I was tired of covering my face to hide from the mafia: Italian MP Piera Aiello

I was tired of covering my face  to hide from the mafia: Italian MP Piera Aiello

August 10, 2018 | More from Food Trends | Tags: , , ,

I was tired of covering my face to hide from the mafia: Italian MP Piera Aiello

Earlier this year, Piera Aiello became an Italian MP after campaigning with a veil over her face. Having now revealed her identity, she tells how she was forced to marry into the mafia

Sipping a cappuccino in a cafe on Sicilys Palermo docks, a woman is recalling a dramatic exchange with her daughter. A year ago, she explains, the 16-year-old had gone up to the attic of their home and opened a big dusty box that lay in the corner. Her parents had always forbidden her from entering the attic, or opening the box, but now the girl was determined to disobey them. Inside were about 10 packages, each individually wrapped. They were paintings: landscapes, the sea, olive groves, the deep south. All were signed with the same name: Piera Aiello.

Her mother entered the attic. I painted them, she said. Theyre beautiful, her daughter replied.But Mamma, if these paintings are yours, why are they signed by a different name? Who is Piera Aiello?

With tears in her eyes, her mother asked her daughter to sit down. I am Piera Aiello, she said. Its time I told you who I really am.

A tall woman with dark eyes and black hair, Aiello smiles and gesticulates wildly as she tells her story. Not far away, three armed police guards survey the surroundings, making sure no one gets too close. My daughters curiosity in that attic was one among the many turning points in my life, she says. I told her to listen and I started from the beginning, a thousand miles away from that attic, in Sicily, where it all began.

Aiello was born in Partanna, a small village in western Sicily. Her father was a bricklayer, her mother a tailor. My parents never let me want for anything. It was the best time of my life, by far. But, as they say, it was just the calm before the storm.

That storm arrived when Aiello was 14 and met a boy named Nicol Atria. She didnt know Nicol was the son of Vito Atria, the local mafia boss. The godfather approved of Nicols relationship with Aiello, not with a blessing but an order: Don Vito had decided that Aiello would marry his son. Nicol and I had had an argument, I dont remember why. Don Vito came to my house. He asked my father if he could speak to me in private. He said: Youre young. Take a few days to think it over. But in any case, you and Nicol will soon be married. I know you love your family very much. Aiello understood the veiled threat. My future father-in-law had warned me that if I didnt marry his son, hed kill my mother and father. I couldnt allow that to happen.

On 9 November 1985, in the tiny baroque church of Madonna delle Grazie in Partanna, Aiello became Nicols wife. She was 18. Neither could have questioned Don Vitos authority. Nicol, too, was obliged to follow his fathers will and marry a girl he didnt love. Back then, in Sicily, it often took much less to get killed; a glance toward the wrong person, an unreciprocated greeting, was enough. Once I saw Don Vito throw his wife in the pool because she had humiliated him by throwing on the ground an ice-cream he had offered her. My mother-in-law didnt know how to swim. Don Vito watched impassive from the poolside as she began to drown. Nicol saved her from certain death. Ill let you imagine what could have happened had I decided not to marry his son, says Aiello.

Don Vito was a traditional mafioso, bound to a ruthless code of honour. I once asked Don Vito if it was true what people said about him around town, that he was the head of the Partanna mafia. He looked at me and laughed. He said he was someone whom people came to when they needed to resolve a problem, like to find a stolen tractor or a job for a son.

Nine days after Aiellos wedding, he was murdered in the vineyards around Partanna. The illicit interests of the Sicilian mafia were changing. Heroin was flooding the streets of Italy and the new bosses decided to remove anyone in the older generation who refused to invest in the business. That same day, in the mortuary in Partanna, in front of his fathers corpse, Nicol swore that he would avenge his fathers death, Aiello says. He swore that he would kill the men who murdered his father.

Aiello spent her days making sweets in a pizzeria and cafe owned by Nicol. Business was good, because people continued to respect Don Vito Atrias son. We used to take in a million lire a day, Aiello recalls. Their life at home was less successful. She did not love Nicol, who, in turn, beat her. Aiello began taking the pill. Nicols desire to have a male heir weighed heavily on her, but she didnt want to bear his child.

