Subject: News/UK: Tara is a student nurse who was kidnapped and sold as a sex slave for £1 ,200
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Date: Mon Mar 06 2000 - 10:13:03 EST
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Tara is a student nurse who was kidnapped and sold as a sex slave for £1,200
Seven pairs of wary, traumatised eyes stare at us as we enter the living room at the fugitives' hideout. The young women clutch one another's arms and huddle together on a sofa, watching in silence.
They trust no one from the outside - and nor should they. Some of the most violent mafiosi in the world are out there, periodically scouring the warren of filthy streets looking for them. The game was nearly up two weeks ago when armed gangsters gathered outside another house that the women used as a hiding place in the Albanian capital, Tirana. Shots were fired and only the bravery of those protecting the fugitives saved the day. They smuggled the terrified women out and moved them to the new hideaway. They could be discovered again at any moment.
The women seem barely old enough to warrant the mafiosi's efforts; mostly they are girls in their teens. The reason they are on the run is because they are escaped slaves - and the men who bought them want their property back.
The runaways are just a tiny minority of the countless thousands of human beings bought and sold in a burgeoning trade which has spread its tentacles from the far reaches of Eastern Europe to the massage parlours of London's West End, and more recently Britain's suburbs. The merchandise in this flourishing illicit business comprises innocent girls and young women who are often kidnapped from their home towns and villages and forced into lives of violence and prostitution. They are usually bought for between £500 and £2,000 and their "owners" then make a fortune by forcing them to sell sex.
The escapees' safe house is surrounded by a high wooden fence and we are ushered quickly inside. The seven young women huddled on the sofa are still in a state of shock. They include Tara, a 19-year-old former student nurse, Maria, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and Elena, a 30-year-old mother-of-one who is desperate to know where her toddler son is and who is looking after him. All three come from Moldova; all three were sold into slavery - the 16-year-old Maria eventually being bought by a 19-year-old drug dealer who imprisoned her in his family home with his mother.
Maria has a flawless peaches-and-cream complexion and waves of dark brown hair falling to her shoulders. Initially she shakes her head and refuses to speak. But after hearing others tentatively recount their experiences, she lifts her head and begins to describe the way she was bundled into a car and kidnapped as she walked near her home in the Moldovan capital, Kishinau, last September. She has not seen her family since.
"I was going to my aunt's house when a car drew up and two men forced me to get in. They kept telling me that everything would be OK, but I was so frightened because I had heard about cases of girls being kidnapped and taken to be used as prostitutes," she says. "I kept asking why they were doing this but they just said I should not worry. They did not leave me alone for a second and that first night they put me in a hotel."
Over the following days, Maria was driven to Timisoara in Romania, and her captors and the cars they used were changed several times. Once in Romania, she was put with 13 other young girls and they were driven on again, this time to a town in Serbia; Maria is not sure where but she recognised the Cyrillic script on road signs. Here they were locked in a house for two weeks and each day were fed a loaf of bread between them.
"They were very hard conditions. It was very cold, so cold, and there were no beds," she says. "I was too frightened to try to escape but even if I had wanted to I would not have been able to.
"Every day some men came and one or two of the girls were taken away. I realised they had been sold." It was here that Maria had her first experience of sex, when she was raped by one of her jailers. "I was such a little girl, of 16," she whispers. "The men were free to mistreat us as they wanted."
Two weeks after being imprisoned, three men came to take her to Montenegro, the tiny mountain republic which, with Serbia, makes up Yugoslavia. "It was very, very cold and I had no coat. After four days someone came and bought me and seven other girls. We were taken in a small boat to Shkoder in Albania. After that I was taken to Durres and sold to this boy of 19. He paid $2,700 (£1,700). He didn't treat me as a human being and there were now just the two of us in this apartment, with his mother living upstairs. He told me his name and he spoke often in Italian and kept saying he was sorry for me. That didn't stop him using me [as a prostitute], though. I was so afraid of him; he abused me every night."
Maria was rescued after two months, when the youth said he wanted to take her to Italy and she was put in a car for yet another journey. She asked the driver to help her, but he said he could not.
Maria now suspects, however, that the driver took pity on her because police came to the car when it stopped at one point and she screamed for help. The girl who had begun school just five days before being snatched says she was kept in a police station for another two months before being taken to the International Organisation for Migration a Geneva-based intergovernmental group. "I cannot say the police were kind," she says. "They treated me as if I was a prostitute and I was forced to sleep on a table because there was no bed."
