. "After Christmas, there's not much use for the oranges that would, in the past, have been used to make it." A look at the dense citrus groves on the road into town confirms this. Thousands of trees are bursting with ripe oranges that will never be picked. "This meant, with the season finishing early and not much work, that the African immigrants had become expendable."

As a result, large numbers of unloved black immigrants, with ever-diminishing hope of work, have been left languishing on the streets. Then, last Thursday evening, came the air rifle attack on a group of black crop-pickers which sparked the riots.

Alberto Cisterna, a magistrate and deputy head of the National Anti-Mafia Directorate, described the attack as "an act of provocation by the brats of the 'Ndrangheta families". He compared their behaviour to that of bored youths who lob stones at cars from motorway bridges.

The ferocity of the immigrants' response, as they smashed cars and fought with police, surprised everyone. "But the moment they realised that 'Ndrangheta had joined the fray, they decided to abandon the city," Mr Cisterna said.

Antonio Bellocco, the son of the local 'Ndrangheta boss, Michele Bellocco, was arrested after trying to run over one immigrant in his car. When carabinieri formed a shield around the man to protect him, Bellocco Jnr apparently got out of his car and attacked the police officers.

'Ndrangheta thugs were thought to have been behind the road blocks that appeared as locals hunted down black faces and beat them with bars.

The whispers in Rosarno go like this: mobsters knew the black immigrants were no longer needed and that people would, tacitly at least, appreciate their expulsion. In so doing the local hard men of 'Ndrangheta could beat their chests, claim to have done something for the community, while reminding locals of their ruthlessness and pre-eminence in the region. "For them it was a win-win situation," one local bar owner said.

"Once 'Ndrangheta got involved and wanted them out, the result was inevitable," agreed Calogero. "They own, or control, the land here. It's difficult enough for us as union people. We get threatened sometimes. I fear for the people who been bussed out of town. They've paid their life savings to organised criminals in North Africa and here in order to get to Italy, and if they don't drown on the way over, they end up here to work in a lager."

Sympathy from most locals is thin on the ground, though. The views of Luca, 24, are not untypical. When the riot broke out he was working in the call centre in the main street that immigrants use to phone home.

"They were screaming, smashing cars, waving bars around. Why did they have to do that? Why not protest peacefully?" he said.

How did people in Rosarno feel about Africans?

"They were OK. Some were good people. But they did other things. They were always pissing in the street. That's one reason why there was some bad feeling."

Mr Calogero does not believe the problem has gone away and he fears for the future of the immigrants transferred to other parts of southern Italy. There is little work in other areas, and there are reports that tensions have already risen elsewhere as a result of the mass transfer of the fruit-pickers.

Exploitation of foreign farm labourers is nothing new in southern Italy. Campaigners and unions were warning almost a decade ago of the semi-feudal working conditions suffered by eastern Europeans in the Puglia region.

But Dr Alessandra Tramontano, a medical co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Italy, said the Africans in Calabria were the most vulnerable of all. She will leave Rosarno now that the African immigrants have gone and their barracks bulldozed having worked with the MSF team that treated the fruit-pickers for gastro-intestinal problems, skin disease, and infections, brought about by malnutrition and the lack of sanitation.

"I've worked in Africa and in war zones. But I think the conditions here in Rosarno were worse, because in a rich European country this should not be happening," she said. "The trouble is that these people are invisible. They have no status, no rights, no money. Their existence is completely precarious."

The local bully-boys are doing everything in their power to discourage Africans from returning to Rosarno. Norina Ventre, an 85-year-old widow the locals call "Mamma Africa", made big pans of pasta for the hungry crop-pickers every weekend. She attended a big march in Rosarno on Monday afternoon in defence of the town's reputation. "I'll cook for them again if they come back," she said. But on Sunday some people came to her little stall outside town and smashed up the tables and chairs she used to serve them hot meals.

Elhafian Boubker, the Moroccan, thinks that they might be needed, at least early in the next orange-picking season. But will they really want to return?

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