At first, Natasha couldn’t believe the turn of events — she was being rescued by a man with whom she had been forced to have sex. Apparently the man couldn’t bear Natasha’s anguish over being tricked into prostitution, so he bought her from her pimp and sent her home to Moldova.
Before she ended up as a sex slave in the Balkans, Natasha thought she had found the answer to her troubles. Back home in rural Moldova, a former Soviet republic bordered by Romania and Ukraine, she had met a seemingly nice man named Ruslan from the next town over. He proposed they get married and move to Italy, where they could buy an apartment and earn $1,000 a month — plenty to build a new life with Natasha’s 5-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
The 21-year-old woman says she was desperate to escape Moldova, a former Soviet republic where the collapse of communism in 1991 still reverberates today. With almost no exports and natural resources to cushion the loss of Kremlin subsidies, the country’s economy is in a free fall. A quarter of the population is unemployed.
Natasha quit school at age 12 to help earn money for her family to survive. She did manual labor on construction sites and worked in a beet-root factory for 40 cents a day. By the time she turned 15, she was pregnant with her daughter, Korina.
A shotgun marriage ended in divorce, and Natasha and her baby daughter moved back in with her parents in Droki — a dusty farming village of 200 with no running water.
“Everything is difficult here,” Natasha said. “We do not have money to buy bread. We do not have money to pay for the electricity.”
Ruslan, pretending to be her suitor, took Natasha to meet some acquaintances and said they would take her to Italy. That was the last Natasha saw of him. “I liked him, but I also needed a job. I had no money,” Natasha said. “Ruslan sold me, and I didn’t even know. I cried. I wanted to go home. But I couldn’t do anything. It was too late.”
On buses and cars — and crossing borders on foot — Natasha followed a path to sex slavery trodden by thousands of other hapless women, passing, under the watchful eyes of a gang of Balkans thugs, through Romania, Serbia and Kosovo before ending up in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
In Velesta, a key transit town in the sex trade where women are beaten and raped into submission, Natasha was bought by Meti, an ethnic Albanian pimp wanted by the Macedonian police on smuggling and prostitution charges.
“Meti beat me if he heard that I didn’t want to go with a client, or if I disobeyed him,” Natasha said.
Clients by the dozens would come to the bars where Meti made her work, the Bela Dona and Club 69. Natasha estimates she was forced to sleep with more than 1,000 men during her nine months in Velesta. Besides the Albanians and Macedonians, there were men from “France, Germany and the United States,” Natasha said, referring to soldiers from the NATO peacekeeping mission in Macedonia and nearby Kosovo.
“They were as bad as the rest,” Natasha said. “They did anything they wanted to us. And besides, if Meti heard me asking them for help, he would have killed me.”
Rarely do local police rescue women from forced prostitution. Even though she was surrounded by a multinational peacekeeping force, Natasha’s saviorappeared in the form of a client, Safat, who used her sexually three times before negotiating a deal with her pimp — and paying $2,500 to set her free.
“I was crying all the time with clients,” Natasha said. “I guess that was too much for him.”
Safat took Natasha to the Macedonian police, but only after contacting a commander he knew was not on the payroll of the country’s many human traffickers. With no money or documents, Natasha was dropped off at a shelter run by the International Organization for Migration in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
Although the group deals with numerous migration issues, its work has become synonymous with the repatriation of victims of the sex trade. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the organization rushed to open offices in most of the 15 countries that emerged from communism’s collapse. But while tens of thousands of women go missing each year, only a few hundred make their way home with the organization’s help.
With the group’s help, Natasha returned to Moldova, and the economic misery she had hoped to escape. She has been reunited with her daughter, now 6, but the trauma of slavery never goes away.
“I am very weak and have no strength. I have awful headaches, and I tremble all the time.” Natasha also said she had “other health problems,” but refused to elaborate.
For Natasha’s mother, Nina, the fear of traffickers trying to steal her children was a threat before Ruslan began wooing her daughter.
“Two years ago, before all this happened to Natasha, my sister who lives in Russia invited Natasha and her sister to St. Petersburg for vacation,” Nina said. “The girls called me to tell me that my sister — my own sister — had tried to sell them to some Turks.”
A survey of rescued Moldovan victims conducted by the International Organization for Migration shows that more than half are trafficked by friends or acquaintances desperate to make money.
“If my sibling was ready to sell my children, my heart told me that Natasha should not go and work abroad,” Nina said, adding that she tried to stop Natasha from accepting Ruslan’s offer to move to Italy, but her daughter’s desire to leave Droki was too great.
Ruslan goes free
Natasha has not seen Ruslan since her return, but Nina, speaking in a hushed tone so her daughter couldn’t hear from the next room, said she tracked him down. He told her not to bother going to the police, because he had paid them off.
“The prosecutor sent me a letter which read that Natasha never met Ruslan, and that I made up the whole story. The letter said that I was only complaining about Ruslan because I didn’t want Natasha to live with him,” Nina said.
Natasha, meanwhile, said she lives in fear of being trafficked again. “I’m afraid to even leave the house or village. I tell everyone I meet to be careful, not to go abroad.”
Natasha said there is one man she would like to see again: her pimp, Meti. “I would use a pistol instead of words,” Natasha said. “I want to shoot him.”