Fun and Games at Italy's Largest Immigrant Ghetto

The Rignano Ghetto is located in the countryside near Foggia, in the region of Apulia, in southern Italy. It was formed spontaneously more than 15 years ago, after the evacuation of an abandoned sugar mill, which had served as accommodation for foreign...

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Nov 25 2013, 4:15pm

Shacks in the ghetto

The colored neon lights and the music pumping from the speakers rip through the silence of the countryside near Foggia, in the region of Apulia, southern Italy. I should be in the middle of nowhere but there’s actually quite a lot of traffic here: cars, motorbikes, and people coming and going. It’s around 10 PM and after almost two hours wandering in the roads around Foggia I find myself in front of what the locals call “The Big Ghetto,” or more simply the Rignano Ghetto.

The "ghetto" was spontaneously formed more than 15 years ago, after the evacuation of an abandoned sugar mill, which had served as accommodation for foreign men working in Foggia's “slavery triangle.” Exploitation of migrants in agriculture is not particular to Apulia—it is common all over Italy, especially in the south. A 2012 report by the Flai Cgil (the Italian General Confederation of Labor’s affiliated Agro-industrial Workers’ Union), said that 700,000 regular and irregular pickers work in the fields and about 400,000 of them are recruited irregularly for very low wages.

Inside a shack

Over the last decade the Rignano “village” has expanded. The demography of the ghetto changes depending on the season and the demand for work in the tomato fields. During winter it hosts around 200 immigrants (mainly coming from French-speaking African countries), while during summer the population rises to 800. Some of its inhabitants arrived in Italy by plane 20 years ago, while those who arrived recently had to cross the desert and pay thousands of dollars to travel in rickety fishing boats across the Mediterranean, hoping they wouldn’t lose their lives like those in Lampedusa recently.

Once they succeed in crossing the Mediterranean, day laborers in southern fields are forced to camp out in abandoned factories, with no money and a daily dose of violence from landowners who make enormous profits out of their work. The work conditions border on the Medieval.

And although the ghetto is illegal and the police know all about it, they rarely intervene. The logic is typically Italian: if you don’t make a scene, I’ll pretend nothing ever happened. The inhabitants just quietly go about their day-to-day work as almost-slaves.

The Apulia regional government has started providing the area with drinking water just a few years ago, after some associations had been lobbying local politicians about the issue. In the past, as Frontiere News reports, the lack of drinking water caused the death of many immigrants who “drowned in irrigation tanks while trying to clean themselves and get some water.” The same goes for the toilets, which were installed in 2011: before that, as Nigrizia remembers, “teens, women, children, and adults were urinating and defecating in the open fields, transforming the whole village into an open-air toilet.” In November 2012, a fire started by a candle destroyed around 30 shacks without killing anyone.

Madi's shop

As soon as I arrive I meet Madi, a guy from Burkina Faso who serves as the “unofficial” butcher of the ghetto. He finds me a place to sleep and offers me my first dinner in the camp: barbecued chunks of smoked mutton. With my stomach full, I go for a look around: everything is absorbed by darkness, except for a few power generators lighting blue and red neon lights.

As I walk closer to one of the shacks, I am stopped by two girls who start stroking my chin. The penny immediately drops as they invite me into what I realize is the local brothel. I decline their invitation and walk into the bar to have a beer. I am served by the first white person I see since I arrived. I can tell from his face that he is not exactly in the mood for a conversation. I pay and leave the bar, starting to wander around the main roads. People are all busy slowly walking nowhere. Some of them play table football.

Ba

I walk back to Madi’s butcher shop and he shows me my room, which is basically a mattress laid on the backyard of a blue neon “bar.” Outside the place I meet Ba, a young man from Guinea who tells me that, at the moment, he’s basically doing nothing: “There’s no more work here.” Ba spends his days waiting for the right moment to move to Rosarno, a small town near Reggio Calabria which has become well known for the slave-like conditions of immigrants working as orange pickers. In 2010, Rosarno witnessed a massive immigrant revolt after some locals shot the workers with an air rifle.

