The ‘red prawn war’: How trauma gripped a Sicilian fishing town
Situated 1,130km from the Italian capital, but only 515km across the sea from Libya, a fishing town in Sicily has found itself caught in the crosshairs of a territorial dispute.
Every morning at the crack of dawn, fishmongers gather at the historical fish market of Mazara del Vallo, a town in western Sicily with a population of 52,000, shouting out their best offers of the day.
Dressed in rubber aprons and boots, they cut fresh swordfish into large chunks and wash baskets of mussels, as the acrid smell of fish fills the air.
Coronavirus restrictions in Italy have not changed the daily routine much for these traders. But the psychological effects of the “red prawn war” have.
“Look! Red like the blood it takes our men to bring them here,” says Nicola Boccellato, as he lays out red prawns – 1kg for 50 euros (about $60) – on one of his stalls.
With their distinctive red colour, even when raw, red prawns are considered a delicacy. For decades, they have been Mazara del Vallo’s signature product, so much so they became its official symbol and appear alongside the town’s name in culinary books.
But since the start of a territorial dispute in the Central Mediterranean, the town’s livelihood has hung in the balance.
‘Sadness in their eyes’
According to local fishermen, towards the end of the 1980s, the Libyan coastguard and military patrols began using force against foreign vessels within 119km (74 miles) of its coast – fishing waters Libya unilaterally declared as its own in 2005. The internationally recognised limit of Libya’s waters, however, is about 19km (12 miles).
Since the 1990s, Sicily’s Distretto della Pesca, a fishing labour organisation based in Mazara, has been recording the toll this dispute has taken on the community – including the seizure of more than 50 Italian fishing vessels and the detention of more than 40 fishermen, for periods of between two weeks and two months.
Boccellato, who was born and raised here, describes the emotional toll the decades of conflict has taken. He says his job no longer sparks the same joy it used to when he began his fish trading business in the 1990s.
“The real colpo al cuore [heartache] is going to the port every day to buy fresh products from our fishermen,” Boccellato says. “They have this sadness in their eyes … it makes us feel guilty because, as fish sellers, we helped popularise the red prawn globally, increasing the pressure on their shoulders.”
Before the tensions with Libya, Mazara had long been a harmonious home to people from different places.
In the years following the end of the second world war, the flourishing local fishing industry here started to attract hundreds of Tunisian migrants, who were drawn by the cultural similarities to their homeland, as well as the better job opportunities. Then towards the end of the 1990s, despite the growing tensions with Libya, migrants from West Africa and Southeast Asia also started to arrive.
Today, more than 3,000 foreign-born “Mazaresi” (people of Mazara) call this corner of the Mediterranean home, while at least the same number are descendants of those who have migrated here over the past several decades. The vast majority are Tunisian.
The 2011 uprising in Libya, in which the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed, only escalated the dispute over the sea. Libya split into two separate political entities – the UN-recognised government in Tripoli led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and, in the east of the country, renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army – with both governments advancing the same claims over Mediterranean waters as their predecessor.
It was the government in Tripoli, however, that primarily targeted the fishermen – so much so, that the fishermen’s labour unions in Sicily had attempted to forge an agreement with Haftar’s forces to protect them at sea. That agreement, however, fell apart in September 2019 and, a year later, in the most recent incident in the “red prawn war” 18 fishermen from Mazara – eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese – were seized, along with their boat, by Haftar’s forces. Analysts have suggested it was done in retaliation for the Italian government fostering diplomatic relations with Tripoli.
In exchange for the fishermen, Haftar unsuccessfully sought to secure the release of four Libyan footballers who had been captured on a dinghy in the Mediterranean in 2015 and later sentenced to 30 years in prison in Italy for human trafficking. The families and friends of the footballers insist they are innocent and are, in fact, refugees who were simply trying to reach Europe with the dream of playing football in Germany.
For 108 days, the fishermen were imprisoned at different detention centres around Benghazi, where they say they were psychologically and physically mistreated.
They – and their vessel, the Medinea – were eventually released in December, after an official visit to eastern Libya by Italy’s then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
While the men were languishing in Libyan prisons, locals back home say they spent several months in a state of anxiety and guilt, as they waited for news of them.
