Crimes Without Victims: The Trafficked Women’s Story
Crimes Without Victims: The Trafficked Women’s Story
Like many of the people who indirectly gain from one of Arizona Market’s traditional businesses, Gordana, owner of the aptly named Koridor restaurant, does not see any victims at her tables when the prostitutes from Eastern Europe totter in the door on high heels.
“Those girls knew what they were coming here to do,” she said, as she sat at a table painting her nails with a thick layer of orange nail polish. “Come on, don’t talk to me about any 'victims' around here.”
The Koridor sits at a corner on the Zupanja to Tuzla road a few kilometers away from the market in the Brcko District, a special “no man’s land” created by the Office of the High Representative in 1999 with a government run by all three of the post war factions in Bosnia.
Ever since the gray market spontaneously sprang up in a wheat field and grew to over 3000 kiosks, the OHR has been trying to capitalize on its economic success by making it a legitimate model for the rest of Bosnia or even the Balkans.
But the market has been as fertile for organized crime as it has been for an ethnically diverse entrepreneurship.
The market soon became a destination for young women abducted in Eastern Europe and trafficked across northern Bosnia’s nearby porous borders with Croatia and Serbia. Then they were literally sold as sex slaves in the Arizona Market.
A just completed two-year long crackdown by international and local authorities seems to have driven the traffickers further underground without moving them out of the area, according to local authorities. (See project trafficking story)
But Gordana is not alone in seeing the women as just another part of Arizona’s unusual extralegal working community.
Some of the area’s authorities even see the trafficked women’s fate as a special opportunity that Bosnia offers them to get away from economic depression in their native countries.
“Prostitution is not necessarily bad,” said Mirko Panic, president of the Brcko Social Democratic Party (SDP), the local majority party. “Girls are there to earn some money and their guests to have fun.”
But a two-week investigation by a seven member team of Balkan journalists, who talked with former prostitutes, newly freed sex slaves and NGOs which shelter the women, found that many of the women who passed through the Arizona Market had made journeys of terror to Bosnia. Once there they became part of a life of horror hard to imagine in the beginning of the 21st century. (See sidebar on the “Long Road Home”)
Tatiana, a 27-year old Moldavian woman, interviewed by the team at a shelter in southern Bosnia, had been trafficked across the Drina on a raft, sold six times since 1999 to different bar owners, beaten every time she refused a new owner, forced to repay her owner from her services for the cost of his purchase, and finally rescued by police. All this because she believed a Bosnian man, introduced by a friend, who promised her riches as a waitress in a town across the Drina.
Romana did not even know the name of the towns she was in for most of her eight month odyssey through Bosnia’s night bars. She regularly begged her masters to let her go back to her Romanian village to see her three year-old daughter. They kept telling her that as soon as she provided enough sex to repay her cost to them she could see her daughter again. All this because a man offered her an unimaginably lucrative job in Italy if she would only leave her daughter for a few short months.
Then there is Natalia, who the reporting team met in the same shelter as Tatiana. Natalia a 21-year old Ukrainian could not be interviewed because she began crying whenever she tried to speak about her nightmare in the night bars from Capljina to Metokvic in Herzegovina. All this because…she cannot answer why.
Pamela is the only former prostitute who would allow the reporting team to use her real name because she is by some measures a “success,” and she found her own “shelter.”
Unlike the other girls, Pamela, 27 years old, was lucky when she landed in an Arizona area night bar. The owners never made her sleep with customers she didn’t like. Perhaps that was because she already knew the profession. Pamela already had a career in prostitution before she came to Bosnia.
One of the clients she never refused was Matija Misic, an Arizona Market landowner, a local gambler and a regular customer (see project’s Misic profile).
Four months after they met in a “business” relationship, they married and Pamela walked out of the bar and into Matija’s house.
“For her there is God above, and me down here,” Misic said, smiling at Pamela during an interview at the café on his land in the market.
NGO shelter coordinators say there is a thin line between what seems to be a “voluntary” life of prostitution and the dismal fate of a sex slave.
“Some of the women that fall into the net of traffickers eventually accept the fact that they have become prostitutes,” Mara Radovanovic, vice-president of LARA, a women’s organization in Bijeljina, told the reporting team. “They simply break down under their pimps’ physical and psychological harassment.”
Police and NGO officials both said that the organized crime behind the traffickers is a sophisticated and highly organized system that overwhelms even international law enforcement, let alone the experience of impoverished women from small villages.
It all begins with those enticing offers from an unknown stranger or a friend of a friend.
For Romana it began just as she was finishing her evening shift as a waitress in her small Rumanian town. An aquantaince,Viorel, approached her and began a casual conversation that ended with an offer of a well paid job in Italy. Her five Euro weekly salary did not even meet the basic needs of her and her daughter. She accepted Viorel’s offer without thinking.
Pamela’s “voluntary” descent into prostitution began when a man really did try to help her. After marrying a police officer in Moscow, Pamela’s husband began to drink and beat her. She got refuge from the owner of a Moscow “sauna,” which gave her a room and a cleaning job at what was really a brothel.
But Pamela’s life changed when the sauna was closed and the owner offered her to come with him to Belgrade where he was opening a “bar.”
When she got on the train in Moscow, however, Pamela was on her way to Bosnia, not Belgrade.
"When we entered Bosnia I asked him to gave me my passport back and he refused,” Pamela said. “Then I realized that I had been trafficked.”
“ I had heard some stories about trafficking before, but I was sure that I could not get in that situation," she said.
