A tale of two cities.
Palermo. A Mediterranean city where the food is other worldly, the architecture mesmerising and the history absorbing. But strolling around the heady streets the struggle to survive for the ordinary Palermitan comes into sharp focus.
Palermo has seen great fortune and great misery in equal measure, but the fortune has been the preserve of the few and today many still live below the subsistence level.
It was into this vacuum that the Cosa Nostra were only too keen to step, offering alms to those in desperate need in return for loyalty, and so strengthening their terrorising grip on every individual in Palermo society.
But while 80% of businesses in Palermo are still under mafia influence, change is in the air, initiated in the town that gave birth to many of the most notorious mobsters.
The sun blistered Sicilian interior is brutal to the peasant farmers who struggle to make a living out of it. Only the determined traveller tackles the partly sealed roads that criss – cross it to reach Corleone.
The sleepy, rural character of the hilltown belies its dark legacy, but it’s here that the movement to confront and move beyond its unenviable history has been mustered.
Local woman Santina is slightly built but with the character of a lion. She works at C.I.D.M.A. – the anti – Mafia museum.
She and her friends are determined to promote the potential of a Mafia – free Sicily, not least for the young children who regularly visit the centre.
Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, Santina knows that it would have been impossible to publically denounce those who have had the control. But now she is determined to reclaim her town.
The work she does is not without risk, but she is passionate in her belief that it’s crucial work which will make a difference. Especially if the centre succeeds in educating the children against looking to the Mafia as a lifestyle choice.
The gallery of graphic photographs depicting the atrocities committed by the Cosa Nostra is stomach churning. The forlorn face of a son who has lost his father, a mother wracked with grief over the murder of her son, the lonely body of an innocent who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The terror is haunting.
But against the stark black and white images of massacre and murder stands the brightly coloured “Tree of Hope” with messages of optimism, hope and promise written on each leaf by the youngsters who visit. A real illustration of optimism.
In the late eighties Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both public prosecutors, brought forward the Maxi case which culminated in the jailing of over 300 active members of the Mafia.
The lawyers were raised in the same Palermo neighbourhood and many of their friends chose to follow in Mafia footsteps. Their life choices were diametrically opposed and would prove to be epochal.
The Maxi trial impacted seriously on the capability of the Cosa Nostra, a turning point in the fight between State and Mob.
Tragically both men paid with their lives, and later Time Magazine named them as Heroes of the last 60 years.
It is to these role models that the young children of Sicily are being directed by Santina and her colleagues.
Adiopizzo is a grassroots organisation promoting businesses in Palermo that refuse to pay “pizzo”, protection money, to the Mafia.
It’s a brave public statement and some have suffered as a result, but currently there are a thousand businesses on the list and growing.
As the children that experience Santina’s education programme take up their places in adult society, perhaps Palermo might one day be pizzo free.
It deserves it. It’s unique, vibrant and full of potential. And so too the people that call it home.