Rita Atria: the courage to speak

Rita Atria was a 17-year-old girl from a mafia family when she braved the fury of the organization in 1991 by collaborating with authorities after the mafia killed her father Vito and brother Nicola.

The police made half-hearted inquiries into Nicolo’s death, but were greeted by silence. This is Mafia heartland, and nobody talks to the police, not even to ask the time of day. That would have been the end of it, had it not been for Nicolo’s sister. Rita knew that the killers were free and had nothing to fear: Mafia hitmen are seldom arrested and almost never tried for murder.

Rita had been timid and unassuming, always in the background of small-town life. Unable to suppress her grief and anger any longer, she took her revenge. She disobeyed the Mafia’s most powerful, unwritten law – instilled into her from her earliest childhood. A month after her brother’s murder, she went to the police with his widow, and talked.

The police took the women straight to Paolo Borsellino, the magistrate conducting investigations into Mafia activity in the west of Sicily. Rita’s anger came out in a torrent of words. She told Borsellino about the war between the Mafia families of Partanna, in which 30 people have died in the past few years; she named the heads of the most powerful families. She named the men who had killed her father and her brother. Borsellino questioned her about Partanna’s most notorious unsolved murder: the shooting of the deputy mayor in 1983. Rita told him what every other resident of Partanna believed, but would not say: that the former mayor had killed his own deputy.

Ten people were imprisoned for Mafia crimes on the evidence of Rita Atria’s testimony, and in the following months, 20 more mafiosi were behind bars. When her mother found out that Rita was collaborating with the police, she threw her out. It did not matter that her own son’s killer was to be brought to justice; as far as she was concerned, the police were on the wrong side of the law. Borsellino was afraid the Mafia would discover the identity of his source and try to silence her. Rita was taken to a seventh-floor flat on the outskirts of Rome, where the only people she knew were her police guards. Borsellino became her lifeline.

On Sunday 19 July, Paolo Borsellino was blown up on the doorstep of his mother’s house in Palermo. Italy reeled with the shock. Rita, alone in the apartment in Rome, read the papers and saw the mangled cars and bodies on television. A week later, she locked herself into the apartment and wrote a note, which said: ‘I am devastated by the killing of Judge Borsellino. Now there’s no one to protect me, I’m scared and I can’t take any more.’ Then she threw herself out of the window.

Now Rita is a antimafia heroine.

Image from the movie "The rebellious Sicilian"

Image from the movie "The rebellious Sicilian"

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