[Stop-traffic] News/Albania: Fleeing poverty, finding slavery

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/Albania: Fleeing poverty, finding slavery
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Aug 29 2000 - 09:10:21 EDT

                                                   May 12, 2000

Fleeing poverty, finding slavery

                                Day 1 of the series

                             Second of two parts

By Jeffrey Fleishman

VLORA, Albania - Anna Melnic was sold for $1,000.

She was hustled out of her native Moldova on a train. She woke up in
Romania. She was beaten, raped, and driven across Yugoslavia. In the
foothills of Albania, she was passed to a pimp, ending up in this port
city, where she jumped off a fourth-floor balcony trying to escape her next
fate, a smuggler's boat bound for Italy.

"My mother died five years ago. My father is a drunk," Melnic said the
other day from her hospital bed. "I wanted to get away. I knew I was bought
to be a prostitute, but my plan was to escape those men and find a good
job. I never knew it would be like this. I was locked up and fed by a guy
who came once a day with meat."

At 17, Melnic was not as clever as the men with the fists and guns.

Sold by a Yugoslav gangster to an Albanian pimp, she became one of an
estimated 175,000 to 300,000 girls and women trafficked across Europe each
year. Depending on beauty, age and virginity, they are bought by criminals
for $1,000 to $5,000. Some enter the market voluntarily. Others are
kidnapped. Many are duped into believing they will become secretaries,
models, au pairs, nurses and dancers.

They are the slaves in a worldwide people-smuggling industry. Using
organized-crime clans and well-traveled routes, about four million people -
migrant workers, illegal immigrants, refugees and prostitutes - are
channeled around the globe each year. Some find prosperity. Others die
along the way.

Girls such as Melnic want to flee the poor countries of Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet republics. But the promise of the West eludes them. They
become tangled in a world where, like guns and drugs, they are just another
form of contraband. Their wills are broken by beatings and rapes. In many
cases, they are drugged and sold several times within a matter of weeks.

Some wind up turning tricks in New York or Atlanta. The U.S. State
Department reports that each year, 50,000 to 100,000 women and children are
forced into the United States against their will. Overall, government
statistics estimate that 700,000 females - coming from nations ranging from
Honduras to Thailand - are annually sold worldwide into slavery and
prostitution rings.

"But the pattern of the trade is clearly changing," said Franck Laczko, a
researcher with the International Office of Migration. "More and more women
are coming from Central and Eastern Europe . . . and a growing number of
them are very young."

Consider the plight of Jonela, a 26-year-old Romanian.

"I agreed to go to Italy to dance but not to prostitute," she said. "A man
named Meli bought me. He raped me. There were two pistols on the table.
Then a man named Miri took me. He had three bodyguards. He drove me into
Albania. Miri sold me and another girl to an old man. He kept us locked up.

"He and his friends came every night to rape us. Every time I was raped I
thought of my child. I thought I am lost forever and my boy has no mother."

Like thousands of other girls and women, Jonela was smuggled along a
well-worn route out of Eastern Europe. Taken from the Romanian town of
Foscani, she was whisked into Yugoslavia, moving west to Belgrade and on to
Montenegro. She was dragged onto a speedboat and raped by several men while
crossing a lake into Albania.

She later escaped. But most in her circumstances end up in Vlora, awaiting
their final destinations to Europe's largest cities.

Awash in corruption, Albania - Europe's poorest nation - has become a hub
for prostitution trafficking.

Loosely connected Albanian clans operate as middlemen for the smuggling
enterprises of Russian and Chinese mafias. Albanians keep females prisoners
in houses and hotels along the southern coast. On nights of calm seas, the
women are loaded onto rubber boats with 500-horsepower engines waiting to
cross the Adriatic.

Ninety minutes later they reach Italy, where new owners and northbound
taxis and trains await them.

"Even in Italy, many of the prostitution rings are run by Albanians," said
Sergio Mario Tosi, a prosecutor in the Italian port city of Brindisi, a
favorite destination of smuggling boats. "The Italian mafia has a cultural
thing about prostitution. They think it's degrading. But the Albanians are
vicious. They rape women to destroy them mentally. They make them slaves.
Girls as young as 12 years old are put on the streets and forced to earn
$500 a night."

