Guardian Unlimited


Ed Vullamy
Sunday October 3, 2004
The Observer

Katalina swaddles the baby she says gives meaning to her life, once shattered. She is staying with a family - which knows nothing of her past - in a rain-swept village in the north of Moldova, but will soon have a place of her own, she hopes.

At the beginning of this year, Katalina - who had grown up in an orphanage - was abandoned by her boyfriend after telling him she was pregnant. Soon afterwards, she was invited by a Russian woman to a birthday party in a local bar in her village near Moldova's second city, Balti. There, Katalina was offered a future in Moscow, with an option to work as a house painter or line worker at a pasta factory. Katalina opted to give it a try - why not? There was nothing for her in Moldova. But events twisted strangely when she and her Russian minder reached the Ukrainian border.

'A policeman met us and drove us across the frontier, avoiding the crossings. The Russian paid the policeman and we went to get false papers made.' They then proceeded by train to Moscow, where Katalina met another girl from near Balti, who told her what was expected. 'You can't get away from here,' said the girl. 'They will break your legs.'

So began Katalina's life as an enslaved prostitute, working a beat beneath a railway bridge, for which her traffickers paid local police. 'I was told never to say that I was pregnant, else the clients would not want me, and I would be beaten to pieces,' recalls Katalina. Some clients, she says, 'kept me for a number of days, and invited their friends. One man kept me for three or four days in a basement and invited 20 men. When I objected they told me I was a bitch. They had bought me and could do whatever they liked to me. Another time, I was on the 11th floor of a building with seven Moldovans, all of them taking drugs. After they had had their way, they insisted I smoke some drugs, too. When I refused, they became violent, and one of them opened a window and threatened to throw me out. But there was one man less stoned than the rest, who said, "You are just a dirty whore," and sent me from the room.'
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Time passed in this way, until Katalina's pregnancy could no longer be hidden. Clients, their sensibilities offended, would beat and insult her, demanding their money back. The Russian traffickers beat her, too, saying they would lock Katalina away until she was due, 'and that they would sell my baby, when it came'.

Katalina has an expression full of guile; it comes as no surprise when she says that she elected to escape. The flat in which she was kept by day was watched by police officers on the pimp's behalf, to prevent the girls from leaving. But Katalina noted when the police watch went for its daily lunch break. That was when she, and the other girl from her area, made a run for it.

Laughter comes hard while talking about these things, but now the artful Katalina has her company in unlikely stitches. 'We did a funny thing,' she says. 'After running away from the flat, we took a trolleybus to Red Square, thinking this is where the train to Chisinau would go from. Just imagine, two escaped Moldovan prostitutes lost in a tourist trap, asking smart people how to get the train back to their little village.' Having found the station, they were picked up by the railway police and sent home.

Moldova is Europe's poorest country and, says Unicef's representative there, Giovanna Barberis, 'one of the main, if not the main source country for the trafficking of women and children'.

This is how a briefing paper drawn up by the Swedish Foreign Ministry's aid wing Sida - which is active in counter-trafficking projects in Eastern Europe - describes the country: 'Moldova has probably suffered the most devastating peacetime decline in economic performance and living standards of any country in modern times. From a situation of relative prosperity, GDP in this country has fallen by more than 70 per cent within a decade - placing Moldova on a par with the poorest countries in Asia and Africa. For most Moldovans, life has become a daily struggle to satisfy the most basic needs against increasingly uneven odds.'

The bus station in Chisinau, Moldova's care-worn capital, is a monument to the nation's reaction to its fate - mass emigration. The population is officially set at 4.5m, after a census in 1989, but, says Barberis, 'the reality is probably nearer 3.5m. Hundreds of thousands have simply left, to find work, legally or illegally, in the West.' Every week, fleets of heaving coaches leave this bus station - with its mosaic showing a happy socialist life in factory and field - bound for Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. As a result, thousands of children are left abandoned by their parents, becoming prey to the trafficker's eye.

Under communism, Moldova, with its fertile black soil, was the orchard of the USSR, and its industry was locked into the trans-Soviet infrastructure. Now, Moldovan society has been ravaged by a corrupt neo-communist political class and an economy beholden to the profits of crime. The price of agricultural produce is so low that much of it withers - literally - on the vine. The average wage is $50 (£28) per month. And the generation now growing up with no memory of communism or relative prosperity is prey to those engaged in Moldova's rapidly growing and infamous export - human beings.