The house which shelters the young women is one of three in the Albanian capital provided by the International Organisation for Migration and the International Catholic Migration Commission. It is pristinely clean, bright and well-furnished, in stark contrast to the jumble of fetid streets outside. I am sworn to keep the shelter's location secret, but it would be hard to describe the route to its door even if I wanted to. Rich Kocher, an American who is head of the IOM mission in Albania, and his compatriate Ken Patterson, director of the ICMC, drove me through a bewildering tangle of streets and back roads, sometimes doubling back and reversing down blind alleys. At one point we passed a roadblock manned by sinister-looking men in black balaclavas bearing automatic rifles. "They are special police who wear masks to prevent anyone knowing who they are," says Patterson. "They could be targets of organised crime if they stop and search one of the mafia and find anything."
The IOM is trying to help Maria to return home to her parents, three-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister, but the organisation first has to arrange travel documents. Maria is luckier than most because she was able to keep her identity card throughout her months of captivity. Most sex slaves are quickly deprived of their passports and other identity papers and issued with forgeries when they are transported abroad. This, along with language difficulties, makes escape or repatriation should they escape, doubly difficult.
"I have telephoned my family," says Maria. "When I get home I will tell my parents everything that happened. I never, never thought of myself as a prostitute and still do not. What I do think is that a part of my life has been stolen."
While Maria is speaking, Tara clasps a hand over her mouth and leaves the room in tears. She emerges a few minutes later, red-eyed.
"I only escaped five days ago and my friend who was held captive with me has been killed," she says. "What will I tell her family?"
Unlike Maria, Tara left Moldova for Albania of her own free will. She wanted to find a job to pay for her nursing studies. "In my country it is usual to leave for work abroad because there is no work at home. You even have to pay to work in the hospital," she says. She was taken hostage after applying for a job as a waitress. "They didn't believe me when I went for the job and it was obviously for prostitution work and I said I was not a prostitute.
"My friend and I were sold for $4,000 for both of us. My friend tried to escape, she struggled very, very hard but I was more afraid and just cried. She was mistreated very badly and was soon in a terrible state. She cried and shouted all the time and that is maybe why they killed her," says Tara. The 19-year-old is too upset to describe exactly what happened to her friend, saying only, between sobs, that "they took her away and killed her".
Tara was taken hostage by a drug dealer who repeatedly raped her. "Then he told me his mother was sick and I explained that I was a nurse. After that he treated me as a human being and asked me to help his mother. We understood one another very well after that because my mother is ill, too."
Tara spent ten months with the man who bought her, she says, until he came to trust her. "Then one day he let me go out of the apartment. I lied to him and he thought I would come back, but I went to the police. I didn't want to go back to him because I am not a prostitute. I was also stressed and tense and couldn't stop crying and crying. The police didn't arrest him. He had much money and he could pay the police because he used to buy and sell drugs and could afford it. Everyone is so corrupt."
The IOM shelters were set up in January and so far they have shielded about 15 women. Ken Patterson and Rich Kocher know that they have touched only the tip of the human-trafficking iceberg. "If we need to help thousands, we will try to do it," says Kocher.
Not all the women are kidnapped; some are duped by promises of jobs abroad. It is easy to trick a naive young woman from a poverty-stricken no-hope town in Moldova or Romania into believing that there is an escape route from desolation if they accept the offer of a job as a babysitter or waitress in Italy, Belgium or London. There are also some women who willingly opt to become prostitutes, seeing it as their only chance to avoid a life of grinding poverty, and they mistakenly believe they will be able at least to store up the money they make. The reality is different, they are rarely paid for their sexual services. Almost all the women - whether kidnapped, conned or consenting - are usually raped, beaten and psychologically tortured for weeks before being sold on to pimps, brothel-owners or perverts who can afford to buy a woman for their own use.
The sex-slave mafia trade is in women from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Romania, Kosovo, or Albania, where the hub of the trade is centred. The victims are then often taken by car or force-marched along remote mountain paths for days to Tirana or the Albanian coast. Many are dispatched on flimsy dinghies across the Adriatic to Italy, from where they are passed on to the red-light areas of West European capitals. Others are forced to work in Albania, Greece, or in the newest market for sex-traders - Kosovo, with its hundreds of thousands of international troops. For some women, their forced journeys end in death - either at the hands of the mafiosi if they prove to be more trouble than they are worth. Or they fail to survive the rigours of their transportation.
Earlier this year the body of a young, scantily clad woman was washed up on the Albanian coast. She had rope burns on her wrists, "not because her captors had tied her up," says a Western aid worker, "but because these women lash themselves to the dinghies when they are taken across the Adriatic as they are afraid of falling overboard and drowning. This was one who didn't make it."
Many victims are told that their relatives will be killed if they try to escape. This makes the courage of the seven women in their hideout in Tirana all the more remarkable.
In the city's dust-choked Skanderbeg Square, the national museum is fronted with a large, epic communist mosaic portraying a woman striding confidently forward with a rifle in her strong arms. The scene is a remnant of the era of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist leader from 1946, who kept Albania in isolation for much of his rule until his death in 1985. The impoverished country finally held democratic elections in 1992, but the shock to its system of joining the cut and thrust of capitalism has left hundreds of thousands without work and living literally off the scraps which form great mounds of litter wherever you look.
