Olga winced as she drew back the bandage on her right breast, revealing an infected puncture wound that hadn’t healed since a man bit her in a fit of sexual rage. But the wound, for which the 19-year-old Moldovan lacked even basic medicine, is only a small part of Olga’s daily agony. For more than a year she has been held as a sex slave in this town in western Macedonia, where human trafficking flourishes and young girls are forced to endure the sexual whims of thousands of men.
Sitting in a brothel bedroom in Velesta, a town synonymous with forced prostitution that police and experts consider one of the most dangerous places in Europe, Olga said that her “owner” would kill her for telling a reporter about her state of captivity. But the cruel conditions under which she is held, and her deteriorating mental and physical health, compelled her to speak out.
Her head hung in shame, Olga’s dark brown eyes welled with tears. She brushed back her long black hair, revealing a fair complexion flushed with anger at her fate. “There is only one word for this,” she said. “Slavery.”
Forced to have sex with as many as 10 men every day, Olga and other women clandestinely interviewed by MSNBC.com as part of a four-month investigation into the sex trade in Europe, insisted that their real identities not be revealed.
Their fears are not unfounded. Those brave enough to seek help have been savagely beaten — and sometimes killed — for trying to escape.
Flourishing sex trade
Olga is one small cog in a huge transnational industry, and Macedonia is merely a way station on a path to bondage that begins in impoverished Eastern Europe and the chaotic states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and stretches to Western Europe, the Middle East and beyond.
In Europe alone, officials estimate that more than 200,000 women and girls — one-quarter of all women trafficked globally — are smuggled out of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics each year, the bulk of whom end up working as enslaved prostitutes. Almost half are transported to Western Europe. Roughly a quarter end up in the United States. Human rights activists say the numbers do not tell the full story, because most women remain silent rather than turn to frequently corrupt authorities for help.
The rapid rise of this sex slave trade can be traced to the fall of the Soviet Union, where borders once heavily guarded by the Red Army suddenly became porous and Soviet republics and Eastern European satellites once in the Kremlin’s grasp saw their industries and subsidies collapse overnight. Millions of young women like Olga came of age amid this economic misery. Their childhood fantasies of a better life in the West soon became a human trafficker’s golden opportunity.
Nowhere is this trafficking worse than it is in Moldova, Olga’s home, where experts estimate that since the fall of the Soviet Union between 200,000 and 400,000 women have been sold into prostitution — perhaps up to 10 percent of the female population.
The numbers are staggering, but for Liuba Revenko of the International Organization for Migration in Moldova the bondage of the country’s young women has become routine. “Moldovans are a hybrid population of Russians, Romanians, Jews, Ukrainians and Bulgarians,” Revenko said. “That creates a special race of women that are beautiful and in demand. They have no future. They are a good target for the traffickers.”
In Velesta, a town so small that the 120 Moldovan girls working as prostitutes there make up a sizeable part of the population, the sex slaves are rarely seen during the day. Kept under lock and key in the back rooms of a dozen “kafane,” or café-bars that double as brothels, they are summoned by their owners when a customer arrives. Then the girls, most in their late teens or early 20s, are paraded in skimpy lingerie before clients who “pick us according to their tastes,” said Irina, a Moldovan who answered a want-ad to be a waitress in Italy, but ended up trapped in a Balkans brothel instead of working in a restaurant in southern Sicily.
Rural Moldovan women, lacking education and desperate to escape, are easy targets, activists say. Sometimes the bondage is built around a debt that is impossible to pay off. Other times, it is simply brutal captivity.
They end up servicing clients with the false hope of working off a “debt” to their owners, who continue to entice them with real jobs in Europe.
The women’s tales of bondage are hauntingly similar. Olga, the Moldovan with the breast wound, was virtually kidnapped when she played hooky from school in rural Moldova. Initially, she was drawn to the prospect of a new life in Italy — far away from her alcoholic mother and abusive brother. But the next thing she knew, a Serb smuggler called “Dragan” was pulling her out of a car trunk in the Romanian town of Timisoara, on the border with Yugoslavia. Dragan and his Romanian pals loaded 10 girls on a boat to cross the Danube. After a few days in a basement near Belgrade, Olga was led across the Serbian frontier with Macedonia — under the eyes of obliging border guards — and brought to Velesta. “There were clients on the very first night,” she said.
With no passport and little idea where she was, Olga was raped, beaten into submission and humiliated until she no longer had the will to challenge her horrible fate.
“Meti made me clean the toilet with my tongue. It was horrible and dirty. I think they did it because I was the newest girl,” Olga said of her ethnic Albanian owner. “He made me lick another girl’s … you know, down there. And then he laughed.”
Young and beautiful, Olga has stayed in Velesta longer than most trafficked women, many of whom are moved on into Albania and Greece after the local population “breaks them in or gets tired of them,” Olga said. Once they reach the Albanian coast, they are easily trafficked to Italy, where the European Union’s lax border controls allow them to be smuggled deep inside the continent.
