|Sex Slavery Flourishes In
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 24, 2000
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia –– The sex-slave traffic in East European women, one of the major criminal scourges of post-communist Europe, is becoming a serious problem in Kosovo, where porous borders, the presence of international troops and aid workers and the lack of a working criminal justice system have created almost perfect conditions for the trade, U.N. police officials, NATO-led peacekeepers and humanitarian workers say.
In the past six months, U.N. police and troops have rescued 50 women--Moldovan, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Romanian--from brothels that have begun to appear in cities and towns in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. Police and aid workers say they fear that hundreds more, lured from their impoverished homelands with the promise of riches, may also be living in sexual servitude.
"These women have been reduced to slavery," said Col. Vincenzo Coppola, commander of a special unit of the Italian carabinieri, or national police, in Kosovo that has rescued 23 women on raids of brothels in Pristina, the provincial capital, and Prizren.
According to police sources and aid workers, the women--and some girls as young as 15--were transported along a well-established organized crime network from their East European homelands to Macedonia, which borders Kosovo to the south. There, they were held in motels and sold at auction to ethnic Albanian pimps for $1,000 to $2,500. The pimps work under the protection of major crime figures in Kosovo, officials said, including some with links to the former anti-Serbian rebel force, the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The women, who had been stripped of their passports, were frequently held in unheated rooms with primitive sanitary conditions in Kosovo and forced to engage in unprotected sex, sometimes up to 16 times a night, for no payment, according U.N. police officers who requested anonymity because of U.N. regulations limiting their authority to speak with reporters.
The undermanned U.N. police force is hard-pressed to cope with a variety of criminal activities in this war-scarred province, and authorities and aid workers here have been slow to respond to the burgeoning sex-slave trade. Moreover, there are limited humanitarian resources available to protect those women who are able to seek sanctuary.
In addition, officials said, the trade has flourished because of a lack of applicable law on both trafficking and prostitution and because some countries with military forces here have tended to dismiss the activity as simple prostitution. German peacekeepers in southern Kosovo, for instance, have taken a benign view of the phenomenon in part because prostitution is tolerated in Germany.
International aid workers are trying to convince them that these women are victims. "It's not classic prostitution," said one aid worker who has interviewed rescued women and is working on a draft U.N. regulation to punish people involved in the sex-slave trade. "They are not paid. They are never paid. Of the 50 women we have seen, not one has received a single deutsche mark, and they are often held in horrendous conditions."
According to authorities, the women were told that before they could keep any of their earnings, they first had to pay the pimps for their purchase price. Often, however, they found themselves fined for such infractions as not smiling at customers, so there was no way they would ever have enough money to make the payoff. If they protested, the women said, they were beaten.
A number of the women appear to have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, officials said, and international groups are attempting to obtain treatment for them either in Kosovo or as soon as they can return to their homelands. "This is a major problem, and it is going further underground because of police raids," said one aid worker. "At first, it was very out in the open, and so-called nightclubs were popping up. But now it's moving into private dwellings, and I expect if we get a reliable phone network we'll soon see call-girl services."
International organizations recently established a safe house to protect women who escape from the brothels until they can be returned home. But it is now full, with 21 women, and police have had to suspend raids on other brothels until they can repatriate some of the former captives.
International officials declined to allow a reporter to speak to any of the rescued women. But in bars in Pristina, Gnjilane and Urosevac, there are young Moldovan and Ukrainian women who describe themselves as "waitresses" seeking economic opportunity in Kosovo. "I can earn 400 deutsche marks [$200] a month," said a Moldovan woman at a cafe in Gnjilane, where beds are set up behind a dank front bar. Asked how much cash she had on her possession, the woman said only, "I'm okay," as an ethnic Albanian bar manager looked on.
According to the rescued women, the clientele varies from brothel to brothel, officials said. Some serve mostly ethnic Albanians; others cater to a mixture of ethnic Albanians and international workers. Peacekeeping troops--including Americans--also were customers, the women said. U.S. officials deny that American troops visit the brothels, pointing out that soldiers are confined to base when they are off duty.
The first case of sex-slave trafficking came to light in October--four months after NATO-led peacekeepers entered the province--when French police officers raided a brothel in Kosovska Mitrovica and found two Ukrainian women, ages 21 and 22, and two Serbs, one of whom was a minor. The establishment was closed and the Serbs were released, but the French did not know what to do with the two Ukrainians, who had no travel documents, officials said.
According to sources familiar with the case, the French policemen detained the women at a military camp while they appealed, without success, to humanitarian organizations for assistance. After two weeks, fearful of a public relations disaster because of the presence of "prostitutes" at a military facility, the French policemen took the two women to the administrative boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper and essentially expelled them. It is unclear what happened to them.
In November and December, further cases of forced prostitution came to light when U.N. policemen visited a number of bars in Pristina--bars with such names as Totos and the Miami Beach Club--and removed women who appealed to them for help.
On Jan. 22, officers with the Italian police unit entered an establishment on the outskirts of Pristina called the International Club, where they were approached by women asking for help. The club, now closed, was a crude structure with a small bar and barren rooms in the back that were equipped with just a bed and a red light bulb. Some women were kept in an attic. The following night, the Italians raided the club and rescued 12 women, mostly Moldovans and Ukrainians, who appealed for sanctuary.
The Italians were criticized for conducting the raid without coordinating with the U.N. police and humanitarian organizations who then had to assume care of the women. But their efforts did lead to official recognition of the problem and the creation of the safe house in early February.
That has allowed international workers to interview the women and understand the process by which they were brought into the sex industry. In the last 10 years, according to women's advocacy groups, hundreds of thousands of women from the former Soviet republics and satellites have been trafficked to Western Europe, Asia and the United States. Kosovo, which had some local prostitution but no trafficking problem before the peacekeepers arrived after the Kosovo war ended last June, is just another new market, officials said.
Most of the women interviewed responded to newspaper ads seeking "attractive women" to work in the West and, in fact, knew they would work in the sex industry. A small minority told police they had been kidnapped or were completely deceived when they applied for jobs in the West, including one Moldovan teenager who got pregnant in Kosovo, police officials said.
"The women we've spoken to left their countries of their own volition and basically knew they would work as prostitutes," said a U.N. police officer in Gnjilane. "But they thought they could earn thousands of dollars in some exotic location like Italy or Spain and then go home rich. Instead, they end up imprisoned here without a dime."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company