News/Moldova: RACOVAT, Moldova: immigrant trafficking.

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Subject: News/Moldova: RACOVAT, Moldova: immigrant trafficking.
From: Ewa Rurarz-Huygens (ewa@tafinc.com)
Date: Wed Jun 21 2000 - 09:03:05 EDT


Copyright 2000 Associated Press
AP Worldstream
March 26, 2000; Sunday
International news

RACOVAT, Moldova: immigrant trafficking.

    Appeals and campaigns seem galaxies away from the hardscrabble
reality of Victoria's
village, Racovat, near Moldova's border with Ukraine. The only water
is drawn from
common wells. There is no sewer system. Money has almost disappeared,
replaced by
bartering. ''Life is marching backward,'' moans Victoria's uncle,
Mihail Mitrofan.

This is the heartland of the smugglers' trade. Officials say a
network of advance men
travel the countryside. They peddle western Europe the way carnival
barkers used to
plug snake oil: a guaranteed cure-all. The good life awaits for a
price, of course.
Moldovan authorities say it's between dlrs 500 and dlrs 1,000 for
clandestine passage to
Greece, currently the favored destination.

Men must pay the bulk up front. Women can often go on credit _
setting in motion the
cycle of forced prostitution.

''The smugglers come in with nice clothes, watches, cellular
phones,'' says Ion Borozan,
the mayor of Racovat. ''This is like casting a magic spell.''

Nearly 10 percent of Racovat's 4,000 natives have left to seek work
abroad, he says.
''Our town is hemorrhaging,'' he adds with a sigh.

So is the rest of Moldova. The former Soviet republic is one of the
poorest pockets of
eastern Europe. The mainstays of the economy, agriculture and winemaking, have
collapsed with the falloff in demand in the former Soviet states that
used to be its
customers.

Outside the capital, Chisinau, utilities are spotty at best. The
government is months behind
paying state salaries. And when the money arrives it's a puny sum.
The average monthly
wage is less than 200 lei, about dlrs 15.

The exodus of illegal migrants occurs throughout eastern Europe. But
it rips particularly
hard at the fabric of tiny Moldova, where an estimated 400,000 of its
4.5 million people
have left.

''In every village, there are at least four or five young women who
have gone,'' says
Antonina Sirbu, head of the Women's Program at the Soros Foundation
in Chisinau.
''They all think, 'Yes, I will be among the lucky ones to get a nice
job.' Unfortunately, the
story can be very different.''
__

Once Victoria decided to leave, events moved quickly.

Her husband unemployed and with no prospects agreed with Victoria's
mother to share
the care of their two sons, 4-year-old Ion and 2-year-old Grigore.
Victoria's mother
made a final appeal for her daughter to stay. Victoria's brother and
sister are in Russia
doing sporadic factory work. She didn't want to lose the company of
her youngest,
21-year-old Victoria, as well.

''She told me, 'Don't worry. I'll earn some money and be back soon.
It's for the best,'''
her mother recalls.

In Victoria's three-room home, the kitchen is adorned with a faded
wall-size poster of a
beach dotted with flowers and palm trees. Under this cheerful scene,
she packed some
bread and cheese into her single bag. In a driving rain on Nov. 15,
she joined a group
leaving the village: six men and seven other women, including her niece.

They had been given a phone number in Bucharest, Romania. Their
contact, they were
told, would lead them south to Greece.

''We never stopped moving for three full days after that,'' says
Victoria's niece, Inga
Soimu, who at 18 already has a 2-year-old daughter. ''It was walking,
truck, walking
more. Always I kept thinking, 'Are we there yet?'''

They followed one of the well-established immigrant smuggling routes.
 From Bucharest,
they passed through Sofia, Bulgaria, then onto Macedonia's capital,
Skopje, and finally
crossed into Greece over a mountain pass.

About two months later, another group of 22 women from eastern Europe
would travel
the same way over the Mount Belles range. Two froze to death Jan. 15
when they were
left stranded by smugglers in a blizzard. The others survived by eating snow.

