Photo: Kate Stanworth

One afternoon in April 2016, Yusupha Susso was walking with two friends in the cobbled backstreets of Palermo when a local criminal with ties to Sicily’s mafia insulted them. “This is my street,” said Emanuele Rubino, who then told the young migrants to get out of his way.

Susso, a 21-year-old from the Gambia, was worried but carried on walking. After all, he thought, he had two friends with him. What could Rubino do?

Soon afterwards, Rubino reappeared with several other men and Susso ran for his life. But Rubino caught up with him and CCTV footage shows him holding a gun, approaching Susso and firing a shot. The bullet hit Susso in the head, but miraculously grazed his brain without seriously damaging it, though he was left in a coma. A few months after the shooting, Susso told me: “Now I feel some pain all the time.” He could no longer sing or play football, or walk far without discomfort.

However, the attempted murder had one positive impact: it spurred Palermo’s migrant shopkeepers to do something extraordinary in a city that has been controlled by the mafia for decades. They decided it was time to act — or they could end up dying. So they made a stand against the demands of extortionists. With the support of a local anti-mafia group called Addiopizzo, 11 shopkeepers — 10 from Bangladesh and one from Tunisia — went to the Palermo police.

“They decided it was time to act — or they could end up dying.”

Most victims had previously been too afraid to speak out or had been lone voices. The shopkeepers courageously accused a group of people linked to the mafia of robbery, theft, assault, harassment and continual demands for money. The Bangladeshis said that for years they had suffered a catalogue of crimes.

Addiopizzo means “goodbye protection money” and the group’s mission is to rid Sicily of the mafia extortion rackets that cripple local businesses and terrorise the community. Salvo Caradonna, a lawyer who advises the group and who helped the shopkeepers take their case to court, says their action was significant because “they wanted to press charges together”. The Bangladeshis were willing to do what most local Italians would not, and their united front was far harder to ignore — or scare off — than a lone complainant.

Not only was Rubino hauled up for attempted murder, but the police also arrested nine other members of his family and their associates for making extortion demands against shopkeepers in the city’s Ballaro market, specifically targeting the Bangladeshi community.

In November last year the court of appeal in Palermo upheld a 12-year sentence against Rubino for the shooting of Susso. But more remarkably, in April this year a judge in Palermo sentenced eight of those arrested, including Rubino, to a total of 60 years in prison for extortion, mafia associations and racial discrimination against the shopkeepers. The court also recognised the shopkeepers’ right to compensation.

During the criminal case, their identities were protected and they did not speak to the media. But after the verdict, two shopkeepers agreed to be interviewed by me, provided their real names were not used. This is the story of how people from humble origins took on the mafia and won.

“This is the story of how people from humble origins took on the mafia and won.”

Ballaro is Palermo’s oldest street market and, after being neglected for decades, was solid mafia territory. In recent years, however, a growing immigrant community has begun to transform this unloved corner of Sicily’s capital.

Most media attention about migrants arriving in Italy has focused on those coming from North Africa and the high death toll they suffer: more than 900 people are believed to have died making the crossing to Europe so far this year. Often overlooked is that many people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries also make their way to Sicily. Several politicians I spoke to in Palermo estimated there are 10,000-15,000 Bangladeshis living in the city. On Via Maqueda and Via Roma in the Ballaro district, Bangladeshi vendors sell cheap plastic goods or run money-transfer businesses next to African women on the streets braiding the hair of young Sicilians.

For years, many Bangladeshi shopkeepers faced demands for protection money from mafia-linked criminals. Tafazzul Topu, a young Bangladeshi community activist who grew up in Palermo, says shopkeepers in his tightknit community would usually not talk about the extortion “because everyone was afraid”. According to Topu, people stayed silent and paid the protection money in order to prevent their shops being robbed.

Joynal Miah was one of those Bangladeshi shopkeepers who had spent years living in fear of mafia-linked criminals. He recalls watching Rubino grow up from a delinquent boy threatening shopkeepers on a moped into a hardened criminal capable of attempted murder in broad daylight. He says the local Ballaro mafia had threatened to rob his shops and kill him, but he was too scared to speak out about the threats or to go to the police. “Everyone knew not to walk on this or that street,” he says.

He was even too afraid to walk his daughter through the area. She used to ask him: “Why don’t you take me to school?” He was too embarrassed to tell her the truth. “I was scared when I saw them,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t look ahead of me.”

Amir Ali is a friend of Miah’s who arrived in Sicily from Bangladesh via Jordan and Rome. He set about building a business in Palermo, but says he was forced to pay protection when he opened shops in the Ballaro neighbourhood.