When morning comes around I start to understand the shape of the place. It’s basically a long line of plastic, metal, and cardboard shacks in the middle of nothing. Migrants build the shacks by hand. Nobody pays rent. When they leave the ghetto, their shack is given to a friend or a relative. Since the flow of African immigrants has increased in recent years, the ghetto is continuously expanding in the Apulia “desert.”

A shop

There’s almost everything in the ghetto: butchers, small shops, and "restaurants" where the few women of the ghetto hang out. At the end of one of the main roads I notice an open-air mechanic’s with four or five people working. The guys are visibly annoyed and tell me they don’t want to be photographed for any reason and "invite me" to leave the place. I follow their advice and limit myself to a discreet walk around the ghetto, talking to some residents. I stop off to eat some beans and offal (I’m not sure which animal’s) in the shack of a lady who stares and smiles at me looking a bit confused.

The ghetto mosque

The population of the Rignano Ghetto is divided into two main categories: those willing to talk about their situation and those who can barely muster a frightened glance at me before shuffling on. I meet a group of guys from Mali who explain to me how fruit and vegetable picking works: if you’re hired in a tomato field, which is the most common job during summer, you’ll earn around 2.50 to 3.50 ($3.40 to $4.75) euros per hour, unless the “white-boss” prefers to pay you by the tomato. The average daily salary for a worker is $34, and the cost of getting to Foggia is around $13.50 every day. Other locals tell me that in Rosarno you’ll get $1.30 per box of tangerines and 70 cents for a box of oranges.

Fatima's bar

I return to my accommodation. Outside I meet Fatima, the owner of the bar. She has been living in the area for 13 years and gives off the impression that she’s a sort of spokesperson for the whole ghetto. She tells me that people are sick and tired of journalists coming here filming and interviewing: “Everybody tells us they’re here to help, but then they leave and that’s that.” A man in his 50s sitting next to us says he has seen himself on TV and wasn’t too happy about it.

This shack is used to store slaughtered animals

At sunset it’s time for shopping. Every day, cars and vans from the Gypsy camp nearby come to the ghetto to sell cheap clothes, shoes, and other random stuff. There’s also an Italian man who looks like an old cowboy with a box full of shoes and a cigar in his mouth. At night, neon lights and music are turned on as prostitutes prepare for their shift. I am starting to feel hungry so I head back to camp, eating those smoked chunks of mutton from Madi’s butcher shop. The lucky ones in the ghetto can afford grilled liver with lard for dinner.

Ibrahim shows me where he sleeps

The morning after there’s a strange fog in the ghetto. The atmosphere is cold and humid, and the streets are almost deserted. Someone pops out of the shack to stretch. I drink a watery coffee and have a walk around the smaller alleys. Here I meet Ibrahim, a 30-year-old man who invites me to see his place. Ibrahim lives with eight other people and he’s anxious to tell me about his situation: “There’s not much to do here. In one or two weeks we will be collecting olives but it won’t last more than ten days. We earn 1 euro ($1.35) for each box of olives.”

After a few minutes Ibrahim changes the subject and asks me for a ride to Foggia where he says he is going to play football. As I drive him, it becomes clear that he actually wants to go betting. I take him to the first bookies we find, where he stops quickly and wins $80. We go to another betting shop and he spends a while. He plays cards, betting $27 out of the $80 he previously won. Afterward he tells me with a wry smile, “I’m not gonna eat tonight, I spent too much money on gambling.” Once we’re back in the ghetto, he tells me his dream: “Winning a bunch of money by gambling and getting married.”

