The ‘purple prawn conflict’: How trauma gripped a Sicilian fishing city


Each morning on the first light, fishmongers collect on the historic fish market of Mazara del Vallo, a city in western Sicily with a inhabitants of 52,000, shouting out their greatest provides of the day.

Wearing rubber aprons and boots, they lower contemporary swordfish into giant chunks and wash baskets of mussels, because the acrid odor of fish fills the air.

Coronavirus restrictions in Italy haven’t modified the day by day routine a lot for these merchants. However the psychological results of the “purple prawn conflict” have.

“Look! Pink just like the blood it takes our males to convey them right here,” says Nicola Boccellato, as he lays out purple prawns – 1kg for 50 euros (about $60) – on considered one of his stalls.

With their distinctive purple color, even when uncooked, purple prawns are thought of a delicacy. For many years, they’ve been Mazara del Vallo’s signature product, a lot so that they turned its official image and seem alongside the city’s identify in culinary books.

However for the reason that begin of a territorial dispute within the Central Mediterranean, the city’s livelihood has hung within the stability.

The historic fishing market of Mazara del Vallo [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

‘Unhappiness of their eyes’

In response to native fishermen, in the direction of the tip of the Eighties, the Libyan coastguard and army patrols started utilizing drive in opposition to international vessels inside 119km (74 miles) of its coast – fishing waters Libya unilaterally declared as its personal in 2005. The internationally recognised restrict of Libya’s waters, nonetheless, is about 19km (12 miles).

For the reason that Nineties, Sicily’s Distretto della Pesca, a fishing labour organisation based mostly in Mazara, has been recording the toll this dispute has taken on the neighborhood – together with the seizure of greater than 50 Italian fishing vessels and the detention of greater than 40 fishermen, for durations of between two weeks and two months.

Boccellato, who was born and raised right here, describes the emotional toll the a long time of battle has taken. He says his job now not sparks the identical pleasure it used to when he started his fish buying and selling enterprise within the Nineties.

“The true colpo al cuore [heartache] goes to the port every single day to purchase contemporary merchandise from our fishermen,” Boccellato says. “They’ve this disappointment of their eyes … it makes us really feel responsible as a result of, as fish sellers, we helped popularise the purple prawn globally, rising the strain on their shoulders.”

The city of Mazara del Vallo at nightfall, as seen from the waterfront [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

Earlier than the tensions with Libya, Mazara had lengthy been a harmonious residence to folks from totally different locations.

Within the years following the tip of the second world conflict, the flourishing native fishing trade right here began to draw a whole lot of Tunisian migrants, who have been drawn by the cultural similarities to their homeland, in addition to the higher job alternatives. Then in the direction of the tip of the Nineties, regardless of the rising tensions with Libya, migrants from West Africa and Southeast Asia additionally began to reach.

At the moment, greater than 3,000 foreign-born “Mazaresi” (folks of Mazara) name this nook of the Mediterranean residence, whereas no less than the identical quantity are descendants of those that have migrated right here over the previous a number of a long time. The overwhelming majority are Tunisian.

108 days

The 2011 rebellion in Libya, by which the nation’s chief Muammar Gaddafi was killed, solely escalated the dispute over the ocean. Libya break up into two separate political entities – the UN-recognised authorities in Tripoli led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and, within the east of the nation, renegade army commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Nationwide Military – with each governments advancing the identical claims over Mediterranean waters as their predecessor.

It was the federal government in Tripoli, nonetheless, that primarily focused the fishermen – a lot so, that the fishermen’s labour unions in Sicily had tried to forge an settlement with Haftar’s forces to guard them at sea. That settlement, nonetheless, fell aside in September 2019 and, a 12 months later, in the latest incident within the “purple prawn conflict” 18 fishermen from Mazara – eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese – have been seized, together with their boat, by Haftar’s forces. Analysts have recommended it was finished in retaliation for the Italian authorities fostering diplomatic relations with Tripoli.