“It didn’t stop with paying, that was the problem,” Ali tells me. “It went beyond that. They were making threats to the others — those that didn’t pay — threatening them with violence, breaking the windows, threatening the customers. They threatened children, showed off their guns, put it on the table, demanded money. That’s when I thought that the police couldn’t do anything, that was the point at which I was really desperate,” he says.

Just before Susso was shot in 2015, Ali says things had become so bad that he had considered quitting Palermo. “In that period, I thought of closing up everything and leaving,” he says.

After Susso was gunned down in the street, Miah believed the community faced a stark choice. “How much can someone take? It was either go ahead or die, something was going to happen. That’s why we decided to do something.” He was determined to take matters into his own hands and, as a respected voice in the local Bangladeshi community, helped to orchestrate action against the mafia with other shopkeepers. He and Ali joined forces, shared information and approached Addiopizzo for help.

The arrest of Rubino for attempted murder and extortion gave the shopkeepers hope. “After we saw the law working properly we had the courage, not only for us, but also for our children,” Ali says. “It came from that. That was a moment when people started talking, and the fear went away. People felt more free, their mentalities changed.”

Even so, when the extortion court case began towards the end of 2017, it was difficult for the Bangladeshi shopkeepers: they had to attend court to give evidence in person. For the 11 shopkeepers that meant confronting Rubino and his associates. “They all know each other, of course they were scared,’’ says Caradonna, the lawyer advising Addiopizzo.

“This was the first time in my life I was in court,” Miah says. “Even in my own country, I’d only seen a trial on TV.” He says the case took a heavy toll on his wife. “She was very scared. She didn’t know what might happen — whether I might be shot. Who knows?”

There were no wiretaps or video footage — the case relied on the witness accounts of the shopkeepers as the primary source of evidence for the prosecution. Caradonna says this put a lot of pressure on the Bangladeshis. It was, he says, one of the most “emotional” cases he has been involved with in 15 years of advising Addiopizzo. Despite the burden, Miah says there was no turning back: “We had to deal with it. Going back would have meant closing the shop and leaving my job.”

Nor did the Bangladeshis get the support of the Sicilian shopkeepers in Ballaro. “The Palermitans in the area wanted to help, but they were even more scared than us,” Miah says. “We went to the police and made the complaint, but none of them wanted to press charges. In their hearts they were with us, but they couldn’t say it.”

As you enter the central artery of the Ballaro market, a cacophony of sounds assault your senses, as do the smells of Sicilian delicacies wafting through the air — arancini, caponata and fried sardines. But the area retains a dark side. Young Sicilians ferry suspicious packages through the side streets, Nigerian gangs operate brothels where madams groom young trafficked girls, and African women walk along the main road selling their bodies. In places the mood is distinctly shady.

The political atmosphere in Italy is also febrile, partly because of the influx of migrants. Nevertheless, the judgment in the Bengali shopkeepers’ court case has had a remarkable effect. Not only has it proved that the mafia and other criminal elements can be confronted, but it has also shown the contribution that migrants can make to their local communities.

“Not only has it proved that the mafia and other criminal elements can be confronted, but it has also shown the contribution that migrants can make to their local communities.”

At its height, the Cosa Nostra mafia of Sicily would threaten — and even kill — prominent authority figures. On May 23, 1992, the magistrate Giovanni Falcone was assassinated in a bomb attack that killed his wife and three policemen, and two months later his friend and fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino was also killed by a car bomb in Palermo.

Since those days, the power of the Cosa Nostra has diminished and the mafia is seen as disordered and fragmented. A year ago this week, more than 45 people were arrested on allegations of extortion, arson, possession of illegal weapons and mafia association.

Political change is also in the air. Sumi Dalia Aktar is the first Bengali politician in Sicily, elected as a local councillor for the centre-left Partito Democratico, which shares a coalition with the Five-Star Movement. She says the shopkeepers’ court case has proven beyond doubt her community’s commitment to the city.

Caradonna says the case has led to salvation in Ballaro. “This was the importance of the trial. The liberation of a whole street, a whole neighbourhood.” When the judgments were read out in April, Caradonna says there was silence in the courtroom. “That moment was very special, it was the final act of a whole journey that had gone on for three years.”

For Miah, Palermo has become “very calm”. He hasn’t heard of any burglaries since the spring, and he and his family have lost most, though not all, of their fear. “For my children, there isn’t any fear,” he says. “That’s gone down, and surely will in the future. They will also become Palermitans.

“Now I go to Ballaro without any problems,” he says. “I can take my daughter to school.”

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The names of the two Bangladeshi shopkeepers have been changed for their protection.