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Post-war Kosovo the latest hotspot for sexual slavery

7 May 2000

By Olivia Ward

Pristina, Kosovo - Post-war Kosovo has become the latest hotspot in Europe for sexual slavery.

Since Yugoslav forces pulled out of the province last June and turned it over to United Nations control, thousands of East European women have been lured over Kosovo's unsettled borders to a life of violence, abuse, starvation and disease that police describe as subhuman.

Behind the doors of dimly lit makeshift bars, women are forced to receive 10 to 20 clients a night on filthy backroom cots. Sometimes there are no toilets or running water.

The criminals, who operate across Europe, kidnapping, terrorizing and enslaving women, have become a small but particularly dangerous force in Kosovo's burgeoning underworld. Those who have tried to liberate the women from the lucrative sex trade have been threatened with mob violence. It is believed some of the captives have been murdered trying to escape.

`The stories we hear are so horrible, I have to stop listening'- Barbara, who risks violence for speaking out One veteran aid worker - hunched into a chair at a sunny cafe and glancing fearfully around her - refused recently to comment on the sex trade. ``I'm sorry but I can't tell you anything,'' she says, her hands shaking as she lights a cigarette. ``You need a story, but I need to go on living.'' Paula (not her real name) is a psychologist whose job is counselling traumatized women.

Her clients are not ethnic Albanian war casualties, but victims of Kosovo's peace. In this territory of rapid transition, with a thinly stretched police force and inadequate detention facilities, mobsters hold most of the aces. ``Kosovo is a great big marketplace,'' says Barbara, an administrator with one of the organizations that help shelter the women on their way back to their home countries, placing them in secret, heavily guarded locations.

She, too, is nervous about revealing her identity. In the criminalized Balkan region, betrayal and violence dog even the most well-intentioned, she says.

The poisonous mixture of sex, violence and big profits in the expanding trafficking racket makes it impossible to know whom to trust.

``In any conflict zone, you have a lot of men who are looking for sex, and criminals who are willing to supply them,'' she says. ``Here, they can do it with impunity because the legal infrastructure barely exists.''

And, she adds, the trade is shocking because it is not ordinary prostitution. The women are not voluntary sex workers, and they are abused and degraded in a life of daily terror. ``The stories we hear are so horrible, I have to stop listening,'' she says. ``It's hard to believe that human beings could be used in such an appalling way in Europe in this century.'' There are 100,000 ``internationals'' in Kosovo, about 60,000 of them aid workers and the rest members of the military. But the overburdened U.N. police force barely can cope with the daily demands of fighting violent crime and ethnically motivated attacks in the war-torn province. In the past six months, police have rescued only 50 women, taking them to halfway houses in Kosovo for treatment and preparation for return home.

Most disturbing, nearly half of the men who patronize the women are international aid workers and peacekeepers, even though it is obvious from the conditions at the sleazy underground bars that double as local brothels that this is not prostitution, but slavery.

And, according to aid workers and KFOR officials who asked not to be identified, members of at least one of the peacekeeping contingents are involved in running a brothel in Kosovo.

One bar in the Pristina suburb of Slatina, which was raided by Italian members of the U.N. police, operated near the headquarters of the Russian forces. Its clients, police said, were American as well as Russian troops.

KFOR contributors deny such involvement.

But although the military is kept under heavy discipline, and troops are barred from socializing in towns, the enslaved women tell their counsellors that a number of the men find ways to evade the rules. Male aid workers, on short-term contracts away from wives or girlfriends, also have little difficulty finding ``action'' in notorious bars. ``Some of the women have begged the humanitarian workers to help them, and they're just ignored,'' says Barbara. ``We're very shocked by this, and we have urged their organizations to discipline them.'' Like other aid officials who work with the rescued women, Barbara refuses to allow reporters to approach the secret shelters and interview the residents, for security reasons.

The main country of supply for Kosovo's sex slaves, police and aid workers say, is the former Soviet republic of Moldova, bordering impoverished Romania. But many others are from Romania itself, as well as Ukraine and Bulgaria.

The enslaved women are part of a pattern of trafficking throughout Europe, according to the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, which produced a recent report on what it said was a growing menace to the women of the poorest countries.

``More than 174,000 are estimated trafficked each year from the former Soviet Union and East Europe,'' it said. ``Most are under 25, but a lot of them are aged 12 to 18.'' Ironically, some of the victims began their nightmarish odyssey by spending their life savings on phony visas to escape their near-bankrupt countries.

Others were tricked into signing up for what they thought would be ``respectable'' jobs as waitresses or dancers in rich western countries, handing over their documents to racketeers who later sold the women to human traffickers for sums ranging from the equivalent of $500 to $20,000.

According to those who have helped the rescued women, a typical life of sexual slavery begins in a sleazy hotel room in an East European city, where the new recruits are ``indoctrinated'' by multiple rapes. Women who already earned a scant living from prostitution discover that their wages are now owned by their new masters.

Captured by what appears to be a well-developed criminal network, the women are moved through several countries in the region, traded off each time to men who bid thousands of dollars or deutsch marks for them. Many end up in Macedonia, whose borders with Kosovo are patrolled by international forces, and which has a large ethnic Albanian population. Once they reach Kosovo, the enslaved women hit rock bottom. Police who have raided bars in Pristina say that some of the women have been forced to live in cellars ``not fit for a dog to inhabit.''

The owner of one bar named Toto's, which was closed by international police, locked them into a squalid unheated basement without running water, toilets, or beds to sleep in. Some of the trapped women tried to commit suicide. Others were penned in an attic. All were kept under lock and key, and women who tried to escape said they were beaten. In addition to working as prostitutes, some of the women were forced to provide bar ``entertainment'' by dancing naked for the clients.

Many of these women will never be rescued.

Aid workers fear they will eventually die violently, or from inevitable disease. Few clients worry about protection against sexually transmitted disease, and the women are in no position to protect themselves.``The women we see have every kind of physical and mental illness you would expect in that life,'' says Barbara.

None of the captive women will realize her dream of rising from abject poverty. And only a few will be able to leave their captors, even after they have worked out the ``debts'' incurred by their sale. ``The best they can hope for is to get out with their lives,'' says Barbara. ``We don't even know how many have already died.''

Toronto Star European Bureau

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Feel free to distribute widely but please acknowledge the source. ***

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