Aiello keeping her identity hidden on the campaign trail earlier this year. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

One day he forced me to see a doctor. When he learned that I had been taking the pill, he beat me for a week straight. Then he raped me.

Two years after Don Vitos death, Aiello was pregnant. Nicol hoped for a boy and said that he would name him Vito to honour his father. Aiello hoped against hope that she was not carrying a boy, who might become a boss like his father, or, even worse, like his grandfather.

Being pregnant focused Aiellos sense of rebellion against the criminal and chauvinistic culture in which she was trapped. During the pregnancy, I decided to take the state exam to become a police officer. When Nicol found out, he started beating me, as hed always done. I never gave up. My resistance to every slap, kick or insult was my way of fighting Cosa Nostra.

Aiello never became a police officer. She didnt pass the exam. But she did give birth to a girl she named Vita, or Life.

Nicol cared for his daughter like he had never cared for anyone before. On the rare occasions he cooked, it was for her that he made the best pizzas. The last one was in the shape of a heart. Aiello took it to Vita on the evening of 24 June 1991. That same night, as soon as Id entered the kitchen, I heard a scream from the front door. It happened so quickly. The curtains moved suddenly and I saw the shadows of two armed and hooded men.

Nicol had kept his promise to avenge his fathers death. He had spoken about it with his men. And the mafia decided that he, too, should die. They shot him in the head, the arm and the abdomen, a ferocious volley of bullets from a sawn-off shotgun, the typical weapon used in mafia executions.

Aiello tried to disarm the killers, but they grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. When they left, Nicol was already dead. The coroners removed more than 3lb (1.4kg) of ammunition from his gut.

My face was covered in my husbands blood. I despised Nicol, but I felt pity for him. He was just a boy, 27 years old, and they killed him like an animal.

The following day Aiello went to the carabinieri. As a woman who knew mafiosi well, she knew her choice would change her life for ever. I told the carabinieri that I wanted to provide testimony regarding my husbands killers. The carabinieri marshal seemed more worried than I was. He knew I was Don Vito Atrias daughter-in-law, and he knew that theyd have done anything to kill me. He urged me to go to Marsala [about 60km away] and talk to the district attorney. He told me that a man there was the only one I could trust.

One week after her husbands murder, Aiello met district attorney Paolo Borsellino, who, with Giovanni Falcone, had recently carried out an investigation against the Sicilian mafia that resulted in hundreds of arrests. A strong friendship developed between Aiello and Borsellino. Aiello called him Uncle Paolo and he looked after her. He offered her an armed guard, found her a safe city to hide in, and helped her to leave Sicily. Rita Atria, Nicols sister, went with her.

Rita was 16, full of life, strong and sure of herself. Aiello had looked after her since she was a young girl. She knew that Ritas choice would be even more difficult than her own. After all, she was Don Vitos daughter. Rita had a blood relation within that mafia family. Her rebellion would have left a scar on the mafias code of honour that no vendetta could have set right.

Wed spend our days in police stations. Borsellino would often come and see us. We were afraid. We knew that the bosses were already plotting our deaths.

One day, after yet another interrogation, I ran out of the room in tears. Borsellino came out to hug me. I confessed that I was afraid of dying. He told me: Nothing will happen to you. Smiling, he added: I will certainly die before you.

A few months later, in Palermo, on 19 July 1992, the mafia assassinated Borsellino with a car bomb in Via DAmelio. Two months earlier, on 23 May, the same fate had struck Falcone, assassinated with 300kg of explosives on the motorway between Punta Raisi airport and Palermo. Today, Palermo International Airport is named after them; the 13 November 2006 issue of Time Magazine listed them among the greatest heroes of the past 60 years.

Aiello was desperate, Rita even more so. The mafia had killed her father, brother and now Borsellino, the man who had become her sole confidant. One week later, on 26 July 1992, Rita jumped off the seventh floor of an apartment building and killed herself.

Piera
Piera Aiello in Sicily, May 2018. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I was devastated, says Aiello. I felt as if Rita had abandoned me. I felt I had the responsibility to carry on her rebellion, too. Only later did I realise that Ritas gesture was that of a girl who had lost everything.

