The five girls, barely out of their teens, were installed in $46 sleeping compartments on the night train from Belgrade to Sofia. All of them were made up and smelled of freshly daubed perfume, hardly a bedtime preparation. “Do you always have pretty girls on this coach?” a passenger inquired of the conductor. He replied with a thin smile: “Always, on their way to or from work. Also heroin and tobacco.”
In the Bulgarian capital, Vasil, a 32-year-old policeman who heads a squad that targets human trafficking, said: “Before, Bulgaria was just a transit country for sex slaves. Now it is a final destination for some.”
Vasil’s squad has come across sex slaves from Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Belarus and Uzbekistan. “It’s growing, especially Ukraine,” he said.
There are an estimated 770 Bulgarian pimps working at home and abroad — mostly in the Czech Republic and Hungary, Vasil said — controlling 10,000 Bulgarian women, some as young as 14.
“It’s very difficult to establish the scope of the traffic,” said Ilyana Derilova, the Sofia director of the International Organization for Migration, which tries to help sex slaves.
Most women work at highway truck stops and brothels disguised as clubs. In 2000, 150 women were rescued from traffickers and 22 pimps were indicted.
From March 2000 to August 2001, the International Organization for Migration helped repatriate 63 trafficked women. Derilova said 14 had been lured by false job offers and five were kidnapped. Some had even been sold by their mothers, she said.
Her group has mounted a massive propaganda campaign called “Open Your Eyes” to warn vulnerable girls about the pimps in their midst. It includes a 20-minute television program, radio spots and the distribution of 90,000 posters and 250,000 leaflets.
In addition, a new law enforcement squad created by the Southeastern European Cooperative Initiative has had a number of cross-frontier successes, Vasil said.
In one case last year, four girls on a bus from Romania were seized at the Greek border along with two handlers. In another instance, busloads of girls were intercepted on the Turkish frontier, and 15 Ukrainian girls with false documents were rescued as they traveled from Sofia to the Bulgarian town of Pleven.
David Binder covered the Balkans for The New York Times starting in 1963. He continues to travel in and report on the region.