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From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Sat Jul 08 2000 - 21:28:09 EDT

By Rory Carroll in Rome.
Women tell of being sold to pimps by the Balkan mafia and beaten if they
resist or fail to earn enough on the streets

Rory Carroll in Rome
Angela always liked attention, but the day she was forced to stand naked on
a block for men to poke, pinch and haggle over her worth ended that.
Now she sells herself every night, but sometimes she hovers just beyond the
streetlamp so that motorists may whizz by without noticing her.
Six months on Via Salaria, a motorway just north of Rome, has sharpened her
memory of walking with her boyfriend to the outskirts of Tirana, the
Albanian capital, to meet a contact. Their future had arrived, he told her.
It was a posh house with a long drive and inside groups of men were waiting
for her and a dozen other girls. `Strip,' her boyfriend whispered, and she
didn't know what else to do, so she did.
The wooden block was the size of a railway sleeper, too low to make her
visible to the whole room but enough to give a sense of occasion. It was,
after all, an auction. Inspection was allowed before bidding.
The buyers were not rough. Some checked her veins, rolled her tummy between
forefinger and thumb, counted her teeth, felt her breasts. Some did not
bother and just looked. The opening bid was #400. It seemed like an awful
lot, but the price went up. To be blond and 19 was to be in demand. Within
minutes she had fetched #900. Another girl was guided to the block and
Angela stumbled away.
That was in November. Tonight she is wearing a black miniskirt, grey
T-shirt, green nail polish and brown lipstick. `This is my work outfit,'
she says, gazing out of the car window and fretting about returning to her
street lamp.
Angela is a false name, but her ordeal is becoming the reality for an
increasing number of young women from south-eastern Europe. Albanian gangs
have taken over prostitution and rewritten the rules to make it an industry
that is bigger, bolder and more brutal. Porous borders and lawlessness in
former Yugoslavia and Albania have created ideal conditions, according to
the United Nations. Bulk orders
Such is the industry's scale and confidence that gangs in Italy send bulk
orders for the number and type of women. Colleagues in the Balkans oblige
by rounding up women, not always against their will, and holding auctions,
says Miriam Lani, who helps former prostitutes for the charity Caritas in
`Auctions usually take place in source countries, in areas controlled by
the local mafia. They are well protected. They are efficient ways of doing
But the auctions are moving to Italy, where about half of the estimated
50-70,000 prostitutes are foreigners. Two years ago auctions were held only
in the Balkans, says a Rome detective, but the need to rotate prostitutes
around different cities to elude the police creates a market. Typically,
the bidders gather in motorway lay-bys or service station carparks. The
business is unchallenged, since the Italian mafia melted away in the face
of the Balkan onslaught. Last month the police in Matera, in southern
Italy, rescued two Romanians, aged 19 and 22, who were exhibited nude to
Serbian, Montenegrin and Albanian gangs.
Back in the Via Salaria in Rome, Angela is beginning to panic. She has been
away from her post for 20 minutes - too long - and she is not supposed to
talk. It is only two hours to her midnight deadline and since 6pm she has
made less than #100, mostly from #15 sessions of oral sex. `It's not
enough. What will I tell him?'
Some nights, when she cannot face the work, she lurks in the shadows beyond
the streetlight. Just a few years of prostitution and then they would have
enough money to marry, her boyfriend had told her, but she has not seen him
since the auction. The man in her life now is her buyer, and she must earn
back his #900 purchase money and endless costs. He pays for her food, rent,
clothes, condoms and make-up. Though she speaks good Italian, her pimp is
virtually the only person she knows in Italy. Her documents were left in
Police cars cruise past, but Angela refuses to seek help. Shouting and
shaking, she insists on being returned to her spot. Twelve minutes later
she vanishes into a red Audi. Frightened
By midnight Angela is gone from Via Salaria, but other prostitutes know of
her. `She tells clients she's 24 but she's 19. She's always frightened but
there are others a lot, lot younger,' says Tanya, a 28-year-old Russian.
The auctions are churning out too many girls, she complains. `Two years ago
there were two or three of us on this stretch. Now look at it, there's at
least 30.'
A Ukranian, also 28, says the Albanians and Romanians tend to be younger
and more pliable. `They never work for themselves, they're like sheep.'
Escape can be as easy as hailing a police car, but they are inhibited by
fear of retaliation against their families back home, says Miriam Lani of
Caritas. Others have told their families that they are waitresses or
dancers, and fear blackmail.
Jailed pimps have been known, upon release, to track down the girl who
betrayed them. `These men are extremely violent, and they keep discipline
by making examples of those who step out of line,' says Ms Lani. Virtually
every week two-paragraph stories in Italian newspapers report the discovery
of a streetwalker's corpse, often burned. Biba Merita, a 17-year-old
Albanian, was beaten to death in Treviso after being diagnosed with a brain
tumour. She had been bought and sold many times during her four-year
This new generation of streetwalker is different, says Nicola Maria Pace, a
prosecutor in Trieste. `My personal observation is that they have neither
the look nor the mentality of prostitutes. They are often very young.
They're usually resold after being on the streets for a certain time, and
taken to a different area.'
Most prostitutes are volunteers fleeing poverty, the police say, though if
arrested, the girls tend to claim that they were coerced. What the women do
not anticipate are the beatings and auctions. Being sold to strangers must
be terrifying for those who expected to be managed by their boyfriends or
relatives, says Father Piero, who makes weekly prayer and counselling
visits to Via Salaria's prostitutes. `Knowing who they'll be working for,
that's their only real safety.'.
GUARDIAN 23/05/2000 P19

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