ghetto deaths: who is responsible?

More questions arise around the fire that destroyed the ghetto of Rignano last Thursday, only hours after police had moved in to forcefully evict its residents. As I wrote yesterday, the fire claimed the lives of two Malian citizens, Mamadou Konate (33) and Nouhou Doumbia (36), whose bodies were found carbonised in one of the destroyed barracks. Mamadou and Nouhou were among more or less hundred residents who refused to leave their homes in the aftermath of the eviction. For fear to loose their belongings, and to be turned away from their bosses (the caporali who practically run the labour rackets around here), they decided to stay put, paying with their lives.

During a protest march organised on Thursday, immigrants had already denounced the lack of available accommodation, which, for the 3-400 remaining day labourers, risked to close their opportunity to work for good. Regional authorities mention 320 beds in two facilities: Arena and Casa Sankara. Both are closely supervised by the police now, officially for fear of retaliations from the part of the capi neri -or African caporali. In a statement to the national press, regional governor Michele Emiliano ensured that soon, his administration would prepare “ways in which any worker who comes to Puglia will find accommodation with the help of different organizations, including agricultural enterprises and the state, to ensure that employment in agriculture is not in hands of the capi neri who control this field in criminal fashion (mafiosamente), but it is in the hands of institutions, enterprises and the Puglia Region.”

But while state authorities are joining efforts to blame the deaths of Mamadou and Nouhou on their fellow nationals, questions arise as to the coordination of police forces in the ghetto area. After a delegation of immigrant workers had tried to convince the attorney of Foggia in vain to leave the ghetto open for the next agricultural season, some immigrants decided to return to Rignano. The question now rises how the fire could spread through the night under the full presence of carabinieri, police and fire brigades. The next day, when Mamadou’s and Nouhou’s bodies were discovered, Foggia’s attorney (prefettura) was quick to deny any malicious intent. But on Saturday, superintendent Antonio Piernicola Silvis publicly raised the suspicion that the fire had been ignited deliberately. Commenting a video spread by Corriere della sera, where several immigrants appear to laugh at the event, he commented: “in the area 7-8 well-known subjects were involved, who were stirring up the others to leave. Probably they did not want to kill anyone but … you know, in these situations, fortune takes a hand.” The video effectively shows a few burning barracks, but those who are laughing rather do so with a grim: one person cynically says, in Wolof: “look at the destruction… because of one man, a thousand people will loose everything, where will they all sleep now?”

In the meantime, another video -which was not made publicly available- shot by the national Air Force during the eviction could possibly eliminate some doubts. According to one source, it clearly shows how Thursday’s fire spread simultaneously from several points within the ghetto. The superintendent has now opened an investigation into manslaughter.

After the ghetto: confusion reigns

The Grand Ghetto is no more… On Thursday night, a fire destroyed the remains of Italy’s biggest informal labour slums, only hours after police had moved in to forcefully evict its 3-400 residents. The Grand Ghetto, between Foggia and San Severo (Puglia), is located in one of Italy’s prime agro-food basins, the Capitanata, which produces about one third of the country’s industrial tomatoes (the famous pellati). Since the mid-1990s it has grown into a permanent settlement, hosting between 300 and 3.000, mostly West African workers.

Recently, the ghetto had become a thorn in the eye of Puglia’s regional governor Michele Emiliano, who is running as president of the social democratic party. After several failed attempts to dislodge its inhabitants in the last half decade, his administration has worked hard to find alternative living and working conditions in the area with the assistance of several community organisations. One of these is called Casa Sankara, an association directed by two former day labourers Herve Papa Latyr Faye and Mbaye Ndiaye, from Senegal, who currently manage the Fortore enterprise on the SS16 from Foggia to San Severo, and currently hosts about a 100 immigrants. But while police were putting ghetto residents on buses to transport them to Casa Sankara and other locations (including, for some, police headquarters) on Wednesday, about a hundred workers are believed to be dispersed in the area, sleeping rough and occupying abandoned buildings. This number will likely increase at the start of the tomato season late March, when about 30.000 agricultural workers join the area to work as day contractors -usually without legal pay and under the close supervision of criminal intermediaries (so-called caporali).