A miasma of disease hangs over a canal which runs through the heart of the capital and which is used as an open sewer and general rubbish tip. Huge rats rummage openly among the debris.
The Third World atmosphere of Tirana has proved a fertile breeding ground for Europe's burgeoning Albanian mafia. Corruption and racketeering reach deep into Albanian society; some police are hand-in-glove with the gangsters and are widely believed to take bribes to smooth the path of the criminals they are supposed to catch.
One group of escaped sex-slaves reached a police station in Durres, only to be imprisoned and repeatedly raped by the police officers over a two-month period last year, according to one Western aid worker. When they became tired of abusing the girls, they terrorised them and sent them out to work as prostitutes.
However, Patterson says his organisation has begun to work with other officers. The IOM-ICMC shelters are part of a $640,000 project to help women who have been bought and sold, to return home. The mission also aims to help them become reintegrated in societies which often shun them after they return, suspecting that they willingly prostituted themselves.
The aid project was born after a counter-trafficking workshop sponsored by the IOM and the British Government's Department for International Development in Tirana last September. The scale of the task facing those trying to help is monumental; between 250,000 and 500,000 are believed to be working as prostitutes in the European Union - "the majority having reached their destinations through illegal trafficking networks," says the IOM. "Women being trafficked into prostitution now constitute the largest single category of illegal migration to the EU."
The number of women being seized and forced into unpaid prostitution is believed to have increased since Nato-led peacekeeping troops entered neighbouring Kosovo last summer. Young Kosovo-Albanian girls were also reported to have been snatched from the refugee camps set up in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro during the Kosovo crisis. "Especially alarming have been the reports of young refugee women being abducted from the camps by armed scafisti (members of Albanian organised crime), forcing these women into prostitution in Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe," the IOM said in July, last year.
In London, Inspector Paul Holmes, of the Clubs and Vice unit of the Metropolitan Police, has seen a mushrooming of the numbers of Balkan women sold into prostitution. About 77 per cent of the "working girls" arrested in Soho brothels before Christmas were from the Balkans.
"The Albanian situation has changed things here. We have labelled it 'trafficking by deception and threats'. In our experience, 95 per cent of the women know what they are doing by the time they get here but they have been told they will be able to come here, clear debts and make a profit," he says.
"They arrive here with forged documentation, their own documentation is seized and they are put into virtual imprisonment. They have to comply with any sexual perversion or threats that are made to loved ones back home. It is effectively psychological torture. Unfortunately the law doesn't allow us to prosecute for psychological imprisonment. We are not on top of this by a long chalk," he says.
The police's big fear is that "turf wars" - fights between the various gangs - may break out with so much money at stake. "The turnover in a busy brothel can be £1 million a month," says Mr Holmes.
The Home Office has meanwhile asked the University of North London to investigate the growing problem of prostitutes smuggled into Britain from Eastern Europe. A report is due in March.
Back in Tirana, the mosaic of the warrior woman outside the national museum is testament to a bygone Balkan era - an ironic contrast with the wretched lives of the women who are bought and sold.
TROOPS of the Nato-led Kosovo Force (Kfor) guard 12 women in a safe house in Pristina who are victims of the growing sex-slave trade. It is not quite the role originally envisaged for Kfor, which intervened in the province last June after hundreds of thousands of Albanians had been forcibly expelled by Serb authorities.
Case-workers describe a 22-year-old Moldovan girl housed there as "adorable". "She is keeping up the morale of the other girls in the safe house with her good spirits, appetite for life and sense of humour." The Moldovan girl was kidnapped and later sold several times. Her dream before being kidnapped had been "to work as a nanny or look after babies", an IOM official says. "She saw no future in her home country which has a deteriorating economy." The girl was one of 12 rescued in January by Italian UN peacekeepers from a nightclub just outside Pristina, near the HQ of Russian forces. Her "duties" at the club involved dispensing sexual favours - about $50 for half an hour - to Russian and American Kfor troops, and Albanian clients.
Evidence of the sex-slave trade is increasingly common in the Balkans. Recently, while waiting for a plane at Bucharest airport, Romania, where flights also depart for Kishinau, the Moldovan capital, I saw several Balkan men waiting with attractive young women to leave for Moldova. The girls appeared to be prostitutes. At one stage money was exchanged. One attractive Moldovan girl was crying. In Greece, two girls from Romania and Ukraine were found dead recently in the snow on the border with Bulgaria. Police found another 22 women who had been wandering in the snow for three days after their contact on the Greek side of the border failed to turn up.
JAMES PRINGLE --
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