The surge in Albanian females forced into prostitution mirrors the pattern
of increased trafficking across the continent: In 1998, more than 8,000
Albanian girls and women - 30 percent of whom were under 18 - were working
as prostitutes in Italy. That number today, according to human-rights
groups, has risen to at least 20,000.

Albania has few laws for prostitution trafficking. A trafficker can face up
to 15 years in prison, but many end up paying only small fines. Most are
never arrested. Police earn about $120 a month and are easily bribed. In
Vlora in 1998, when more than 200 smuggling boats daily crammed the harbor,
city records show police made no prostitution-trafficking arrests.

The lack of strict laws reflects a patriarchal culture that often
denigrates women. Until the 1960s, many Albanian girls were sold into
marriages by parents wanting to strengthen clan ties. Mountain custom had
it that a bullet was sewn into the dress of a bride. If she disrespected
her husband, rural justice permitted her execution. This cultural legacy
and the country's destitution - 80 percent of families in the northern
mountains live in poverty - have led some families to sell their girls into
prostitution, according to lawyers and aid

"An Albanian girl handed to traffickers is doomed," said Giulia Falzoi, an
Italian human-rights worker who deports illegal immigrants. "She cannot
even start a new life if she is arrested and sent back to Albania. Her
family has disowned her. She is psychologically damaged. The trafficker
either kills her or puts her on a boat back to Italy."

Police in Vlora this year have so far arrested 58 Albanian prostitutes
bound for big cities in Europe. Twenty-seven came from rural villages.
Three were sold by their families. Others - some as young as 15 - were
tricked into false marriages and ferried across the Adriatic Sea to the
streets of Rome and Bari.

"They feel so much shame that they never will come back," said Vera Lesko,
director of the Vlora Women's Hearth Group, whose home was attacked by
smugglers two years ago after she took a prostitute off the street. "If a
girl does return, there's no programs here to help them. I can't help all
these girls. It hurts my soul."

Geography and international politics have made Albania a strategic transit
point for Europe's prostitution trafficking. Bordering the Yugoslav
provinces of Montenegro and Kosovo, Albania is a Balkan gateway. Ten years
of economic sanctions against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have
transformed Yugoslavia into a mafia paradise. And, increasingly, everything
from drugs to women is channeled through Yugoslavia before reaching Albania
and ultimately Western Europe.

Over the last year, scores of girls from Romania, Latvia and Ukraine, who
normally would have been brought into Italy, have been sent to Kosovo as
prostitutes for the 40,000 NATO troops based there. Others are held captive
and become sex slaves for drug barons. Many more serve businessmen and
politicians in Belgrade and Tirana.

"The West put sanctions on Milosevic. It intervened with a war in Kosovo,"
said Kazuki Itaya, a Tirana-based program officer for the International
Organization for Migration. "But Western intervention in the name of peace
is fueling a lot of criminality."

Consider Bosnia. Six years after ethnic war ravaged the land, thousands of
girls and women have been trafficked in to serve criminals and workers for
international organizations. In testimony before a U.S. Senate Foreign
Relations subcommittee in February, Regan E. Ralph, director of the women's
rights division for Human Rights Watch, gave the following account:

The International Police Task Force and other Western organizations have
been well aware of Bosnia's prostitution rackets, "but little was done to
prevent the trafficking. . . . We even found evidence that some officials
[from international organizations] were actively complicit in these abuses,
participating in the trafficking. . . ."

A teenager's loss of innocence

Fifteen-year-old Pane Rezearta was robbed of her virginity on a dirt floor
in an abandoned warehouse.

A petite Albanian girl in coveralls, tinted bangs covering her brown eyes,
Rezearta today is in police custody. She sat in a plastic chair, her black
boots not touching the ground. Through an interpreter, she whispered her
story of rape and kidnapping, and how she was loaded onto a rubber boat
that bumped over rough seas to Italy.