In change for the fishermen, Haftar unsuccessfully sought to safe the discharge of 4 Libyan footballers who had been captured on a dinghy within the Mediterranean in 2015 and later sentenced to 30 years in jail in Italy for human trafficking. The households and mates of the footballers insist they’re harmless and are, in truth, refugees who have been merely making an attempt to achieve Europe with the dream of taking part in soccer in Germany.

One of many detained males, Bernardo Salvo, on the port of Mazara del Vallo [Vincenzo Giurfida/Al Jazeera]

For 108 days, the fishermen have been imprisoned at totally different detention centres round Benghazi, the place they are saying they have been psychologically and bodily mistreated.

They – and their vessel, the Medinea – have been ultimately launched in December, after an official go to to japanese Libya by Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

‘This curse’

Whereas the boys have been languishing in Libyan prisons, locals again residence say they spent a number of months in a state of hysteria and guilt, as they waited for information of them.

Some relations stop their jobs and left their kids with grandparents with a purpose to focus all their efforts on searching for their launch, holding protests in Rome and even chaining themselves to the gates in entrance of the Italian parliament constructing for a number of weeks. Mazara’s fishing trade got here to a standstill as a result of folks have been afraid to exit and fish. Highschool academics would cease common coursework courses to make their college students conscious of a battle they might in any other case not find out about of their historical past books.

This incident – and the others earlier than it – have wreaked havoc on the once-vibrant spirit of the neighborhood.

“Each time we hope it’ll be the final – that in some unspecified time in the future we’ll be free from this curse. Nevertheless it retains occurring, traumatising all of us in several methods,” Boccellato says.

‘I now not recognise this place’

Cristina Amabilino, 36, is looking on the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean from a vantage level above Mazara’s port.

One thing, nonetheless, has modified in her gaze over the previous few months. “I used to be born and raised right here, nevertheless it’s as if I now not recognise this place. Even this stunning sea view, that used to calm me down, now provides me shivers,” she says.

Bernardo Salvo and his spouse Cristina Amabilino subsequent to the Medinea, the vessel aboard which he was captured in September [Vincenzo Giurfida/Al Jazeera]

Amabilino is the spouse of Bernardo Salvo, 40, one of many fishermen launched by Libya in December. She says that quickly after they acquired collectively, she turned conscious of the emotional toll being married to a fisherman would take.

“We’ve been collectively for 22 years,” says Salvo, gently wrapping his hand round his spouse’s. “However the historical past of our city’s troubled co-existence with Libyans is older than our love story.”

‘Erasing our id’

Afraid of what might occur to them, many fishermen have stopped scouting the Mediterranean for the uncommon crustacean their households found within the Eighties. However not Domenico Asaro, 57, whose household have been fishing right here for 3 generations.

Regardless of being shot at and captured at sea in 1996, he retains crusing the troubled Mediterranean waters as a result of, he says, he feels his position is simply too essential to desert.

“Fishing is all I’ve recognized my total life,” he says as he wraps up some fishing nets aboard his vessel docked on the native port. “It’s the salt of the earth of this neighborhood, if we as fishermen hand over, we wouldn’t give a very good instance to our residents.”

Domenico Asaro, 57, aboard his fishing vessel [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

Asaro says he has come beneath assault thrice in his profession. Within the first occasion, in 1996, Libyan forces fired on his boat 80km (50 miles) off Misrata, and his six-man crew – a mixture of Italians and Tunisians – was captured and detained in poor circumstances at a jail in Benghazi for a number of weeks, till a collective effort led by the fishing union again residence negotiated their launch.

By the point he returned residence, Asaro had misplaced 22kg (48.5 kilos) and was recognized with diabetes introduced on by his poor remedy. He says he had been starved and overwhelmed all through his ordeal.

“However the bodily ache can’t examine to the a long time of psychological unrest which have haunted me ever since,” he provides. “What damage me essentially the most was having to inform my father that the Libyans had seized our household’s fishing boat, which had been handed down for 3 generations.”