Some relatives quit their jobs and left their children with grandparents in order to focus all their efforts on seeking their release, holding protests in Rome and even chaining themselves to the gates in front of the Italian parliament building for several weeks. Mazara’s fishing industry came to a standstill because people were afraid to go out and fish. High school teachers would stop usual coursework classes to make their students aware of a conflict they would otherwise not learn about in their history books.
This incident – and the others before it – have wreaked havoc on the once-vibrant spirit of the community.
“Every time we hope it’ll be the last – that at some point we’ll be free from this curse. But it keeps happening, traumatising all of us in different ways,” Boccellato says.
‘I no longer recognise this place’
Cristina Amabilino, 36, is looking out at the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean from a vantage point above Mazara’s port.
Something, however, has changed in her gaze over the past few months. “I was born and raised here, but it’s as if I no longer recognise this place. Even this beautiful sea view, that used to calm me down, now gives me shivers,” she says.
Amabilino is the wife of Bernardo Salvo, 40, one of the fishermen released by Libya in December. She says that soon after they got together, she became aware of the emotional toll being married to a fisherman would take.
“We have been together for 22 years,” says Salvo, gently wrapping his hand around his wife’s. “But the history of our town’s troubled co-existence with Libyans is older than our love story.”
‘Erasing our identity’
Afraid of what may happen to them, many fishermen have stopped scouting the Mediterranean for the rare crustacean their families discovered in the 1980s. But not Domenico Asaro, 57, whose family have been fishing here for three generations.
Despite being shot at and captured at sea in 1996, he keeps sailing the troubled Mediterranean waters because, he says, he feels his role is too important to abandon.
“Fishing is all I’ve known my entire life,” he says as he wraps up some fishing nets aboard his vessel docked at the local port. “It’s the salt of the earth of this community, if we as fishermen give up, we wouldn’t give a good example to our citizens.”
Asaro says he has come under attack three times in his career. In the first instance, in 1996, Libyan forces fired on his boat 80km (50 miles) off Misrata, and his six-man crew – a mix of Italians and Tunisians – was captured and detained in poor conditions at a prison in Benghazi for several weeks, until a collective effort led by the fishing union back home negotiated their release.
By the time he returned home, Asaro had lost 22kg (48.5 pounds) and was diagnosed with diabetes brought on by his poor treatment. He says he had been starved and beaten throughout his ordeal.
“But the physical pain cannot compare to the decades of psychological unrest that have haunted me ever since,” he adds. “What hurt me the most was having to tell my father that the Libyans had seized our family’s fishing boat, which had been passed down for three generations.”
Asaro’s father died a few months later, and his son believes that this sorrow was what dealt the final blow. “What often makes us feel powerless is that this situation is erasing our identity,” he says.
In the bid, he says, to highlight the fishermen’s cause politically, Asaro ran unsuccessfully for local elections in Mazara in 2018 with the far-right party League, known for its anti-migrant rhetoric. Asaro says he has no issue with his Tunisian counterparts here, but he believed the League would take a stronger stance on the issue of protecting national borders.
‘Let myself die’
Although more than 20 years separated their imprisonments, Asaro and Salvo find they share similar psychological repercussions. Salvo says he came back home from Libya last December a changed man. He is now learning to cope with insomnia, and every noise makes him flinch.
“They kept us confined to a dark room with no light for weeks; sometimes they made me eat from the floor. Jailers often beat me up if I refused to,” Salvo says, adding that what saved him was being kept together with four of his crewmates. “If I had been alone, I think I would have let myself die.”
Since December, Salvo has been receiving psychological support and has yet to return to the sea. He says he will eventually go back to provide for his family because he cannot see himself doing any other job. For now, though, his family 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 families received 100,000 euros (about $120,000) from the regional government of Sicily, with each receiving a different amount depending on their circumstances and how many children they have.
From the fish market to the bars and hairdresser’s salon, locals would only whisper about the detained fishermen’s fate after they were captured last September.
Susanna Pecoraro, 27, is a lawyer who returned to Mazara, where she was born and raised, last March when she found herself working from home during the pandemic.
After the fishermen were captured, she says she would spend mornings in her favourite bar, drinking espresso and listening to elderly people discuss the men’s plight.