__

During the Cold War, Greece's northern border was among the world's
most closely
guarded. Now, it is punctured daily by outlaw convoys: guns and drugs
from Albania,
bootleg CDs from Bulgaria and waves of illegal immigrants entering
the region's only
European Union member.

Greek police have stepped up sweeps in immigrant areas and added more border
patrols. But the crackdowns often turn up allegations of a disturbing
alliance: smugglers
and brothel operators paying off police for protection.

''Without corruption, these smugglers couldn't work,'' says Ala
Mindicanu, a parliament
member in Moldova who has led efforts to draw attention to forced
prostitution. ''The
corruption exists at every point along the way. It's a corruption of
mentality. It's a
corruption of the people.''

Weak laws also give immigrant smugglers an open field in Moldova. A special
commission has been formed to draft statutes against human
trafficking, but the changes
come slowly, says Larisa Miculet, an official in Moldova's general
prosecutor's office.

''It's easy for the smugglers to prey on people, especially girls and
young women,'' she
says. ''We always say, 'Be careful. It's not worth the risk.' But who
really listens to such
talk when you have no money?''
__

Victoria and the other women from her group found themselves stashed
away in a nether
world more dreary than anything they had left behind. Rotting trash
and the jetsam from
an old clothing factory filled the storeroom. The windows were locked
and shuttered.

They knew they were in Greece. But where? No one would say exactly. As the days
passed, they grew more frightened. Yet at the same time, more acquiescent.

''We were sleeping on the floor,'' says Victoria's niece. ''We
couldn't contact anybody.
We were all thinking, 'We'll do anything to get out of here.'''

They were freed by Greek police in a Dec. 3 raid and learned they had
made it as far as
Melisohorio, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of
Thessaloniki. Authorities say a
local bar owner allegedly linked to smugglers had put the women on the market.

''They were trying to strike a deal with other pimps,'' says Brig. Athanassios
Dalamagides, head of the Thessaloniki police division.

Victoria and the others were transferred to a pre-deportation center
for illegal aliens on
the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Hundreds of women were packed into the
cells, which line
both sides of a short corridor. The place smells of cigarette smoke,
heavy perfume,
unwashed clothes.

And another type of essence is in the air: the gloom of those whose
plans have turned out
all wrong.

Victoria sat quietly to the side as some other women in her group
spoke to a reporter.
She offered just one observation: ''I'm sorry to go home with nothing
to show except a
sad story.''
__

Just after midnight on Dec. 12, Victoria made another fateful
decision. She would jump
from a train before it left Greece in an attempt to stay.

She was being sent over the border along with several people from her
Racovat group,
including a former grade school classmate, Veaseclav Novitchii, 21.
They were shipped
back by train because their documents were clean. The others in the
group, including
Victoria's niece, would be deported by plane since had been caught in
Bulgaria on a
previous trip and were banned from entering.

Some of her companions refused to jump. ''So it was only us three:
me, Victoria and a
Romanian guy,'' Novitchii says. ''You know, I don't even remember his name.''

They separated into different compartments, Novitchii says. The plan
was to wait for the
train to begin slowing down for the Bulgarian border post. Then it
would be a leap into
the darkness and a second chance.

''I saw the Romanian throw his bag and I jumped. I hit the ground and
rolled into bushes.
I never saw Victoria jump and I never saw the Romanian again,''
Novitchii says. ''I was
alone.''

He started walking along the tracks, but in the wrong direction. He
was arrested by
Bulgarian police.

Days later, back in Moldova, he learned Victoria had died in the fall
onto the jagged
roadbed.

Authorities found a short letter written on toilet paper on
Victoria's body. It's not clear
who she was writing to. It didn't sound like the words of someone who
had resigned
herself to deportation.

''I am fine,'' she wrote. ''I will not forget you ... And now I say
to you goodnight and
sweet dreams.''

__

EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press correspondent Costas Kandouris in Thessaloniki
contributed to this story.


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