Asaro’s father died a number of months later, and his son believes that this sorrow was what dealt the ultimate blow. “What usually makes us really feel powerless is that this example is erasing our id,” he says.

Within the bid, he says, to focus on the fishermen’s trigger politically, Asaro ran unsuccessfully for native elections in Mazara in 2018 with the far-right celebration League, recognized for its anti-migrant rhetoric. Asaro says he has no subject along with his Tunisian counterparts right here, however he believed the League would take a stronger stance on the problem of defending nationwide borders.

‘Let myself die’

Though greater than 20 years separated their imprisonments, Asaro and Salvo discover they share comparable psychological repercussions. Salvo says he got here again residence from Libya final December a modified man. He’s now studying to deal with insomnia, and each noise makes him flinch.

“They saved us confined to a darkish room with no mild for weeks; typically they made me eat from the ground. Jailers usually beat me up if I refused to,” Salvo says, including that what saved him was being saved along with 4 of his crewmates. “If I had been alone, I believe I might have let myself die.”

The port of Mazara del Vallo [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

Since December, Salvo has been receiving psychological assist and has but to return to the ocean. He says he’ll ultimately return to supply for his household as a result of he can’t see himself doing some other job. For now, although, his household will get by on the few thousand euros in compensation his labour union obtained from the Sicilian authorities for the fishermen.

Between them, the 18 households obtained 100,000 euros (about $120,000) from the regional authorities of Sicily, with every receiving a distinct quantity relying on their circumstances and what number of kids they’ve.

Collective trauma

From the fish market to the bars and hairdresser’s salon, locals would solely whisper in regards to the detained fishermen’s destiny after they have been captured final September.

Susanna Pecoraro, 27, is a lawyer who returned to Mazara, the place she was born and raised, final March when she discovered herself working from residence throughout the pandemic.

After the fishermen have been captured, she says she would spend mornings in her favorite bar, consuming espresso and listening to aged folks focus on the boys’s plight.

“You can simply see how any common citizen was totally immersed on this anxiousness loop by merely strolling and listening. It was mentally exhausting,” she says.

Rising up listening to comparable horror tales about fishermen being captured at sea, Pecoraro has lengthy been conversant in the way in which collective stress can grip the neighborhood, transmitted from individual to individual.

Anna Zinerco, a medical psychologist with experience in post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD), says the case of Mazara del Vallo represents a transparent instance of collective PTSD.

“In Mazara, the ocean has all the time been the protagonist of communal life,” she explains. “Most jobs there are related to it so, in a manner, the frequency of those non permanent disappearances could possibly be in comparison with a type of public mourning.”

Since everybody is aware of one another on this city, and has no less than one relative or ancestor within the fishing trade, these incidents create a community of “trauma contamination”.

Zinerco says Mazara’s community-wide PTSD signs have totally different layers. The fishermen are, after all, the first victims, however the secondary or oblique degree of traumatisation that their fellow residents undergo from is of no smaller concern.

“The sudden disappearance of a companion in a strongly-bonded neighborhood creates a psychological disruption. It may possibly come within the type of social anxiousness, or guilt for not having finished sufficient to forestall it,” she provides. “Some discover methods to manage whereas, for others, coming to phrases with it might be tougher in sensible phrases.”

‘The sacrifices’

For some, this sense of restlessness has been so haunting they’ve felt the impulse to depart. For five consecutive years, the variety of everlasting residents in Mazara del Vallo has fallen as greater than 150 folks have left the city annually since 2015.

Chef Bartolomeo Marmoreo, making ready a plate of uncooked purple prawns within the kitchen of his former restaurant, Antico Borgo Marinaro [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

Earlier than leaving for Milan to begin his new life, Bartolomeo Marmoreo, a descendant of a longstanding Mazara fishing household, is making ready his iconic dish of uncooked purple prawns with pomegranate, chilli and melon one final time for diners at his restaurant, Antico Borgo Marinaro, which he opened in 1989 however which he has now determined to promote.

