Washington Post
Sex trade enslaves East-Europeans

Jeffrey Smith

Tuesday, July 25, 2000


LECCE, Italy –– Irina takes a deep pull on a cigarette to calm her nerves, but her hands still shake slightly. Her short brown hair is damp from the first hot shower she has had in days, and she is finally wearing clean clothes. But she cannot hide her swollen eyes, the bruise on her left cheek or her blackened nails, and so she fidgets uneasily while describing the horrors through which she has passed.

She speaks a few hours after being rescued from two months of rape, prostitution and furtive border crossings. Her story is hers alone, but in broad outline it matches those of tens of thousands of young women from Eastern Europe, whom criminal gangs lure each year from poverty at home into a heinous underground of modern-day enslavement in foreign countries.

For the managers of this booming new trade, it is "one of the fastest growing and most lucrative criminal enterprises in the world," according to congressional testimony by U.S. Undersecretary of State Frank E. Loy. Only drug-running and illicit arms sales are more profitable. But for the trade's workers, like Irina, it is typically a life of extraordinary and startling brutality.

Such women can be readily found at dimly lit bars in impoverished corners of Bosnia, Macedonia and other parts of the old Yugoslav federation, where political chaos reigns, laws are ignored and the sex trade is typically protected by corrupt officials. But they can also be found here, on the scenic eastern Italian shore, the most common point of entry for illegal immigrants traveling to wealthy cities in the European Union.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 300,000 women from Eastern Europe work as prostitutes in Western Europe, 35,000 in Italy alone. The United Nations estimates the worldwide profit to be $7 billion a year, while other sources place it at $12 billion. The number of illegal prostitutes from the Balkans, where close to a decade of war has wiped out many ordinary jobs, "has tripled if not quadrupled in the last three to four years," says Peter Von Behtlemfalvy, the migration organization's top representative to the EU.

Mostly, they are brought here by sea in rubber dinghies that also carry the men who bought them in Albania. These men are the most recent in a string of owners from whom there is no easy escape. Like the smuggling of ordinary economic migrants, the links in this commerce extend beyond the usual boundaries of ethnic hatred in the Balkans. Criminal Serbs, Montenegrins and Albanians collaborate closely to transport the victims and share the profits.

Some of the women leave their home countries with a rough understanding that work in the sex trade awaits them. Others think that respectable jobs are available. Irina--she asked that her full name not be used--says she was in the latter group.

She recounts that she fell into this nightmare a year ago in Chisinau, capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, when she was raped and yanked into adulthood at the age of 17. Finding herself pregnant, she refused her mother's demand that she get an abortion; as a result, she found herself ejected from home and school. Desperate and penniless in a country with scant work and unsteady electricity, she felt rescue was at hand when she read an advertisement in a local newspaper seeking young women to work in Italy.

According to Irina's account, the Moldovan couple she met in a high-rent apartment in the city told her she could easily get work as a waitress at a bar, probably in Milan, at a good salary. The woman, Yelena, said that, luckily for Irina, some other women were leaving for Italy the next day and she could join them if she returned with a suitcase.

"I believed it," Irina said, the words barely audible from behind the hand she cupped in front of her mouth each time she reluctantly disclosed a bit of her experience. Asked why, she shrugged, as if to suggest there was no choice but to abandon normal skepticism.

So she left her baby boy with her mother and returned to the apartment the next morning, where she said she was introduced to four other young women and a man named Vadim. He accompanied them all on a two-day train ride from Moldova through Romania to the Serbian border. Since they had no visas, Vadim told her, they would have to cross the border on foot at a mountain pass. So Irina said she walked for 10 hours in a skirt and high heels.

A man named Milano met them in a small border town and drove them to a large, comfortable house, where he introduced them to his wife, sister and two children. At one point, Milano said he needed to check their passports, so they turned them over; he subsequently explained that he had passed them to another man for safekeeping. But as the second man drove the women to the local train station two days later, he said, "Look girls, I didn't get any documents."

Irina remembers that she was "very nervous. Everyone was very nervous. We asked more than one time. He stopped the car and said, 'I can't take you back. But if you want to get out, I can let you out here.' Our first thought was, 'How are we going to get home without our documents?' And then we got on the train. We couldn't do anything else."

Italian authorities describe the deliberate destruction of passports by gangs as a critical step on the path to enslavement. "Once they cross the borders of their own country, they have lost the knowledge and independence to move alone," said Paolo Leaci, a police investigator who has interviewed many such women. "They have few clothes, no money" and no way to return home.

That Irina was in deep trouble became entirely clear when she was ushered off the train in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, and driven overnight to a closed, partly built hotel near the Albanian border town of Shkoder. There, the women were informed they had all been "purchased" by an Albanian man; he in turn sold them to two men named Ekshim and Raki, who escorted them across the border into Albania to a house where Ekshim lived with his mother and brother. The handoffs in this seamless journey had all been arranged in cell phone calls between gangs.

As Irina recounts the next part of her story, she picks and scratches at the skin on her face, arms and legs, as if looking for an escape. At Ekshim's house, she says, the women were raped by a succession of Albanian men who stopped by at all hours, in what seemed part of a carefully organized campaign of psychological conditioning for a life of prostitution.

"The girls typically anticipate something, perhaps work at a bar or some dancing," said Von Behtlemfalvy. "But they do not anticipate this amount of humiliation. They do not know how they are going to be beaten down and enslaved."

Eventually, five Albanians arrived in a single car. Each bought one of the women and took her away, completing their isolation from anything familiar. Plumbij, Irina's new owner, told her she had to solicit sex on the street. But Irina rebelled and hid in a doorway, so he beat her and sold her to a man named Ilir. Ilir beat her again, raped her and kept her locked up behind barred windows in his apartment for two weeks while he prepared for their illicit, nighttime journey by motorized dinghy to Italy.

Ilir told her she would have to work for a year as a prostitute in Milan, turning over half her earnings to pay back the smuggling fee and his other expenses. He took a dinghy that left an hour before hers. She felt she had no choice but to follow; at least she'd be in Italy.

The voyage was wet and dangerous, but she made it--and then her luck changed. The Italian police found her before Ilir did. They turned her over to Roman Catholic priest named Cesare, who runs the Regina Pacis refugee center on the coast near Lecce. After she arrived, Cesare persuaded her to denounce Ilir and found work for her at the center, where today she pines for her son.

There are 40 women at the center--from Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova. Like Irina, many left babies behind to leap at offers of babysitting, cleaning, waitressing or other low-wage work in Europe. One of the Bulgarian girls marked her 16th birthday at the center, weeks after arriving on the shore covered with bruises from beatings and rape.

"This problem has doubled in the last year," said Cesare. "A year to a year and a half ago, it didn't exist. It's because the poverty in these countries has increased. The average salary for a Ukrainian family is $100 a month; these women can make $500 a day" as prostitutes.

"Also," he said, "the conflict in Yugoslavia made this territory degenerate" spiritually."



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