Western Macedonia: First Stop of the Sex Slaves
Western Macedonia: First Stop of the Sex Slaves
"Mozhe vodka" ["may I vodka"], a girl around 17 asks in broken Macedonian, perching herself on the edge of our table. Then she nods to her colleague at the bar. We are the only clients. Her name is Deya... by Yovo Nikolov (Capital, Bulgaria)
"Mozhe vodka" ["may I vodka"], a girl around 17 asks in broken Macedonian, perching herself on the edge of our table. Then she nods to her colleague at the bar. We are the only clients. Her name is Deya, or at least that's what she says. She's in a black mini skirt and a vest-like top. Romanian. The dark glass with an inch of liquid bangs down on the glazed tabletop. The barmaid saunters back to the bar. "Mozhe vodka" are the two words Deya knows best. She utters them more or less every twenty minutes, in a sort of casual, off-handed manner. The attempt to strike up a conversation runs into a flat "ne razbira" ["no understand"], a nervous smile and fleeting glances at the gazda (boss), who is leaning on the bar and watching us suspiciously.
This is one of the four bars offering sex services in the Macedonian village of Veleste, 10 km from Ohrid. The big, bare-brick houses are inhabited by Albanians only. The streets are virtually deserted after 9 p.m., permeated by the stale smell of mutton fat. The streets are narrow and muddy.
The pub is a 3 by 4 m room, with five tables and a bar. Outside, there are no signs or any other indications that this is supposed to be a bar. It's in the basement of a house. We never get to know its name. After a thorough inspection from behind the shutters, the owner unlocks the door. Seven scantily clad girls aged 16 to 20 are huddled around the table, next to a battered air-heater as if straight out of the changing room on a building site. One of them rises and starts stripping, swaying gently between the fridge for Coke, the air-heater and the peeled door to the rooms at the back. That's supposed to be a striptease act.
Her movements have nothing to do with the beat of the music. Realizing that the clients are Bulgarian, four of the girls stalk out through the door behind the bar. They must have been Bulgarian too, but we couldn't be sure. The young Shqiptar [Albanian] at the bar orders the others to join Deya at our table. One is also Romanian, and the other is Moldovan.
Veleste is one of the dozens of villages in Western Macedonia where trade in women is something normal. Business in the villages around Ohrid is controlled by Leko, another Shqiptar, whose name is uttered by the Macedonians with awe. He's about 45. Leko is claimed to control the girl and drug trafficking routes across the Macedonian-Albanian border to Italy. He lives in a mansion worth half a million Deutsche Marks and also runs a bar offering girls. It's called Espresso. Compared to Espresso the other bars are like hovels, even though the former is likewise in the basement of a four-floor house. The place is decent, with booths, a dance floor and neon lights. And girls. The seven girls are sitting in one of the booths, and occasionally go on the stage for a dance act. Behind the bartender there's a door padded with red velvet. It leads to the basement and the rooms of the prostitutes. One of the girls claims that the gazda Leko keeps them locked up there, they slept three to a room when they had no clients. The only place where they could go for a walk is the garden sealed off by a high wall. The bar is run by Leko's son.
Rumour has it that Leko was hiding from the police because he was wanted for the murder of another Albanian, whom he had butchered after a row three or four months ago. "Hiding" is an overstatement, since the Albanian villages are virtual fortresses where the police seldom set foot. Except for the special searches conducted by uniformed police looking for kidnapped girls forced into prostitution. The success of the operations is variable, since there is usually a leak and the girls are hidden in houses on the outskirts, where virtually no one can find them behind the thick brick walls.
Locals suspect that corrupt cops tip off the gazdas. A police officer from the Ohrid-based service combatting organized crime, who asked to remain anonymous, denies this. "We conduct surprise inspections - we sometimes succeed in catching some of the girls, but it's very hard to operate in those areas," says he.
Yet one of the Bulgarian girls who has managed to flee from bondage says that a police officer from the service for foreigners in Tetovo controls one of the bars through his sister's company. Another claims that she has had cops for clients, who were brought by her pimp.
Macedonia is virtually flooded with Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Romanian women, who may found in every single bar with a dubious reputation. Business in winter tends to be slack, and most owners of such establishments look forward to summer, when the main clients come home - Shqiptar guest-workers in Western Europe. Since the deployment of the international force in nearby Kosovo, KFOR servicemen have likewise become regulars. The sex services cost DM 100 an hour. When you pay the bill without availing yourself of the services of the prostitute at your table, you are in for a nasty surprise: each one of her "mozhe vodka's" has set you back DM 30. If you want to take her back to your hotel, you must leave the gazda DM 2,500. Something like a deposit. The proprietor assures you that you'll get a refund when you bring her back next morning. Otherwise each bar has rooms where the prostitutes take their clients. The room costs an extra DM 20.
Flesh peddlers in Macedonia pay DM 2,000 to 3,000 per girl, and the sum they charge is something like security against their captive's escape. The investment is recouped in a matter of weeks, and from that point on the Shqiptar is in the black only. A German from KFOR is reported to have recently paid the sum and led away a Bulgarian girl whom he promised to marry. That's what people from Gostivar say. Tetovo and Gostivar are the other two centres of trade in women. Such cases, however, are more like fairy-tales.
In dozens of accounts, women who have managed to escape from virtual imprisonment describe the atrocities to which they have been subjected. Even girls who volunteered to come here as prostitutes are eager to run away, since they get no cut of the profits. That's what Mera says, a Bulgarian from Plovdiv sold in Leko's Espresso Bar with her consent.
Most of the girls have been brought to Macedonia by force. They are bought even at the border, across which they are smuggled by pimps. Once the deal is struck, the gazda is the first to try the goods. If they resist, they are in for a heavy beating and brutal rape. "He did it even in the bar, where the other girls were there too, behind a green curtain," Jenny T. from Stara Zagora recalls. She is one of the victims who has managed to escape from slavery after working in two such bars in Gostivar. The custom in some villages was to have the girl raped by all the men in the owner's family, with the "honour" of first take going to the father. Elsewhere they would chain the purchased women in a room, and offer them to anyone for free. Until the girls realized that they had nowhere to go to and were turned into automatons. There are paradoxical cases too, like the one in which a 70-year-old man fell in love with a 15-year-old Bulgarian girl and forbade his son, the brothel owner, to sell her to clients.
Forced to work in the bars, some of the girls become alcoholics while keeping their clients company in an effort to turn in a profit for the owner or drink themselves into oblivion. Others attempt escape. Some succeed. Those who don't are resold from one bar to another. In their testimonies, escapees draw the map of their slavery: they mention the names of the bars Casablanca and Orfey in Gostivar, Violca and Dva Fazana in Tetovo, Fontana and Piramida in Mala Recica. Once their clients have had enough of them, the women are resold in Greece or Albania. Part of the traffic has recently been refunnelled to Pristina, to service the international contingent and the Kosovars who have returned home.
In the past two years alone, the Bulgarian Embassy in Skopje has issued more than 200 replacement passports to girls who complained of being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Since mid-1999, Macedonian police have been mounting operations on a regular basis, and extraditing women forced into prostitution.
Macedonia is one of the first stops of Bulgarian girls who, for one reason or another, fall victim to sex trafficking. Most of them are lured by promises of employment, but in quite a few cases credulous girls are kidnapped even in pubs in Bulgaria, where they are deceived by men or women whom they have just met. Then they cross the green border with Macedonia, where the pimps are waiting for them. That's the start of slavery - between the locked walls of the big bare-brick houses, the high walls of villages, the smell of mutton fat and expecting clients in smutty bars.www.capital.bg