Billions in profits
Ten years of wars in the Balkans have turned the region into a trafficking highway paved with lawlessness and corruption that has prompted former enemies — Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and ethnic Albanians — to set aside ethnic rivalries in the name of vast profits. “You’re talking about big international organizations,” said Rudolf Perina, a former U.S. ambassador to Moldova who was involved in Washington-funded anti-trafficking efforts.
Ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo, Macedonia and south Serbia — long the masters of drug running in the Balkans — are deeply involved in the human smuggling business, using the flesh trade to fund their separatist movements.
Luisa, a 32-year-old single Moldovan mother whose neighbor persuaded her to accept a job in Italy and “marry a rich Roman,” found herself repeatedly raped by her “owner,” Dilaver Bojku, an ethnic Albanian trafficking kingpin from Velesta. European law enforcement officials say Bojku, one of the sex trade’s “Most Wanted,” has used cash and, reportedly, contacts with ethnic Albanian rebels to avoid arrest for years. “He bought me for $700,” Luisa said.
She was freed in a police raid on Velesta, after MSNBC.com confronted Macedonia’s interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, with tales of sex slavery only a few hours’ drive from his office in the capital of Skopje.
But Olga and other women who took great risk to speak about their predicament were nowhere to be found.
The Macedonian SWAT team that raided bars called Coca Cola, Safari and Bela Dona was only partly successful.
Tipped off to the raids, brothel owners had spirited girls out secret exits in the backrooms of the bars and hidden them in the woods behind the buildings. The sheets on the beds were still warm. With the exception of a few minor pimps, the kingpins like Bojku escaped.
Lack of laws
The raid on Velesta was the first by Macedonian police, long wary of upsetting the uneasy peace between the country’s Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanian minority.
Even Boskovski admitted his own policemen were on the smugglers’ payroll, making it virtually impossible to surprise the traffickers and rescue their sex slaves. Boskovski also complained about a lack of laws to keep traffickers behind bars. “The punishments are not really severe,” he said.
In an interview with MSNBC.com, Vitalie Curarari, the head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking police, lashed out at the media for “sensationalizing” sex slavery and placed much of the blame for trafficking on the women themselves. “Fifty percent of our women just go abroad to find another man and then come back to divorce their husbands,” Curarari said.
In the heart of Europe
Farther along the trafficking pipeline, hundreds of women and girls are smuggled into Europe every day and forced onto the streets of cities like Hamburg, Paris, London and Amsterdam.
Amsterdam, a city synonymous with hedonism, is perhaps best known for its legalized sex industry, in which prostitutes pay taxes and undergo regular health exams. The city’s Red Light District is a virtual Disneyland of sex — with only European Union passport holders allowed to ply the trade.
But only a few miles’ drive from the city center, traditional Dutch tolerance is helping fuel the trafficking problem. In Theemsweg, a fenced-in, football field-sized parking lot built by the government for unregulated sex workers, girls sit in bus shelters — also courtesy of the government — waiting for clients. There are no EU citizens here — and the prostitutes’ countries of origin are strikingly familiar: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic. On weekends, men looking for cheap sex wait in cars that back up for a mile. Sexual encounters, which take place right in the cars, cost $20.
Smuggled into Europe
Asked how she got to Theemsweg, 20-year-old Anna from Russia’s Far East said, “You don’t want to know.” Dutch police officials, speaking privately, estimate that as many as 70 percent of the prostitutes in the Netherlands are working illegally, using false documents provided by smugglers to skirt Dutch and European laws.
With the women facing poor odds, activists are working overtime to try to thwart traffickers and rescue some of the thousands of sex slaves in Europe. The International Organization for Migration, backed by U.S. funding, has managed to return only 400 of the perhaps hundreds of thousands of Moldovan women victimized by the sex trade. Activists are beating a path to rural areas to educate young girls about the dangers of the trade.
Twenty-one-year-old Natasha, a single mother, considers herself one of the lucky ones. She escaped Velesta, where her clients included NATO soldiers from Germany, France, Britain and the United States who were stationed in Macedonia for peacekeeping duties.
It was an Albanian client who took pity on Natasha and bought her from her owner for 5,000 Deutsche Marks, about $2,500. “Yes, I’m back in Moldova, but it’s difficult,” she said in a village three hours north of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. “We do not have money to buy bread. We do not have money to pay for the electricity.”
For Olga, tending to her sore breast in captivity, anything sounds better than Velesta. “What kind of animal can do this to me?” she demanded, tears streaming down her face. “All of Macedonia is filled with girls like me, and we’re all crying.”
Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC.com’s international editor. MSNBC’s Bob Arnot, MSNBC.com’s Andrew Lock and David Binder contributed to this report.