A Long Way Home: Odyssey in the Bosnian Sex Slave Network
A Long Way Home: Odyssey in the Bosnian Sex Slave Network
When I walk into the coordinator’s office a short and emaciated girl with no make-up and a man’s short haircut is the first to greet me. She shakes my hand, says she is originally from Moldova and gives her name as Tatiana, which is a pseudonym to protect her from discovery by her “owners” during her life of prostitution.
Tatiana looks straight into my eyes. She is clearly not afraid of an interview.
Not so Natalia.
The 21 year-old Ukrainian, dressed in a tight blouse, high-heels, and a face with thick outlines of lip liner and mascara, is also using an assumed name. Despite her aggressive clothes, she looks at the floor when she says hello and then obediently takes the coordinator’s suggestion to get us some drinks in the shelter’s kitchen.
I wonder if Natasha’s deference to the coordinator is similar to what she showed her “owners” only a few days ago when she was still in the “profession.”
I am the third young woman in the room. Both of these women are near my age and despite my role as a reporter, my own feelings of horror at their situations keep coming into my mind.
While Natasha gets the drinks, Tatiana wants to talk about the art work she has started while at the shelter. (The organization asked that their name not be revealed.) She shows me a bowl she is decorating with the shelter logo and says she is having great fun doing it.
Both women know they are meeting me to tell their stories about their journeys from their faraway homes to the brothels of Bosnia. During her travels, Tatiana even passed through the brothels of Arizona where she made a futile escape attempt.
“Ok, what are you interested in?” Tatiana says when we are all ready to begin.
“I don’t like to talk too much,” Natalia quickly adds in a soft and hesitant voice.
Tatiana begins, lighting cigarettes as she goes, almost as if the moments of her life since the day in 1999 when she got her “chance” at a new life outside Moldova, have been going up in smoke.
Tatiana remembers that she had just been laid off from her position as a secretary because her boss had too little work. It was a meager job but vitally necessary to help support her mother and younger sister since her father had died.
When all hope seemed to be gone she met a friend who had been laid off several months before Tatiana. Her friend looked like a new woman. Her clothes and jewelry alone were worth more than a month’s salary at their old jobs.
Her friend told her she had been working in Bosnia as a waitress and she was making more money than she ever dreamed of. She said a Bosnian man could help Tatiana get the same job, starting with obtaining a visa for Bosnia for 50 dollars.
“I was delighted and I thought I was dreaming, and of course I said yes,” said Tatiana.
In a few days her friend returned with the Bosnian man in the biggest car Tatiana had ever seen in Moldova. Her friend said this was the man who could make her dreams come true. But Tatiana was nervous from the beginning when he insisted on taking her passport away. He told her he would get her a visa, a process that normally takes months, within a few days.
I kept expecting Tatiana to show some emotion, cry or become angry at her own gullibility about her story. But she told her story calmly almost like she was talking about some other girl.
Tatiana’s trip to Bosnia with her friend and the Bosnian man who was never identified for Tatiana, was a series of stops in unknown places. Finally, they came to the Drina River near Zvornik where they boarded a homemade raft.
“All I remember is water, darkness and the two of them with me,” Tatiana said. “Except my friend knew what we were going to do in Bosnia, and I thought I was going to be a waitress”.
Her first job in Bosnia was really as a waitress at hotel simply named the “Old Hotel,” but Tatiana did not know what town she was in.
It looked like her misgivings about the Bosnian man were ill founded and that she was really going to make her fortune that she could take back to Moldova.
Then one morning the bar owner told her very simply that she had been sold like an animal to another bar for 3,500 KM. And Tatiana would have to pay that money back to the new bar owner by providing “sexual services.”
Tatiana was reminded that she had no identity papers, and therefore no way to escape.
“I was sold and bought six times. The moment I paid back the alleged debt to the pimp I would be sold to another bar owner,” Tatiana said. “Half an hour with client would cost 50 DM. One hour 100 DM and the money was to be given to the waiters.”
Tatiana said all this in a casual tone. But the coordinator later told me she had nightmares every night about her helpless situation in Bosnia’s sex slave trade.
The coordinator said that Natalie had a similar story. . She was forced to prostitution in bars between Capljina and Metokvic in Herzegovina.
But I could see that Natalie’s nightmares were before her eyes even while she was awake so she couldn’t speak about them. She just nodded her head occasionally as Tatiana spoke.
Tatiana lengthened the list of numbing brutality of their situation.
The bar owners beat them regularly. Only the clients were not allowed to physically abuse them, but the clients had no way of helping them either, she said.
The girls were given one meal a day, virtual starvation because extreme thinness was attractive to the clients.
They rarely spoke to each other, which seemed odd to me. I would want to talk to the other women, as girls do, as perhaps one of the few ways to relieve the pain of the situation.
My question elicited Tatiana’s only sign of emotion, anger at my lack of understanding.
“You obviously don’t get it,” Tatiana said. “Once you get into this system you do not believe anyone. One of the girls would always be the informant for the owner. And they all knew I was brought there by my friend, the boss’s girl.”
Tatiana made her only escape attempt while imprisoned in an Arizona Market bar. A “friend,” Tatiana provided no further description, offered to meet her in the market and take her to the police. He led her to a local police car.
The police officers took her back to her owners.
Both Tatiana and Natalie were eventually picked up by police on the street when they were found to have no passports or visas. The police took them to the shelter.
Now they are waiting in the shelter for a future.
Tatiana said she will not tell her family in Moldova about her life of prostitution. Natalie nodded her head in agreement. But neither woman knows how or if they will go home.
“Whenever my landlord let me call my parents I had to say that everything is just fine, that I work and make good money as the waitress,” Tatiana said. “But I do not know how I am going to explain to them how I return without any money.”
After all this, there may be no way home?
The shelter coordinator walks me to the door. She says almost the exact words I am thinking: “You have no idea how happy you are.