Film tells story of Nigerian women lured to Campania and forced to become ‘modern slaves’ selling sex for as little as €10

The Via Domitiana is a busy dual carriageway cutting through the heart of the southern Italian seaside town of Castel Volturno. The less-observant tourist might miss it, but a look to the side of this road built during the Roman empire soon shows that this is no longer the fiefdom of ice cream-eating families and sunseekers.

Dotted here and there are groups of Nigerian women and girls, clustered in twos and threes: they are trafficked prostitutes, selling sex for as little as €10 a time so that they might pay off enormous debts owed to their smugglers.

Illegal immigrants first came to Castel Volturno from Nigeria in the 1980s to work on the tomato farms in the countryside but when those farms went out of business, there was no work, legal or otherwise. Some of them soon realised there was a different kind of money to be made – through the importing and selling of both drugs and humans in a district characterised by extreme poverty and high levels of violent crime. Since Castel Volturno sits in the heartland of the Camorra, a criminal network based in Naples, this could not be done without the consent of its local wing, the Casalesi clan.

But as Nigerian gangsters extended their reach in a town that is now home to one of Europe’s largest concentrations of illegal immigrants, the Casalesi reasserted its authority. In 2008, it killed six African men in a drive-by shooting – the horror of the incident and the riots that followed is captured in Là-bas, a film set to premiere at the Venice film festival.

That same year, the campaign against the gangs – involving the police, the government and the local community – brought the singer Miriam Makeba to perform at a festival aimed at defying the Camorra and promoting tolerance, but Mama Africa, as she was known, had a heart attack and died backstage.

Now the story of Castel Volturno will be told in a film by reporter Juliana Ruhfus, shown on Wednesday on al-Jazeera. In it Ruhfus is told that the Casalesi extort money from all illegal activity in the town and that police fear the uneasy truce between the two sides will not last.

Deported Nigerian prostitutes

One officer, whose anonymity must be protected, says: “Prostitution is tolerated by the Italian mafia as there will always be people who can earn money through their presence. Nigerians pay [the mafia] and are allowed to continue with their illegal activities. But when this peace is broken, there will be war.”

Women working on the Via Domitiana speak of shattered dreams, of €60,000 debts – a sum they had no concept of before they arrived in Italy – and of a deep, terrifying fear of breaking the juju ceremonies that bind them to their traffickers.

Isoke Aikpitanyi is a former prostitute who was lured to Italy with the promise of a hairdressing job. The salon did not exist and instead she became, she says, “a modern slave” trapped in the town’s dark underbelly. Standing on the road, she sold herself because her madam would “kill me because I have [earned] nothing”. She did so for a pittance. “Some have pity on you and give you 20 to 50 euros. But normally they give you 10.” Aikpitanyi escaped but others have not been so lucky.

Ruhfus speaks to a prostitute on the Via Domitiana, who says: “I’m not happy with myself, I’m not happy with my body. I’m not happy with the things I do any more. I’m not comfortable with this job. But I cannot run away without anything and no papers. I need some money to go but I can’t run away. I have to finish my project. I promised to pay so I can’t run away. I have to finish it.”

The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute estimates there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Nigerian women and girls living in Italy who have been forced into prostitution.

For now, there is an uneasy truce between the Casalesi clan and the Nigerian mafia in Castel Volturno. But Osaheni Ogbodu, president of the Nigerian Edo community in the town, knows the violent rivalry is always simmering below the surface: he too has been shot by the Casalesi. “We were holding a community meeting as usual to bring our people together. They ran into the compound where we were holding the meeting and started to shoot at us.”

Ogbodu points to an exit wound in his waist. “I was shot here, the bullet went through here and it came out this way,” he says. Asked if the violence could easily escalate, he warns: “This issue, if it’s not taken care of, it can blow a lot of things up.”


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