For the second year in a row, Iroko was invited to participate in the event Rosso Indelebile (Indelible red), a series of artistic events, which took place in Turin and focused on the theme of gender-based violence. For two years Rosso Indelebile has brought art to various shared spaces around the city not usually designated as artistic locations. Similarly, the theme of gender-based violence is part of our everyday lives and “cannot be enclosed in an auditorium, but must be exposed and talked about by everyone”, by society, as highlighted by Isabella Bulgheroni, a member of the organisation Artemixia, one of the organisers of the event, in collaboration with the NGO MAIS. The aim of taking art onto the streets is to encourage people to ask themselves questions, and potentially find the answers, stimulating both the individual and the collective to try and see the world from different perspectives. 

Gender-based violence, specifically, is a pressing issue, with a “war being fought around the world”, as defined by Esohe Aghatise, the president of Iroko. On 29th September Iroko participated in the 2020 installment, attending an event dedicated to migration flows and trafficking – details of which are here (in Italian) – and bringing the testimony of a survivor of trafficking and prostitution, Liliam Altuntas, who has told her story through the book of which she is the protagonist, I girasoli di Liliam’ (currently only available in Italian).

Liliam, a child on the streets of the Recife favelas, quickly ended up in the hands of human traffickers. From the age of 5 she had been abused by an uncle at home, which led to her running away from her grandmother’s house. “In the beginning the streets were a place to play, and I didn’t imagine that would become a dangerous place”, Liliam told us during the interview conducted during the event, by Teresa Canòne, the author of the book about Liliam’s story. So as not to feel hunger pangs, Liliam and the other children sniffed glue, which fuelled their days searching for food. 

Every year 3 million men participate in the market that trades these innocent bodies – 2 million child victims, deprived of their childhood and their rights.

At 12 years old Liliam ran away from the place that she calls ‘the house of horrors’, where many children and adolescents like her are exploited by a madame and ‘fed’ to clients who want to satisfy their worst perversions. Her escape would either result in her death or her freedom from that place, returning to her grandmother’s house and suffering the continued abuse of her uncle. For Liliam both death and her family represented a kind of freedom when compared to the horrors she experienced in that house.

At 14, Liliam was kidnapped and sold to a criminal organisation and trafficked to Germany, where she entered prostitution. An inescapable destiny, she thinks she doesn’t deserve anything but that kind of life. There, she discovers ‘luxury prostitution’: cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, sex, the perfect ingredients for self-destruction. “We were still only commodities, the luxury was an illusion”, remembers Liliam, asking those who maintain that prostitution is a job, how it can be so: a person’s body is for sale, becoming an object of pleasure for another person. Prostitution is not synonimous with consent, as Esohe Aghatise reminded us: “the person who holds the power is he who decides to buy the body of another person that, out of desperation, cannot freely make such a decision. This is why we are fighting in Italy, following the examples set by other countries, for an abolitionist law, which recognises the violence in prostitution”.

“Prostitution”, says Liliam, member and activist with Resistenza Femminista, “is something that crushes your spirit”. Prostitution takes away a person’s identity, as well as their dignity, making it difficult to look at yourself in the mirror and recognise the person looking back, even years later. Prostituted women do tend to dissociate from themselves and to build another identity, distanced from the traumatic experience. “When you reach freedom, you have to have a lot of courage to be able to look inside yourself, to tell the story of what you have lived through. And so, how can anyone say that prostitution is a job?”, concluded Liliam who, after 21 years, returned to walk the streets of her home country, reliving painful memories.

Isabella Bulgheroni, who led the event and read some extracts from Liliam’s book, chose to send a personal reflection on the evening, which we would like to share, as we are grateful to everybody who made the event possible, despite the limits on socialising and sharing culture during this COVID-19 emergency. Particular thanks go to Rosalba Castelli, with whom we have shared the joy of working together since the first moment.

The dialogue between the author of ‘I girasoli di Liliam’, Teresa Canone, and her protagonist, Liliam Altuntas, was a touching moment.

The testimony purposefully didn’t focus on the description of sordid encounters, but rather demonstrated its strength in the sensitivity, the authenticity infused into simple words that have a large impact. It’s not necessary to create a scandal in order to communicate a powerful message.

In today’s society in which the prevailing feeling is that everything has a price, where the only value is monetary and we are what we own, Liliam makes us reflect on the human spirit, which should never be considered as something to trade or purchase.

With her words and her emotion, Liliam shatters the myth right in front of our eyes: selling your body is not a choice, has never been one and never will be; prostitution is not a job but is exploitation, not only of bodies but of souls. You cannot hide behind the easy (and convenient for some) hypocrisy that prostitutes are “Bocca di Rosa” (literally, mouth of rose, indicating the stereotypical image of the prostitute who lovingly satisfies a man’s needs) rather than souls that are violated, and paid, not with money, but with pain, humiliation and suffering.

Liliam tells us about herself not only with her words, but with the bright, lively look in her eyes; with that look she tells us that she’s not a survivor, but a victorious woman, who had to – did not choose to – live through and deal with a dramatic life, but her spirit, at times darkened, hasn’t been overcome, she had the strength, the courage, the character to get back up and open a new and different chapter of her life. Liliam also teaches us that the past does not have to define and immobilise us, but that we have to continue to grow and create our own destiny, without giving up even when it seems hopeless or out of our reach.

I am honoured to have had this chance to cross paths with Liliam, even for a moment, because with her life and being, she is a star that lights the way in a stormy night.

Here you can find a summary (in Italian) of the Rosso Indelebile event we participated in in 2019, which also focused on the theme of trafficking.