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Country report: Bosnia

In post-war Bosnia, the sex trade flourishes.
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Seven years after civil war tore apart Bosnia-Herzegovina, international authorities in Sarajevo estimate there are 5,000 trafficked women in the country at any given time, and that many are used by NATO peacekeepers and foreign police officers helping maintain law and order in the republic.

Many of the women are held near the bases of the 21,000 NATO peacekeepers. But others are used by some of the 2,100 international police officers and even by civilians working for the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, according to officials.

Sarajevo alone has 40 “nightclubs” featuring sex slaves as “dancers.”

Since August, the international police force created to help maintain order in Bosnia has formed a squad that has raided nearly 100 bars and clubs suspected of holding sex slaves.

But the police force also has been accused of ignoring the sex trade, and even taking advantage of it.

Kathryn Bolkovac, a policewoman from Lincoln, Neb., who was posted to Bosnia, was fired last spring by the British-American firm DynCorp, with which the United Nations contracts for the international police force. Bolkovac charged that British and American members of the force used and bought sex slaves, and accepted bribes from bar owners who ran quasi-brothels. She is suing DynCorp.

In February, two Romanian officers assigned to the force were implicated in trafficking and sent home. Also last year, a bar owner in Prijedor told a reporter that NATO officers raped his clients.

Nidia Casati of the International Organization for Migration, which helps sex slaves return home, said the women are “bought and sold constantly. At the ‘Arizona Market’ near Brcko, they sell women like animals. They have to pay off the cost of their own sale. They earn from $50 an hour to $500 for a night, but are paid between $100 and as little as $13 a month.”

Some of the traffickers are exceptionally brutal. In 2000, the bodies of two women were found bound, stripped naked and dumped in a river near Brcko.

There are no stiff penalties for traffickers. Casati said only five have been convicted, and that they were sentenced to two months in prison and fined the equivalent of $650.

In November, the U.N. Mission in Sarajevo said 15 Brcko bars and motels involved in sex trafficking had been closed down.

Casati said her group had helped more than 350 women since August 1999, most of them women freed in police raids. Eighty percent of the women had been tricked into forced prostitution by false ads, and 41 were minors, said Casati, whose group has two shelters in Sarajevo.

Many women are smuggled across the Bosnian-Croatian border near Velika Kladusa, where much of the frontier is unguarded, and sold for $3,000 apiece. “They don’t know how or where they came; all documents are taken from them,” Casati said.

In a bar called Kashmir, “Una,” a 20-year-old Ukrainian from Odessa, and “Stella,” 23, from the Romanian town of Turnu Magurela, sat down and offered themselves after gyrating around a pole in thongs.

Under the watchful eyes of tall, heavily muscled men, Stella vowed that she would return to Romania in “two or three months” to start a bar. Asked about her situation in Sarajevo, she said, loud enough for the musclemen to hear, “The police are wonderful!”

David Binder covered the Balkans for The New York Times starting in 1963. He continues to travel in and report on the region.