“You could easily see how any average citizen was fully immersed in this anxiety loop by simply walking and listening. It was mentally exhausting,” she says.
Growing up hearing similar horror stories about fishermen being captured at sea, Pecoraro has long been familiar with the way collective stress can grip the community, transmitted from person to person.
Anna Zinerco, a clinical psychologist with expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says the case of Mazara del Vallo represents a clear example of collective PTSD.
“In Mazara, the sea has always been the protagonist of communal life,” she explains. “Most jobs there are connected to it so, in a way, the frequency of these temporary disappearances could be compared to a form of public mourning.”
Since everyone knows each other in this town, and has at least one relative or ancestor in the fishing industry, these incidents create a network of “trauma contamination”.
Zinerco says Mazara’s community-wide PTSD symptoms have different layers. The fishermen are, of course, the primary victims, but the secondary or indirect level of traumatisation that their fellow citizens suffer from is of no smaller concern.
“The sudden disappearance of a companion in a strongly-bonded community creates a mental disruption. It can come in the form of social anxiety, or guilt for not having done enough to prevent it,” she adds. “Some find ways to cope while, for others, coming to terms with it may be harder in practical terms.”
For some, this sense of restlessness has been so haunting they have felt the impulse to leave. For five consecutive years, the number of permanent residents in Mazara del Vallo has fallen as more than 150 people have left the town each year since 2015.
Before leaving for Milan to start his new life, Bartolomeo Marmoreo, a descendant of a longstanding Mazara fishing family, is preparing his iconic dish of raw red prawns with pomegranate, chilli and melon one last time for diners at his restaurant, Antico Borgo Marinaro, which he opened in 1989 but which he has now decided to sell.
A chef well-known for helping to popularise the culinary culture of Mazara across Italy, he says that the success he has enjoyed from the red prawns that made him famous has come at a high emotional cost.
“Every time I cook, I think of all the sacrifices many men made to bring each prawn to our tables, and it moves me,” he explains.
“One of the fishermen who was released in December was my high school classmate. I kept texting him on Messenger during his detention, even though I knew he couldn’t reply,” Marmoreo says.
“But I was hopeful, one day he’d be free and would be able to read them. I wrote to him: ‘Sorry, mate, I can’t do more than writing. Please forgive me’,” he adds trying to hold back tears. His friend was released along with the others in December, but has yet to return to the sea.
‘Peace of mind’
A smaller but growing number of residents is learning to find creative ways to utilise their discomfort instead.
Manuela Marascia, a 32-year-old resident of Mazara, says that art has helped her tame the sense of restlessness and anger that would mark her days whenever a new incident occurred.
“There’s always the fear that something will go wrong in these cases,” Marascia says. “This time, painting a picture of the fishermen with warm colours of hope gave me the peace of mind I needed. It’s like the canvas trapped all my negative thoughts.”
When they were released, Marascia added the phrase “Finally Free” to her painting, and asked the city hall to put it on display, with the aim of giving hope to others in the future.
Fracturing the Tunisian-Sicilian bond
Located 1,095km (680 miles) from Rome, but less than 275km (170 miles) from Tunisia, Mazara del Vallo is also considered a national treasure for its unique dual identity.
Sicily was a Muslim stronghold from the ninth to the 11th centuries, and Mazara del Vallo was the first city to be conquered and to assume the typically Islamic urban and architectural features which make so many migrants from Tunisia, in particular, feel at home.
But it was also the flourishing fishing sector that attracted thousands of Tunisian migrants; they feel welcome in this corner of Europe that has given them plenty of job opportunities.
Today, about 6,000 ethnic Tunisians live here – half of whom have dual Italian citizenship and 80 percent of whom are employed in the fishing industry – following the tradition of their parents and grandparents. But discouraged by the ever-increasing threats of the red prawn war, fewer are willing to take the risks these days, particularly the younger members of the community.
Hedi Ben Thameur, 59, came to Mazara del Vallo in 1982 from Sousse, on the coast of Tunisia. He got married to a fellow Tunisian here, had children and began a new life. His eldest son, now 30, has followed his path, but is among fewer than a dozen fishermen below the age of 35 here.