Radioghetto

The only activities available to kill the afternoon boredom are table football, chess, cigarettes, and five-a-side soccer matches. They also have their own “Radio Ghetto” but there’s no one inside the building. The radio only works during summer, when the ghetto is very crowded. “Radio Ghetto” is the only way to communicate with the outside world and tell others what’s happening within the camps.

Ibrahim, a guy from Mali, tells me what happens in a pumpkin field a few miles away from the ghetto: “the 'white-boss' walks around the field holding a wooden stick, and if you stand up to light a cigarette he promptly puts you down again hitting you with the stick.” These men are employed by the landowners and farmers to make sure that everything runs smoothly in the fields. To do so, they don’t hesitate to beat or even kill the workers, as many reports have highlighted.

There’s not just the “white-boss,” but also a “black-boss”, who is basically an immigrant who recruits the workers. The problem is—as a 50-year-old African man tells me—“if the white-boss pays four euros per hour ($5.40), the black-boss tells us it’s three ($4), so he earns one euro on each one of us, every hour.” I ask him how can you become a “black-boss,” but he doesn’t know.

A toilet at the camp

Undeclared work was only recognized as a problem by the government in 2011, and is considered by police detectives as a proof of the presence of mafia groups in the agricultural field. The sector has an estimated annual turnover of 12 to 17 billion euros, that is to say about 5 to 10 percent of the whole mafia economy. Yvan Sagnet—a Cameroonian Cgil representative who was involved in one of the 2011 field riots in Nardò, in Lecce—has written that agriculture in the ghetto's province “is highly influenced by Camorra [a crime syndicate]. During the agricultural season hundreds of truck drivers travel from Campania to Foggia to illegally rent the fields to farmers and take the goods to other businesses near Salerno.”

It’s not just the working slavery that keeps the ghetto people here: four guys told me that everyday they approach the boss to receive their salary but he just procrastinates and doesn’t cough up – some workers have been waiting for more than two weeks. Many are eager to move to a city or a better slum, but without any money you can’t even reach Rosarno. Last summer a guy who worked in a field for a week summoned up the courage to report the recruiters who exploited him without paying him any money. Thanks to the support of a lawyer he managed to get his salary, but after that the “white-bosses” were reluctant to give him work ever again.

A restaurant

The night draws in. I eat those smoked meat chunks again and decide to take a look at the brothel I visited the night before. The place is pretty empty, only a couple of Italian clients are walking away with the prostitutes. After declining a couple of offers I start talking to a lady, Zahra, who tells me her story: “In 2010 I had to leave Morocco because my husband died and I didn’t know where to get the money to feed my daughter. So I came to Italy to do this job.” During the winter, Zahra works in Foggia; during summer she works in the ghetto. She also explains to me that the brothel is owned “by a white guy named Nicola. He wants 20 euros ($27) a day to use the room we work in.” Five girls sleep and work in that room. Prices are 25 ($34) euros a time for white people and 15 euros ($20) for everyone else.

Dawn in the ghetto. Someone burns yesterday's waste.

When I wake up the morning after I feel horrible: nauseous and with a sore, phlegmy throat. I deduce that these are probably the effects of the local cuisine. The animals Madi kills are dismembered, cleaned, and distributed in the ghetto. The problem is that he works in extremely dusty, unhygienic conditions, around flies that love nothing more than to defecate and vomit on the meat. I spend a day in bed fighting my temperature and feeling sick. Then I take some paracetamol and am surprised to find that it is enough to make the symptoms go away. The next day someone told me that Fatima, the woman who was hosting me, prayed for my recovery.

I am ready to leave at dawn. There’s no one around the ghetto, and you can almost breathe in the desolation. After spending four nights in this world I have one thing very clear in my mind: the Rignano Ghetto is not really in Apulia nor in Europe. It is an outpost of the exploited developing world transported to a place where nobody thought it would be possible to exist in 2013, and nobody gives a fuck about it.

Marco Valli is part of Cesura collectivepart of Cesura collective

Written with the collaboration of Leonardo Bianchi

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