'There are about 1m Moldovans living abroad,' says Barberis, 'and among that 1m, a great many have left illegally and are exposed to trafficking. They go in different ways. The traffickers are getting more and more sophisticated. There can be direct contact with a relative, friend, or friend of a friend. There are advertisements in the newspapers for fake jobs as waitresses, babysitters or cooks. They are invariably jobs advertised for women and it becomes an attractive offer, given the fact that unemployment is extremely high, given the fact that access to health care and education is extremely low, given the fact that domestic violence is deeply rooted.'

There is a correlation between the subjugation of women and children in Moldovan society and their vulnerability to trafficking, says Daniela Popescu, who runs the Amicul centre for 'at risk' children in Chisinau. Some 80 per cent of trafficking victims, she says, have also been victims of domestic violence. 'There are old sayings passed on from grandparents,' she says: 'they say an unbeaten woman is like an untidy house, or beating his woman is a man's divine right.' Women are held in low esteem, have low self-esteem and tend to accept things as they are, not to denounce their men. They are accustomed to hard physical work, so it is often the best and strongest of them who decide they can be free from emotional and physical abuse, and can handle hard work abroad.

'The traffickers are very much aware of these subjugated conditions,' she continues, 'and, ironically, will make promises such as, "You are working at home and being beaten - why not work away from the beating, and get good money?"'

The village of Biesti, an hour north of the capital, is typical - the effect is unmistakable and striking. This is a community where there are no adults; a place where only children and old people walk the main street and muddy tracks. The children have for the most part been abandoned by their parents, and are thus vulnerable to the traffickers. Angelina, aged 13, just about manages on what her mother and father send back - she explains that her parents left for Orvieto in Italy, leaving her to look after her 10-year-old brother.

But unlike most villages of its kind, there is a quiet revolution under way in Biesti - proving that where there is initiative, the traffickers will not have it all their own way. That with the right resources and the will to battle the traffickers with knowledge, there is reason for faint hope in this woebegone landscape. For here is one of a network of day centres funded by Unicef, devoted almost entirely to raising awareness of trafficking and 'life skills' in a world without adults, or where adults do not care. Every child in Biesti has, as a result, seen a film called Lilja 4-ever by the director Lukas Moodysson, about a Russian girl trafficked to Stockholm. 'We all cried when we saw it,' says Veronica, aged 16. 'We talked about it, and wondered, what would we do?'

Veronica and her friend Aksenia are prime targets for any trafficker, but both girls talk with disarming maturity about the dangers, the film and its message. 'It is not enough just to have the information to be on the lookout,' says Aksenia, 'it is a matter of having the skills to act when and if you find that you are in trouble.' Everyone, however, wants to leave the village, adds Veronica.

There are 63 'residential schools' for what are called the 'social orphans' of Moldova, where discarded children learn and live. These are places like that in which Katalina was raised, and in all, they hold some 13,000 children, any one of whom could be said to be 'at risk' to trafficking. In these places, too, Unicef is working against the peril that awaits these children once they try - as they will - to leave. At the orphanage in Orhei, a group of 14-year-olds has also seen Lilja 4-ever and rehearse a play they will perform to the school and around town about social exclusion, with its obvious message about the return of trafficked victims. 'We are learning that we must have them back,' says Svetlana, 'even if they have HIV and Aids.'

'It is amazing to me,' says Barberis, 'that this issue of trafficking is simply not a matter for the government in this country. Similarly, not only is there no support for the victims of trafficking when they return, but there is no effort to re-integrate them, to rescue them from their non-future.'

Viorica, a child of 17 from southern Moldova, cannot finish her story. She wanted, she says, to go to music school and improve her singing voice, 'to learn to sing and play'. But life had other plans for her. Instead, she was lured from her village by a distant cousin, to Turkey, with a promise of work. When she arrived at the coastal resort of Antalya, she 'was told to put on some clothes and get ready. "It's time for you to work," they said. I asked what work? They said I was going to a hotel to be with men. When I objected,' she continues, 'they said I would have to do this thing if I ever wanted to see Moldova again. They threatened me with a gun and made me get into a car. We got to the hotel. The thing is, I'd never been with a man before. I was a virgin, and that night, they made me go with 11 men.' At this point, Viorica stops in the tracks of her tears and her words. It is a terrible moment.