A chef well-known for serving to to popularise the culinary tradition of Mazara throughout Italy, he says that the success he has loved from the purple prawns that made him well-known has come at a excessive emotional price.

“Each time I cook dinner, I consider all of the sacrifices many males made to convey every prawn to our tables, and it strikes me,” he explains.

“One of many fishermen who was launched in December was my highschool classmate. I saved texting him on Messenger throughout his detention, regardless that I knew he couldn’t reply,” Marmoreo says.

“However I used to be hopeful, someday he’d be free and would be capable of learn them. I wrote to him: ‘Sorry, mate, I can’t do greater than writing. Please forgive me’,” he provides making an attempt to carry again tears. His pal was launched together with the others in December, however has but to return to the ocean.

‘Peace of thoughts’

A smaller however rising variety of residents is studying to search out artistic methods to utilise their discomfort as an alternative.

Manuela Marascia portray an image in honour of the fishermen [courtesy of Manuela Marascia]

Manuela Marascia, a 32-year-old resident of Mazara, says that artwork has helped her tame the sense of restlessness and anger that will mark her days every time a brand new incident occurred.

“There’s all the time the worry that one thing will go incorrect in these instances,” Marascia says. “This time, portray an image of the fishermen with heat colors of hope gave me the peace of thoughts I wanted. It’s just like the canvas trapped all my unfavourable ideas.”

After they have been launched, Marascia added the phrase “Lastly Free” to her portray, and requested town corridor to place it on show, with the intention of giving hope to others sooner or later.

Fracturing the Tunisian-Sicilian bond

Situated 1,095km (680 miles) from Rome, however lower than 275km (170 miles) from Tunisia, Mazara del Vallo can also be thought of a nationwide treasure for its distinctive twin id.

Sicily was a Muslim stronghold from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, and Mazara del Vallo was the primary metropolis to be conquered and to imagine the sometimes Islamic city and architectural options which make so many migrants from Tunisia, specifically, really feel at residence.

Nevertheless it was additionally the flourishing fishing sector that attracted hundreds of Tunisian migrants; they really feel welcome on this nook of Europe that has given them loads of job alternatives.

At the moment, about 6,000 ethnic Tunisians stay right here – half of whom have twin Italian citizenship and 80 p.c of whom are employed within the fishing trade – following the custom of their mother and father and grandparents. However discouraged by the ever-increasing threats of the purple prawn conflict, fewer are keen to take the dangers nowadays, notably the youthful members of the neighborhood.

A bar the place Italian and Tunisian fishermen meet to talk, drink and play after work in Mazara [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

Hedi Ben Thameur, 59, got here to Mazara del Vallo in 1982 from Sousse, on the coast of Tunisia. He acquired married to a fellow Tunisian right here, had kids and started a brand new life. His eldest son, now 30, has adopted his path, however is amongst fewer than a dozen fishermen under the age of 35 right here.

“I’m grateful for the alternatives Mazara gave to me and my household,” says Ben Thameur. “However I’m conscious that youthful generations are absorbing our despair and really feel disoriented. In any case, fishing was usually the one profession prospect they might be provided. It’s not simple to recalibrate that within the span of only a technology.”

In response to Francesco Mezzapelle, a Mazara-based sociologist who has spent a number of years analysing the socioeconomic affect of the “purple prawn conflict” right here, that may quickly create a further social trauma.

For years, this city has been praised as a showcase for migrants’ inclusion. However Mezzapelle says the 2 identities – Tunisian and Sicilian – whereas coexisting peacefully, have lived largely aside, sending their kids to totally different elementary colleges and frequenting totally different eating places. It’s only within the fishing trade that they meet to construct relationships.

“Fishing crews with blended nationalities have been the glue protecting collectively this neighborhood. If the fishing sector is in danger, so are the Italian-Tunisian bonds it took years to consolidate,” Mezzapelle says.