Several questions are raised now as to the efficacy of the anti-ghetto operation. First, the rapidity of the intervention has, unwillingly, caused a number of victims. While fire workers worked hard to quench the flames on Thursday, unfortunately help came too late for two Malian citizens, Mamadou Konate (33) and Nouhou Doumbia (36), whose bodies were found carbonised in one of the destroyed barracks. Apparently one of them, Nouhou, was deaf, and could not hear the blazing fire approaching his shack. The other victim, Mamadou, was an active member of a local association which had denounced labour exploitation on several occasions. Ghetto residents publicly ask themselves how this tragedy could happen under the eye of state security forces, who were massively present during the eviction.

Secondly, people are asking what will become of the shop owners, cooks, prostitutes, and other residents who have been dislodged by the operation. During a protest march organised on Wednesday -closely monitored by some African caporali, according to witnesses- about a hundred ghettisards showed billboards saying ‘we want to live in the ghetto’. Clearly, the prospect of being hosted in one of the region’s reception centres looks largely unattractive to the majority of former ghetto residents who come to Puglia to work. At the same time, the protest also shows to what extent foreign workers, who often depend closely on intermediaries for their residence status, are systematically marginalised and segregated.

Finally, questions arise around the judicial investigation by the regional anti-mafia authorities (DDA), which previously sequestered the Grand Ghetto area with the ‘faculty of use’ -a privilege that has now been revoked, apparently. With only one arrest so far (of an Italian who apparently has no links to the criminal caporale system), criminal activities – including prostitution, stolen cars sales and, last but not least, illegal labour mediation – have remained undisturbed by recent operations. Yesterday, a drive-by shooting took place just opposite the hotel which hosts several police personnel engaged in the anti-ghetto operation. The shooting took place days after the mayor of San Severo decided to engage in a hunger strike, demanding more police to combat local crime. After these clear warnings, the Interior Ministry has decided to increase its presence in the area and organise a more permanent police backup.

 

Trump on conflict minerals

After a long silence I got caught last week by an intriguing report on conflict minerals (a theme I have worked on for some years). Donald Trump -already infamous for his tough stance on immigration -made himself unpopular among several international aid organisations by announcing the partial abolishment of the Dodd Frank reforms (also know as ‘Obama’s Law’). News agencies reported a two-year suspension of regulatory controls designed to prevent US companies from importing so-called ‘conflict minerals’ from Central Africa. The Trump administration motivated the executive order (see leaked memo here) by citing “mounting evidence” that current blood minerals regulations are causing serious harm to some parties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and, as a result, are contributing to instability in the region that could threaten the national security interests of the US.

   

Apart from the expected outrage of international campaign groups (Global Witness called the Trump order “a gift to companies wanting to do business with the criminal and the corrupt“), some voices from Eastern DRC appear to partially confirm the US’s fears. A recent IRIN investigation -notably written by a former Global Witness campaigner- claims to find merit in Trump’s observation that conflict minerals legislation is, indeed, leading to a loss of livelihoods in the region -in addition to the already massive repression of artisan miners’ rights. The IRIN report (a first of two, apparently) further confirms existing evidenceamongst others gathered by myself and my PhD student Christoph Vogel– about the detrimental impact of pilot projects seeking to implement ‘transparent commodity chains’ from Eastern DRC.

At this stage, it is difficult to estimate what to make of the current US stance on conflict minerals. Apart from clearly being ‘anti-Obama’ (just like any order Trump has signed so far), the leaked memo does not seem to take a clear direction towards an alternative legislation -which is worrying many observers. Since the ‘no conflict minerals’ rule came into effect, the US has effectively lost much of its minerals suppliers from Central Africa to China and the Far East. Besides its unconditional protection of US companies’ interests abroad -no surprise in the current constellation- the US administration is indeed recording a certain opposition towards international human rights campaigns in Central Africa. In the face of falling prices and trampled miners’ rights, the effect of this development -which literally risks to move from a negative, ‘no blood minerals’ closed door policy, to an even more negative ‘no rules at all’ -is likely going be felt most severely at the lower scales of the commodity chain: on the shoulders of those workers who continue to supply our phones and computers with highly performative minerals, without any form of protection, representation, or rights.