“I am grateful for the opportunities Mazara gave to me and my family,” says Ben Thameur. “But I am aware that younger generations are soaking up our depression and feel disoriented. After all, fishing was often the only career prospect they would be offered. It’s not easy to recalibrate that in the span of just a generation.”
According to Francesco Mezzapelle, a Mazara-based sociologist who has spent several years analysing the socioeconomic impact of the “red prawn war” here, that might soon create an additional social trauma.
For years, this town has been praised as a showcase for migrants’ inclusion. But Mezzapelle says the two identities – Tunisian and Sicilian – while coexisting peacefully, have lived largely apart, sending their children to different elementary schools and frequenting different restaurants. It is only in the fishing industry that they meet to build relationships.
“Fishing crews with mixed nationalities have been the glue keeping together this community. If the fishing sector is at risk, so are the Italian-Tunisian bonds it took years to consolidate,” Mezzapelle says.
“If that disappears, our community might suffer from a fracture that will only deteriorate further the emotional dynamics of this place.”
Local school authorities have already warned of falling literacy rates as many, seeing no more future, drop out before the end of middle school. Numbers are particularly stark among Tunisian nationals.
Many Tunisians also say they have begun to feel out-of-place as the “red prawn war” has served to highlight their status as “foreigners”, and they are increasingly associated with the Libyan “enemy” because of their shared native language.
When, after months of protests by the fishermen’s relatives in Rome and Mazara, the Italian ministry of foreign affairs finally arranged a short phone call with the fishermen detained in Libya last winter, 21-year-old Insaf Jemmali was waiting in line for her turn to speak to her father who was being held in Benghazi.
“I was shocked when they told me that, as a Tunisian national, I didn’t have the right to speak to him. I was told [by a representative from the ministry]: ‘You can ask the Tunisian government to help you with that.’,” Jemmali, who has yet to receive Italian citizenship despite living there for 18 years, says. “I was never pushed to wonder about my identity in Mazara before; for me, it was natural to be both.”
Now she worries this “war” with Libya might create tensions and identity crises in the future.
Women on the front lines
The memory of the desperate screams of women gathered outside his office still haunts Salvatore Quinci.
As mayor of Mazara del Vallo, Quinci says his town endured a few truly exhausting months until the fishermen were released in December. He now hopes the worst is over, although he is aware new tragedies can strike at any time.
“Of course, my thoughts will always be with our front-line workers at sea,” he says. “But to be honest, what worries me now is the mental health of those left behind.”
The majority of them, he says, are women; the fishermen’s wives, daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law who fought for them while they were detained.
Their efforts to ensure their release kept the whole community vigilant, and often shook the consciences of those elsewhere in Italy who might otherwise have ignored their plight.
Throughout their fight, they were often met with the resounding silence of government institutions which, Zinerco explains, amplified Mazara’s sense of collective isolation when faced with such tragedies.
Marascia, who took part in the protests, says she was truly impressed by the strength and courage of the women in speaking out in the name of the fishermen, and of the whole city.
“It was an important lesson because the narrative often sees fishermen as heroes of the sea, while women are the victims left behind, passively waiting for their return,” she says.
She believes their resilience could be an inspiration to fellow citizens who have felt powerless in the face of this collective trauma.
“Perhaps, this latest crisis could transform into the moment of reckoning that will help Mazara del Vallo brush off years of numbness,” she adds.
Cristina Amabilino, who brought the protests to Rome by chaining herself up in front of the parliament’s building for several weeks in October and November last year alongside other relatives of the fishermen, knows she has to learn to slowly accept what happened to her family, and to cope with her new love-hate relationship with the sea.
After all, she cannot escape it; she catches glimpses of it from every window of her apartment.
“For those who grew up here in Mazara, the sea has always meant the nourishment of our belly and our soul,” she says, taking a deep breath. “But now we also associate it with terror and worries.”
Amabilino nervously waits for the moment her husband will set sail again to provide for their three children because she knows that, despite what happened, going to sea is in his nature.
“Instead of naming the red prawn after our town, they should name a new illness – the Mazara del Vallo syndrome,” she adds, once more finding her ability to laugh and make jokes.