It was midnight on a Friday and the carnival of horrors was open for business. Maks, a swaggering pimp in this drab town notable only for its endless strip of bordellos, appeared at the hotel room door with an adolescent girl in tow. “This one is my youngest,” he said. With one arm draped around 17-year-old Lena’s neck, Maks’ free hand found its way up her white T-shirt. He pulled it up to reveal Lena’s breasts. “Look at these things!” he boasted.
This is not the kind of relationship that exists between most pimps and prostitutes. Maks literally owns Lena and many other girls who service dozens of men a night at his command.
With civil war threatening to break out between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians, Maks was encouraged to see prospective new customers. Business was off, and the Greeks who vacationed at nearby Lake Okhrid had failed to turn up for the summer holidays.
Nobody comes to Velesta for the scenery. Only two paved roads wind past rows of hastily constructed brick buildings with shops selling produce and Chinese kitsch. Velesta’s main attraction is cheap sex — performed by beautiful girls kept under lock and key.
Meeting with Meti
We checked into the Hotel Ekslusiv, where Velesta’s sex slaves are forced to serve clients.
Before we could even take our bags up to the sparsely furnished rooms, Meti came calling.
Meti, another pimp and the owner of the Coca-Cola and Bela Dona bars just down the street, was eager to show us his girls. In his late 30s, with slicked-back hair, he is considered a kingpin in the Balkans sex trade.
“You have to see my girls!” he said. “They are the best.”
We rode in Meti’s car to the Coca-Cola club, where he led us to the bar — a small room with seven tables blanketed in blue and red light. Meti disappeared in the back. We could hear him bellowing at the girls to get into their lingerie and come out front. Frantically, 11 women appeared, still putting on lipstick and eyeliner.
“You can have any one you want. Or all of them!” Meti said over music blasting on the stereo.
Returning to the Hotel Ekslusiv, where we were left alone with the women, one — 19-year-old Olga — showed us a gruesome bite wound on her breast, inflicted by a client a month before.
Throughout the night, women were herded in and out of the hotel by their pimps, who handed them over to waiting clients.
The women who spoke with MSNBC.com said a night with a client was their only chance for a good meal, and they ordered hearty steaks from the hotel’s ground-floor restaurant. “They only feed us macaroni,” Olga said.
Inside a room and away from their owners, the women spoke cautiously, turning up a television set to drown out our conversation in case the pimps were listening on the other side of the door. Speaking in Russian, Olga was able to tell her story without raising the suspicion of her “owner.”
‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’
Olga told us that occasionally there were “good clients” among the thousands of men she was forced to service. I pressed her to explain what could be “good” about men who were raping her. “They are good if they don’t beat you. They are good if they just have sex. Sometimes they bring me a present.”
Other women told how “owners” frequently treat one slave better than the others, showering her with gifts and not forcing as many clients upon her. To survive, the woman becomes the pimp’s lover — and rises up in the hierarchy of Velesta’s brothels. The girls call the pimp “Papa” and his mistress “Mama.”
“Mama” still lives with all the girls, but she’s “Papa’s” spy, informing on anyone who plots to escape.
Sometimes a mistress will enter into business with the pimps, who pay her handsomely to return home and recruit more girls with false promises of well-paid work in Europe.
Twenty-four hours after working undercover in the brothels, we returned to the Hotel Ekslusiv — this time with 100 members of Macedonia’s crack police squad. The Macedonian interior minister, Lubje Boskovski, launched a raid on Velesta after we told him the stories of the women held as sex slaves.
In a dozen armored personnel carriers, the police crashed through the doors of several clubs and the Hotel Ekslusiv, which should have been packed with clients on a weekend night. The pimps and their girls, tipped off by local police on their payrolls, were long gone.
As the sun rose over the hills to the east, our Macedonian escorts began to get nervous. “We have to get out before sunup,” the commander said, fearing the coming light would give the well-armed pimps an easy shot at his officers.
Meti, the pimp the police had come looking for, had escaped.
As the armored personnel carriers rumbled back to base, we remembered the words of Natasha, a young Moldovan once “owned” by Meti.
“If I ever saw him again, I wouldn’t use words (to speak to him). I would use a gun.”