The personal holocaust of a Sicilian fisherman

The sea around the southern tip of Italy is full of the skeletons of asylum-seekers. Hilary Clarke r

Captain Corrado Scala's voice still trembles with emotion as he recalls "that dog night" last 18 August. The fishing captain and his four-man crew were returning in his boat, the Chico, from three days at sea catching swordfish when, around five in the afternoon, they spotted a boat drifting aimlessly on the horizon.

As they approached, they saw it was crammed with people, motor burnt out. It was dangerously close to sinking. The human cargo, 151 asylum-seekers - Liberians, Tunisians, Iraqis and Kurds - were on the verge of collapse from dehydration after a full week at sea. "Their only chance of survival was to meet a boat like ours," says Scala, 45.

Sicily's arid coastline, with its white sands, prickly pears and shoddy white concrete towns, looks almost identical to the North African one 150 kilometres across the sea. Over the past year, it has become the new pressure point for the clandestine immigrants trying to reach Europe. Sicilian rescue services are buckling under the strain and the legislative confusion emanating from Rome. Local people, especially fishermen, are on the front line.

It was a full 12 hours before anyone arrived to help Scala and his crew, even though they were only 85 kilometres from the shore. All night his SOS was tossed between the local coast guard, the police and the central coastguard in Rome, no one wanting to take responsibility.

As darkness fell, the only instruction he had received from Rome was "Don't leave them to drown, otherwise there will be trouble."

Another member of the crew, Scala's younger brother Massimo, managed with a few words of English to negotiate with some of the Iraqi Kurds to bring the women and children on to their boat. "We made jokes with the men about Saddam Hussein. They answered like this," he said, drawing his finger across his throat. Expensive fishing equipment was thrown overboard to make room for the desperate passengers.

The Rome coastguard instructed Scala to tow the refugee boat to Malta. "That's when all hell broke loose. Some of the women grabbed our legs and threatened to throw themselves overboard, screaming, 'No Malta! No Malta! Italia, Italia!'" When he relayed the situation to Rome, Scala was told to hang on and say they were going to Italy after all, and that someone was coming to help.

But instead of the coastguard, it was a boat from the Italian Guardia di Finanza, a branch of the police, that showed up five long hours later. The policemen took the refugees aboard and instructed Scala to follow them to Pozzallo, a Sicilian port roughly 30 kilometres from his own village, to make a statement. That, says Scala, is when his "personal holocaust" began.

Exhausted after 60 hours without sleep, the fishermen were detained in a guarded room for 12 more hours, until a magistrate arrived and told them to get a lawyer. It was only then that Scala was told he had been arrested for aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. In the days that followed, Scala's boat was seized, his home searched for incriminating evidence, and although nothing was found, he is still under investigation. "They can investigate my family back through seven generations but they won't find anything. We are clean," he says.

The Italian authorities picked up more than 11,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers in the first nine months of this year - compared to 2,500 last year. In the past, those trying to reach the country via its eastern shores came from eastern Europe, but now they come from as far away as central Africa and Asia. Many others, no one knows how many, make it through to the country's northern industrial cities or elsewhere in the European Union. Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, claims that 75 per cent of immigrants coming into Italy leave for another EU country. The thing that bothers people in Sicily, however, is the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who join the growing pile of skeletons that fishermen's nets retrieve from the bottom of the sea.

On a stormy night a month after Scala's arrest, diners at La Playa beach restaurant near Agrigento spotted two black teenagers, one male and one female, staggering across the stretch of beach alongside the restaurant. Traumatised, the two Africans managed to raise the alarm via the English-speaking pianist: people were drowning after their boat had capsized.

Some of the diners, without waiting for the emergency services, ran down to the beach to help. "Some of us ran for boats while others grabbed pedal-boats, but the waves pushed them back," recalls Calogero Capizzi, co-owner of La Playa. "Dozens of people were clinging to a large rock a couple of hundred metres from the beach."

"I can still hear the cries in the dark," says another witness who pulled four people out of the sea. A total of 47 bodies have since been recovered; 92 people were rescued. All were Liberians escaping a smouldering civil war.

The Italian government granted the Liberians temporary asylum on compassionate grounds and the archbishop of Syracuse, Giuseppe Costanzo, offered them temporary housing. A special mass was held for the dead. "They are taking care of me here in Italy," said one of the survivors of the Liberian shipwreck, 28-year-old Prince John Bull.

Umberto Bossi, maverick leader of the xenophobic Northern League, minority partner in the government led by Silvio Berlusconi, would beg to differ. It was the legal confusion over the new immigration laws drafted by Bossi and the post-fascist deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, that led to Scala's arrest, even though international maritime law requires seamen to aid anyone in distress, even if their own lives are endangered. Three days after the Chico was seized, another group of Sicilian fisherman was arrested by a different magistrate for failing to come to the rescue of stranded asylum-seekers.

As the growing number of accidents proves, local services cannot cope. The Berlusconi government has promised to bolster their numbers and set aside 100 million euros in the national budget, but says more help is needed. Pisanu will appeal to European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on 21 October for EU help. "Until now, Europe has sent some encouraging signals, but we haven't seen anything concrete. We need less words and more action," he said.

Immigration laws that came into effect on 9 September elevate the crime of people-smuggling to the same level as associating with the Mafia; the Italian government has promised to step up the hunt for the so-called "slave traders" who organise the perilous passage, usually from Africa. So far there has been no evidence of the Sicilian Mafia being involved in the traffic of the clandestine immigrants, but no one is ruling it out either.

The new immigration laws also stipulate immediate deportation for all those not deemed worthy of asylum. But in order to satisfy the labour demands of industrialists as well as wealthy voters, who use immigrants as domestic help, an amnesty has been declared for all those who made it to Italy before 10 October.

Even though it was the landslide victory of Berlusconi's Forza Italia in Sicily that clinched the electoral victory of the right in Italy 16 months ago, Sicilians have no time for racism, having long been victims of it themselves.

Michele Niosi is the port commander of Lampedusa, a tiny island south of mainland Sicily, and where the vast majority of asylum-seekers to Sicily arrive. Niosi's team intercepted 900 asylum- seekers in August alone. "Before, it was mainly North Africans coming here. Now they come from all over the world escaping war and hunger," he says. "And where it used to be mainly young men, now we get families, pregnant women and children, too."

His empathy for the refugees is plain. Indeed, he is quick to lecture on the "deeply multicultural" nature of Sicily, where everything, from food to architecture to the variety of racial types, bears witness to centuries of invasion and immigration.

Niosi agrees with Salvatore Cuffaro, the regional president of Sicily, who thinks the short-term solution is tighter political accords with the North African countries from whence the boats come, so that enforcement can be increased along their coastlines. Cuffaro's chief of staff explains: "The Sicilian people, who have themselves immigrated to the north of Italy, to other parts of Europe and in the last century to America and Australia, will always be there to help those people washed up on our shores."

Even Captain Scala says he would do the same thing again if he had to. "When you are there, and it happens to you, even if you were a magistrate, you would do the same thing I did. You can't turn your back on 151 people and leave them to drown."