gold digger in Kamituge (2005) (C) Timothy Raeymaekers

 

Arama

Allow me a bit of publicity for a band I’ve closely followed over the last three years. ARAMA is a ensemble, which performs music from the whole Mediterranean region, covering East, South and North. The three lead musicians, Laura Francaviglia (classic guitar, saz, oud, riqq, darbouka, daff), Chiara Trapanese (vocals and middle eastern percussions) and Elio Pugliese (accordion and vocals), have chosen this Turkish name for their band, which means “search”. After a long period of gigs and fieldwork in Sicily they decided to record their first album in Emilia Romagna. VersOriente (Toward the East) also includes Olivia Bignardi (clarinet), Daniele Gozzi (double bass) and Frida Forlani, who sings a traditional piece from the Appenino Bolognese.

please sustain their project here:

ARAMA are also on facebook:

Tre Titoli

In passing, I mention this art movie produced by Nico Angiuli, winner of the arts and human rights competition for young artists and cultural institutions curated by Connecting Cultures and Fondazione Ismu, which is on display in Rome’s Quadriennale’s exhibition.

The project involves the Tre Titoli hamlet, nearby Cerignola, in Southern Italy’s Puglia Region. It narrates the symbolic intersection of the Ghanese community, which over the last decades has occupied some of the abandoned houses left after the hamlet’s faltered agricultural reform of the 1950’s and 70s, with that of the rural proletarian struggle led by union leader Giuseppe Di Vittorio during that very period.

Aware of these dire conditions, the artist aims at abandoning the usual two-dimensional representation of this African ghetto in the media by introducing practices of self-narration, in order to allow for a more complex scenario of compromise and tension, and thus giving voice to spontaneous micro-processes of resistance against widespread attempts to normalize this marginalisation process of local voices.

The project has been realised in collaboration with Terra Piatta (or ‘Flat Land‘), a program of research and artistic, social and cultural production, curated by Vessel, a cultural platform in Lucera, Puglia, with a specific focus on artistic practices in dialogue within a rapidly changing rural context.

Meticciato

 

On the Problematic Nature of a Word

by Camilla Hawthorne and Pina Piccolo

I am happy to act as a host for this joint article by Camilla Hawthorne and Pina Piccolo on the politics of ‘mesticcatio’, or cultural hybridity, in Italy. Since their essay Anti-racism without race in the journal Africa is a Country, a number of developments spurred them to deepen this initial discussion, which was prompted by the racially motivated killing of Nigerian refugee seeker on Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi in Fermo, Italy, in July 2016.

In their current contribution, which appeared originally in Italian on the la macchina sognante blog, they expand on some of the issues currently facing the anti-racism movement in Italy. Their joint joint contribution seeks to draw both from their professional research and personal experiences in the anti-racism and immigrant movements in Italy and the US.

Continue reading

Israel’s Eritreans in the Picture

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Check out the Guardian Africa Network photo album today with pictures of Eritrean migrants celebrating mass and baptising their children in Tel Aviv, Israel. The improvised suburban spaces used for these celebrations not only provide a spiritual escape from often aggressive government immigration policies but also recreate a sense of ‘home’ in a politically hostile environment. To place this in wider context, interesting work is currently presented on the plight of African refugees in Israel nowadays, amongst others by Haim Yacobi, Barak Kalir and Laurie Lijnders. 51gIhkX8ODL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Particularly Yacobi’s discussion of the ‘Villa in the Jungle’ – a trope that highlights Israel’s moral geographic engagement with Africa, significantly informs this debate. ‘Walling off’ Eritrean refugees, he says, has not exclusively become a vector for reproducing Israel identity as set apart from Africa and the Middle East, but also reflects the persistent attempts of government authorities at active demographic engineering and urban segregation. The active exclusion of Eritrean churches thus has to be read in this context, of the racialisation of political space that characterises Israeli society as a whole.