Ritas and Aiellos testimonies led to the arrest of dozens of mafiosi in the provinces of Agrigento and Trapani. Nicols mother and Don Vitos widow, Giovanna, never forgave her daughter and one day even set out to destroy her daughters tombstone with a hammer. My mother-in-law hated both of us. She hoped theyd kill us. Our decision to become police informants was dishonourable to her. I never despised her. Both of us had been forced to marry men that we didnt love. She had been raped by her father and never knew the meaning of true love. She was a victim of the mafia culture she grew up in.

Aiello made a new life for herself in northern Italy. She changed her name to Paola and started working as a babysitter. In her spare time, she painted. After a few years, she fell in love. Up to that moment her life had been conditioned by others; the mafia chose her husband, the Italian state her new life. The time had come for her to make her own decisions, but there was one problem: This man knew nothing about me. One evening, I invited him to dinner, and after our meal I asked him to sit down and listen to me.

Aiello told him about Nicol, Don Vito, Borsellino and Rita. After, he asked her to marry him and they were wed on 8 August 2000. The priest was Don Ciotti, an anti-mafia activist living under police escort. Her witness was Salvatore Borsellino, Paolos brother, and among the guests were magistrates and members of the police force engaged in the struggle against the mafia.

Her new husband promised to keep Aiellos secret even from their two daughters. She worked as a babysitter until they were born, then settled into life as a housewife. Once in a while, the police asked her to give speeches in schools, or at events organised by anti-mafia associations. She would do so anonymously, covering her face. Until that fateful afternoon in the attic.

That evening we all gathered in the living room. A few weeks earlier I had been contacted by politicians from the Five Star Movement, who asked me to run for parliament in the upcoming elections. I wasnt convinced, but my daughter persuaded me. She said that after everything I had been through, this was an important opportunity to bring my experience to parliament.

Aiello began an electoral campaign but, unlike other candidates, she could not show her face, have her photograph taken, or hold public rallies. She was still under police protection, and the authorities were still responsible for her safety. Because she covered her face with a veil or a scarf, she became known as the faceless candidate.

The Five Star Movement, a populist party founded by the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo, is a deliberately anti-establishment movement. It was really hard, says Aiello. Your face is important in a campaign. People want to see who they are voting for. Unfortunately, some people started making fun of me. Some journalists asked, on air: Is Piera going to be the first [Italian] MP with a burqa? I felt really sad at first. Then I simply did not care. They didnt know what I have been through.

In March, Aiello was elected to parliament. Most of her votes came from Trapani, and she was very happy, because Trapani is the last stronghold of the Sicilian mafia, the kingdom of Matteo Messina Denaro, who is still at large. They also came from all quarters of society doctors, lawyers, workers, farmers, young and old.

I chose this party because it was the only one that would allow me to express myself freely, she says. Under police protection, she had realised that police informants are often abandoned by the state after their information has been used. This will be the focus of her agenda in parliament, she says, a decision that has made her an even greater target for the mafia making the lives of informants better means encouraging people to rebel.

The election was not, however, conclusive, and in the tricky days following, the Five Star Movement had to form a controversial and difficult alliance with the Lega, a xenophobic party led by Matteo Salvini, a controversial senator who is now the minister of the interior. One of his first acts was to close Italian seaports to the Aquarius, a ship carrying 629 rescued migrants. Aiello doesnt conceal her disapproval of Salvinis choices: He should talk less. Italy cannot reject immigrants. We must improve the services made available to them once they arrive.

On 13 June, after her election, and 27 years after she first went into hiding, Aiello decided that she had had enough. I was tired of covering my face, she says. In addition to this, the law allows state witnesses to show their faces once they are elected. Cameras were all around in the parliament anyway. So I said: Why not? Her assistant got in touch with the Guardian, and she gave this paper the first photograph. She chose the day she first landed in Sicily as an MP. I wanted it to happen in Sicily, she says, where everything began. Once in front of the camera, I was really embarassed and timid. But it was like coming back to life. That day, in the attic, when my daughter discovered my paintings, my life changed. I, Piera Aiello, have returned and will no longer hide myself in the attic.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/23/i-was-tired-of-covering-my-face-to-hide-from-the-mafia-italian-mp-piera-aiello