“If that disappears, our neighborhood would possibly undergo from a fracture that may solely deteriorate additional the emotional dynamics of this place.”

Native faculty authorities have already warned of falling literacy charges as many, seeing no extra future, drop out earlier than the tip of center faculty. Numbers are notably stark amongst Tunisian nationals.

Many Tunisians additionally say they’ve begun to really feel out-of-place because the “purple prawn conflict” has served to focus on their standing as “foreigners”, and they’re more and more related to the Libyan “enemy” due to their shared native language.

Mokarta Sq. within the casbah, the historic metropolis centre of Mazara del Vallo [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

When, after months of protests by the fishermen’s relations in Rome and Mazara, the Italian ministry of international affairs lastly organized a brief telephone name with the fishermen detained in Libya final winter, 21-year-old Insaf Jemmali was ready in line for her flip to talk to her father who was being held in Benghazi.

“I used to be shocked after they informed me that, as a Tunisian nationwide, I didn’t have the best to talk to him. I used to be informed [by a representative from the ministry]: ‘You’ll be able to ask the Tunisian authorities that will help you with that.’,” Jemmali, who has but to obtain Italian citizenship regardless of dwelling there for 18 years, says. “I used to be by no means pushed to marvel about my id in Mazara earlier than; for me, it was pure to be each.”

Now she worries this “conflict” with Libya would possibly create tensions and id crises sooner or later.

Ladies on the entrance strains

The reminiscence of the determined screams of ladies gathered exterior his workplace nonetheless haunts Salvatore Quinci.

As mayor of Mazara del Vallo, Quinci says his city endured a number of actually exhausting months till the fishermen have been launched in December. He now hopes the worst is over, though he’s conscious new tragedies can strike at any time.

“In fact, my ideas will all the time be with our front-line staff at sea,” he says. “However to be sincere, what worries me now could be the psychological well being of these left behind.”

The vast majority of them, he says, are girls; the fishermen’s wives, daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law who fought for them whereas they have been detained.

Their efforts to make sure their launch saved the entire neighborhood vigilant, and infrequently shook the consciences of these elsewhere in Italy who would possibly in any other case have ignored their plight.

All through their battle, they have been usually met with the resounding silence of presidency establishments which, Zinerco explains, amplified Mazara’s sense of collective isolation when confronted with such tragedies.

Marascia, who took half within the protests, says she was actually impressed by the power and braveness of the ladies in talking out within the identify of the fishermen, and of the entire metropolis.

“It was an essential lesson as a result of the narrative usually sees fishermen as heroes of the ocean, whereas girls are the victims left behind, passively ready for his or her return,” she says.

She believes their resilience could possibly be an inspiration to fellow residents who’ve felt powerless within the face of this collective trauma.

“Maybe, this newest disaster might rework into the second of reckoning that may assist Mazara del Vallo brush off years of numbness,” she provides.

Cristina Amabilino, who introduced the protests to Rome by chaining herself up in entrance of the parliament’s constructing for a number of weeks in October and November final 12 months alongside different relations of the fishermen, is aware of she has to study to slowly settle for what occurred to her household, and to deal with her new love-hate relationship with the ocean.

Mazara del Vallo’s waterfront [Alessio Mamo/Al Jazeera]

In any case, she can’t escape it; she catches glimpses of it from each window of her condo.

“For many who grew up right here in Mazara, the ocean has all the time meant the nourishment of our stomach and our soul,” she says, taking a deep breath. “However now we additionally affiliate it with terror and worries.”

Amabilino nervously waits for the second her husband will set sail once more to supply for his or her three kids as a result of she is aware of that, regardless of what occurred, going to sea is in his nature.

“As a substitute of naming the purple prawn after our city, they need to identify a brand new sickness – the Mazara del Vallo syndrome,” she provides, as soon as extra discovering her potential to snicker and make jokes.