The psychologist treating Viorica, Ana Chirsanov, tells me that the girl has tried to commit suicide. 'Her soul was destroyed that first night, with those 11 men,' explains Dr Chirsanov. 'She used to resist, spitting and pulling the clients' hair, but they thought it was all part of some erotic game. She was crying out, "I don't want to do this", and they just laughed at her, amusing themselves. After which she got into thinking that she was the one who was insane and that this was what the world is like. That the people doing this to her were normal and she was insane to be unhappy about it.' Most of the girls, when they return, says Dr Chirsanov, 'speak of their desire to die. We had a case of one minor who had jumped from a sixth-floor window... she survived, after six surgical operations.'

There is a glaring problem in calling what happened to Viorica, or any trafficked woman or girl, 'prostitution', since the word can imply a degree of consent. 'Here, there is absolutely no meaningful consent at all,' says Sian Jones, co-ordinator for the Balkans at Amnesty International. 'It is clear that if you knowingly have sex with a woman who has been trafficked, that is rape.'

'There is no consent in sex with a trafficked woman,' says Denise Marshall, who runs the Poppy Project in south London, Britain's only shelter for trafficked women. 'If a trafficked woman is forced to see 30 clients a day, so far as I am concerned, that is 30 rapes a day. The impact on the body and on the psyche is the same as rape. It is the same level of violence against that woman.'

A website called www.punternet.com offers an insight into these clients' heads. It invites entries from men comparing notes on prostitutes. On occasions, there is every indication that the woman visited is trafficked and that the client knows this. 'Worst shag of my life,' laments one entry, 'the girl was a robot - felt sorry for her - kept thinking why is she doing this? - she said only a couple of words to me - gave me 10 mins of hand job while looking the other way and jumping when I tried to touch her - she lay down trying to cover her tits - 15 mins with me trying to grab her ... Why does she do it? I probably can guess.'

When politicians turn their attention to trafficking and prostitution - as the British Home Office is now doing - little attention is paid to the 'demand' side, to the punters.

The debate is most advanced in Sweden, from where money has been pumped into counter-trafficking abroad and legislation enacted at home, in 1999, attempting to fight trafficking by tackling all use of prostitutes. 'The problem of demand has been engaged here by criminalising the buying of sexual services,' says Nina Strandberg, East Europe area manager for Sida. 'Basically, that means it is not illegal for a woman to sell sex, but it is illegal for a man to buy it. It's an interesting position, introduced as something we regard as integral to the battle against trafficking.' According to Stockholm police, the measure has cut by more than two-thirds the number of prostitutes being operated in the city, with 754 convictions from 1999 until this summer, and fines imposed.

'The Swedish law is controversial, but until countries of destination for these women and girls have some kind of legislation in place, we cannot begin to address the matter of trafficking,' says Steve Ashby. 'Prosecution of traffickers is not enough - another will always take his place. But if there were tighter laws on demand, then a lot of the so-called punters would think twice before they accepted the risk.'

'The Swedish measure would make a great difference if it was more widespread,' says Lesko. 'It targets the right people - not the girls who come back damaged, but the people who damage them.'

'This matter of trafficking,' says Giovanna Barberis, 'is becoming of dramatic concern. And yet I do not see governments in Western Europe wanting to address and find solutions to this issue. In some places, there does not appear to be any political will at all. There are many countries in Europe which have not even thought to undertake a serious assessment or analysis.'

The 45 member states of the Council of Europe are currently drafting a convention on trafficking, providing an opportunity for binding minimum standards for the protection of and support for trafficked people. Most governments - including Britain's - tip-toe, however, confusing the issue with smuggling and migration, and are wary of the political liability in any discourse on arrivals from Eastern Europe. Within the Home Office, there are conflicting interests, between immigration services, which put a priority on removing people without proper documentation, and law enforcement, which requires willing witnesses and intelligence to prosecute traffickers.