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‘Out of Place’

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Further to my blogpost on Boreano yesterday, I’d like to mention this report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which just came out last month: Out of Place. Asylum seekers and refugees in Italy: informal settlements and social marginalisation (the full report is only available in Italian so far).

“Based on research carried out in 2015, the report details the unacceptable conditions in which thousands of people are living in dozens of informal sites which have sprung up around the country. Most are asylum seekers and holders of international protection –and therefore legally present in the country– who have been forced to live in these conditions for months, and sometimes years, due to the inadequacies of Italy’s reception system and social integration policies. They include asylum seekers who have just arrived in Italy and who are being denied the assistance to which they are entitled by law due to a shortage of places in reception centres. They also include people in transit towards other European countries, and refugees who have lived in Italy for years but remain excluded from mainstream society.”

The sites visited by MSF include the former Olympic village in Turin exMOI, about which I wrote before, which continues to shelter over 1,000 people, to the Don Gallo house in central Padua, the “Ex-Set” factory in Bari, and the Borgo Mezzanone runway in Foggia, an informal site beside a government reception centre. But they do not include the many informal settlements like Boreano and Rignano Garganico that serve as permanent labour camps for predominantly African (but also Romanian, Bulgarian and other nationals) farmworkers dotted across the peninsula.

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Boreano: chronicles of ordinary racism

On the night of 7-8 May, a destructive fire once again hit the African ‘ghetto’ of Boreano, situated near the town of Venosa, in the province of Potenza, on the border between Puglia and Basilicata. It’s the third time in short period that an African labour settlement ends up in flames in this border region, which is also the heart of industrial tomato production in the South of Italy. The triangle of land between Puglia’s touristy coastline and Basilicata’s mountainous hinterland hosts dozens of ‘ghettos’ like this, but which usually escape the eye of visitors and the media.

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte (2015)

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte

But while national media reports on these “invisible cities” remain extremely rare even during the high harvesting season, local organisations speculate highly about the causes of this damaging fire. Daniele Troia, intendant of the Methodist Church, reports the cause might have been an incident: during a short moment of distraction, a gas bottle might have ignited and caused a rapidly spreading fire. Such fires do happen regularly in these haphazardly constructed bidonvilles made of cardboard and plastic sheetings. But others suspect a more criminal cause. Aboubakar Soumahoro, of the labour union Unione Sindacati di Base, says it is no coincidence the fire happened less than a week after a meeting, which brought together about fifty labourers who had decided to effectively claim their rights for fair pay and better housing conditions. Together with the Methodist Church, USB had started to accompany some of the African farm labourers who live inside the ghetto of Boreano, according to regional authorities under the strict control of the local mafia.

On May 5, about fifty African labourers met the mayor of Venosa in the city council accompanied by USB delegates, threatening to declare a general strike. As Gervasio Ungolo and Paola Andrisani, activists of the Osservatorio Migranti Basilicata, speculate, this experiment could have a potentially disruptive effect when spreading to other ghettos and threatening to break the power of the gangmasters. But they are quick to add that the latter are unlikely to be the instigators of this fire, because of the huge profits the ghetto generates for them.

In contrast to labour organisations, regional authorities continue to criminalise the place as hotbed of local mafia and gangmasters. Pietro Simonetti, coordinator of the regional task force on migration, who has repeatedly refused to meet Boreano’s inhabitants, commented that probably, the latter had received information of the imminent demolition of the labour camp. And so in concomitance with this decision someone decided to set the camp on fire. Without further ado, the coordinator also promised -unlike last year- to demolish the remaining habitats and host “those workers who are not illegal or working for a gangmaster” in the official host centres regional authorities have started to set up in cooperation with private organisations. Ironically, Simonetti used the term bonificare (disinfest, reclaim), which raises the impression he wants to rid the area of undesired habitants as if they were plants or animals.

In the meantime, the inhabitants of Boreano have decided to carry their struggle onwards. On Thursday about 50 labourers are meeting in Potenza in front of the Regional Palace to protest and bring their demands to the governor Marcello Pitella.

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte (2015)

(c) Marc-Antoine Frebutte (2015)