Italian authorities want Rezearta to testify against nine traffickers -
eight Albanians and one Italian. But the daughter of a bricklayer from
Vlora is facing another kind of justice: Her family has been threatened
that if she appears in court, her mother, father and sisters will be
murdered by criminal gangs.

Rezearta's ordeal began with a call from a schoolmate.

On Oct. 26, 1999, Rezearta was invited by her friend Eliona to spend the
night while Eliona's parents were away. Rezearta said she planned to help
Eliona do some chores and watch TV. But Eliona's brother, Alket, had other

"When I got to the house, they treated me very well," said Rezearta. "Then
Alket wanted me to go with him. I had only met him two days earlier. He
took me to a building. It was an old warehouse that made paper. He raped

Over the next three days, Rezearta said, she was kept locked in Eliona's
home and raped in the warehouse every night by Alket. Rezearta's parents
did not go looking for her. Prosecutor Mario Tosi suspects the parents may
have sold their daughter after being tricked into believing she would be
married and settled into a good life in Italy.

Italian authorities and court records allege that Alket and his gang
trafficked females throughout the Balkans. Alket told Rezearta another
story: "He said to me, 'Pane, you'll be my wife.' "

On the fourth day, Rezearta said, "Alket's father, Agim, came home and
raped me. He said into my ear: 'Now I know what I'm going to do with you.
You're going to Italy to make a lot of money.' "

The next night, up a ragged stretch of Albanian coast, Rezearta was driven
to a small cove near the town of Levane. She heard the throaty growl of a
motor. A rubber boat appeared. She and 30 others - prostitutes and illegal
immigrants from other countries - were put aboard. Hours later, soaked by a
whitecapped sea, Rezearta landed on a thread of beach near Brindisi.

Rezearta was driven to a small house in the town of Ostuni. Over the next
few days, she said, she was forced to have sex with several men.

"It was 4 a.m. No one told me anything," she said. "I got up to go to the
bathroom and a man named Arian followed me in and raped me. I was scared to
go back to my room, so I stayed in the bathroom. But then the leader
arrived. His name was Dorian. He came in to take a shower and raped me.
Later the next day, I heard them talking on the phone. They said something
about going to Rome later that night. It was then I knew I'd be a

What occurred during the ensuing hours is confusing. Rezearta and Italian
authorities say Rezearta persuaded one of her captors to use the telephone
to call her parents in Albania to tell them she was safe. After the call,
Rezearta's father, Isuf, contacted the Albanian police, who alerted Italian

At 5 p.m., just as she was boarding a train to Rome, police rescued
Rezearta and arrested her kidnappers.

Plan for getting to Italy backfires

No one saved Anna Melnic.

She lies in Bed 68 in a room she shares with five other women in the Vlora
Hospital. Her 40-foot fall from a balcony has left her spotted with
bruises. Vomit stains the floor beneath her. She does not speak the
language of her doctors. Every face entering the room startles her. The men
who own her want her dead or turning tricks.

When she left Moldova, she had imagined a good job and maybe a boyfriend in
Italy. She was beaten and locked up instead. She did, after all, agree to
be a prostitute. But that was only a ruse, a young girl's ploy to get away
from a drunken father and a dreary life. It would never happen, she thought.

Today, she knows better. But her prospects have not improved.

"I cannot prostitute," she said. "But I can't go back to my father, either.
There is nothing for a good life in Moldova. I have an aunt in Russia, but
that's too far away. I guess I'll be alone somewhere."

As she spoke, a doctor rushed down the hall.

"Does anyone speak Romanian? Does anyone speak Romanian?" he said. The
police had brought in another woman who had been bloodied by the men who
bought her.

Jeffrey Fleishman's e-mail address is foreign@phillynews.com

          C2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

Please contact me off-list for any questions about Stop-Traffic at <<morhant@igc.org>>.

Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health
Stop-traffic is facilitated, international electronic list
funded by the Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
of the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH)
dealing with human rights abuses associated with trafficking
in persons, with an emphasis on public health and trafficking
in persons for forced labor, including forced prostitution,
sweatshop labor, domestic service and some coercive mail
order bride arrangements.
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