But 700,000 women and children around the world do get into that situation each year, according to recent U.S. State Department statistics cited in a report released this year by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The IOM report, which attempted to collect numbers from official and NGO sources, found that the data on trafficking is unreliable, and can only suggest the enormity of the tragedy that is happening to young women and girls in Eastern Europe.
Over a third of the thousands of women trafficked to Western Europe each year, the report said, come from the Balkans.
Ironically, Bosnia a cash “rich” country because of the influx of international money has helped to make it also a “destination” country for trafficked women, the report said.
The biggest source of women for Bosnia’s brothels, according to the report, is Moldova, Tatiana’s home.
Enticed from their home villages, the traffickers bring them to the Drina River at night.
“I was afraid of the dark and the river, which was splashing loudly against the raft,” Tatiana remembers of her crossing near Zvornik. “My friend Irina was very considerate, she was holding my hand, saying that the waitress job waiting for me in Bosnia was worth putting up with this fear.”
Romana was sold to a Bosnian pimp in Hungary who drove her to the Drina where she was handed off to another trafficker. She came ashore in Bosnia near Bijeljina, a popular smuggling point.
The majority of foreign women found in Bosnian night bars and motels cross the Drina in the Bijaljina region between Pavlovica Most and Amajlija, according to a Justice Ministry spokesperson.
Local residents who are familiar with the river agree.
“The Drina is rather shallow there and the riverbank is hidden by the woods, « said Dragomir Mičić, an area resident. “In the summer, the Drina’s water level is so low that you can walk across it”
For most of the women, it is when they reach the other side of the river that what has happened to them begins to sink in.
For Pamela, the woman who believed this could never happen to her, her Bosnian arrival was a sudden fall into a nightmare.
"I cried for three days,” she said, sitting and remembering in a café in the Arizona Market on land owned by her husband. “They took all my suitcases, clothes, make-up and jewelry. I had only one T-shirt and skirt. They took me to the Marlboro Club. The owner paid 1500 USD for me, and told me that I have to work there until I earned back his investment. I worked as a dancer and then a prostitute.”
Pamela used her experience and her success with her clients to survive.
But for Romana the prostitution business and her role in it, was a complete surprise. She was taken to a motel where she met three more Rumanian girls, who explained that she would have to start providing sexual services.
“I wanted to run back home but that was impossible since my passport was with my owner,” Romana said. “I started crying and begged my owner to let me go home because I had a three-year daughter there.”
Her new working companions explained that it would be easier if she forgot her dignity and disgust and just looked at her new situation as a way of getting money.
Despite news reports that often say that the Brcko District’s prostitution industry is fueled by the ample supply of customers from nearby SFOR troops, Romana said her clients were mainly local residents.
“My owner was an ex-policeman, so I had to sleep with his policemen friends for free,” Romana said. “They got sex for free, and the owner got information on planned police raids.”
Tatiana, the Moldovan woman, never witnessed a raid because her owners knew in advance when police would come.
The owner would send Tatjana and most of the other girls with bodyguards to hide in the nearby woods during the raid. Only the girls that the owner wanted to get rid of would be left in the bar.
Sometimes the bar owners themselves reported their “worn out” victims to the police, so they could replace them with “fresh merchandise” from the sex slave sales at the Arizona Market.
Escape from the brothels was almost impossible because the women were closely watched by bodyguards, and they had no identification papers that would allow them to cross a border to get home.
Tatiana did make one bid for escape while in a night bar in the Arizona Market. A client «friend» said if she could get away from the bar he would meet her and take her to police.
But when she got in back of the police car, finally in the hands of someone who could return her to Moldova, the police drove her back to her bar owner.
It was only by chance, when Tatiana was later walking with a client on a rare excusion outside the bar and police stopped her and asked for papers that she was rescued.
The crackdown by the International Police Task Force (IPTF) and local police indirectly caused a bizarre rescue for Romana.
In the last year, according to United Nations Mission statistics, 106 bar owners were under investigation and 46 had been charged but no one had been sentenced to prison.
But the crackdown frigtnenned Romana's last bar owner. The frequent raids and the ITPF's alliance with local police convinced him to send Romana home. He even paid the bus ticket.
«He told her that he did not want to risk his business because of me,» Romana said. “He gave me a thousand Euros and ordered me to leave. The police caught me at the bus station.»
Pamela's escape through her marriage to Misic gave her an answer to the question most of the trafficking victims are afraid to even ask themselves.
Can I go home to my family after all that has happened?
«I do not know what I will do if I go back home,» Romana said. «By no means can I tell my family that I worked in clubs, they could not accept that. Will my daughter recongnize me after such a long time?»
Many of the foreign women who cross the Drina as slaves truely disappear in the Bosnian trafficking system never to be heard from alive again, according to one senior inspector in the Republica Srpska police, who asked not to be identified.
The reason is that trafficking in BiH is considered a «crime without a victim,,» by most people, the inspector said.
But don't count Jusuf Trbic, a caterer i Bijeljina, as one of those people.
He often hears opinions, similar to the Koridor Restaurnant owner's, that no matter what they go through the working prostitutes in the Brcko District are better off than they were with hard lives in Moldova or the Ukranine.
But Trbic thinks those opinions may be just a way to let local people profit from trafficking.
“I was stunned with the way people here talk about those women,» Trbic said. «It's not just that they are unable to sympathize with the victims, but they are simply convinced that they have got the divine right to abuse everybody who is not like them.»