A triumvirate of organisations - Unicef, Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International - campaign for three basic standards to be met by the European convention. They are: first, support, shelter and safety provision for women who emerge as having been trafficked. Second, a minimum period during which women can decide whether they want to co-operate with police investigations. (Protection at the Poppy Project, now funded by the Home Office, is conditional on agreeing to help the police. Italy has the most advanced legislation to date, with a 90-day allowance for reflection, and now suggests a six-month reflection period.) Third, resident permits - temporary or permanent - should be on offer in the country of destination 'whenever there is reasonable likelihood that a trafficked person will be subject to re-trafficking or other serious harm'. Italy already has such a system, which has proven effective not only in terms of protecting victims, but also in prosecuting traffickers.

Britain's record is different. In autumn 2003, London and Tirana signed a bilateral agreement on repatriation to Albania of girls or women found to have been trafficked. 'I cannot respect a policy of repatriation,' says Vera Lesko. 'Since that year, I've had 16 girls sent back from Britain, 14 of whom have since been re-trafficked back into the system. Is it really so hard for you to take 16 people?'

Mike Kaye of Anti-Slavery International argues that 'there is no conflict between protection and prosecution'. Quite apart from respect for the human rights of a person who has had them destroyed, he says, 'Protection of trafficked people three distinct advantages: it disrupts the trafficking system, because they do not get re-trafficked; it favours intelligence, because they are more likely to tell the support agency how they were trafficked; and in the long or medium term, it means that the trafficked person is more likely to co-operate with the police.'

'What really irritates me,' says Denise Marshallat the Poppy Project, 'is that governments - not just the UK - put the responsibility on to the country where these women originate. The fact is this: if British men were not wanting sex with trafficked women, then trafficked women would not be here. I had a woman who was raped 88 times - no, not 18, 88 - on Christmas Day 2002. She is completely annihilated. She is a religious woman who dares not go to church. She has a child but does not think she deserves to see that child. The men who did that to her were British, and I think Britain has a responsibility to provide her with at least sometime and proper resources. There are no quick-fix solutions for a woman like that.'

Eva, from southern Albania, fell in love with the man who took her to Naples, promising a wedding. But on arrival, her fiance demanded that Eva work for him as a prostitute. 'When I protested, he said he would kill my family and that his accomplices back home would do the same thing to my sister.' The trafficker worked alongside a 'group of his friends' while Eva and other girls enslaved into their operation walked the streets of Naples, taking up to 20 clients a night to meet her quota, and, if lucky, avoid a beating. Most nights, however, would end with her being violated and beaten by her trafficker and his accomplices.

'I could see people living their normal lives,' she says, her eyes staring into mid-distance - 'shopping, going about their business. They had their families and children with them, they had their lives, they had all the things I wanted but could never have. It made my heart cry to see them. Instead, I became accustomed to being a slave, crying all the time, but always afraid to leave him,because he knew my family, he knew my sister. I was alone, I had no one.'

Eva's trafficker was brother to one of Albania's biggest dealers in drugs and women, who was killed in a car crash. Eva duly managed to escape when her trafficker returned to Tirana for the funeral, successfully seeking out one of her brothers, living in Venice.

Eva, who wears a cross around her neck, has two distinct and different faces: the one she wears when telling her story hitherto - bounden, staring blankly - and another, which comes suddenly alive, effervescent, when she gets to this point in her narrative. In Savona, she met her sister-in-law, an evangelical Christian, who took Eva to church and to see a film about Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute. 'She saved my life,' says Eva, 'a certain peace came into me. I began to think differently and became a believer. My fear left me. I realised that people judge you, but God can forgive everything.'

Now living in hiding from reprisal, as does her sister, Eva is clearly the life force of the shelter in which she lives. 'For the moment, I have what I want. I have my sister with me, I tidy up, I plant flowers, I sew.' But Eva also urges her fellow victims and those still captive, out there in the hell of enslavement, whence she returned: 'I tell them, do not be afraid to do what is right. Go to the police. Testify against those who exploit you, for they deserve to be punished.'

All names of trafficked women and children in this article have been changed for their own safety. To find out more about Unicef's projects against trafficking, visit endchildexploitation.org.uk

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