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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 July, 2004, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Poor Moldovans lured into sex trade

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC correspondent, Moldova

Ruthless sex traders are exploiting tens of thousands of young women from Moldova who are desperately seeking a better life outside Europe's poorest country.

Prostitutes waiting for clients in downtown Moscow
Prostitution is rife on Moscow streets

Florica's blunt fingers moved her knitting needles inexpertly.

Occasionally she scowled and put her hand to her stomach - she was eight months pregnant and clearly uncomfortable.

Florica had not planned this pregnancy. She was carrying the child of the man who had raped her and who had then sold her into prostitution in Russia.

Today was her 17th birthday.

"Happy Birthday, dear!" cooed Lilia, a big, homely-looking woman who was sitting beside Florica and her two sisters.

Lilia was the local psychiatrist and she gave me the rough outline of Florica's story. Rejected by their mother, all three girls had found themselves on the streets.

The sisters were brutally beaten, chained to beds and forced to have sex with hundreds of men

They were easy prey for the "traffickers", the criminal gangs who seek out vulnerable women, con them into believing they can offer them great jobs abroad, before forcing them to work as prostitutes.

When Florica was told she and her sisters would be working in an office in Paris, she had no hesitation in boarding the bus for Romania, from where she expected to make the long journey to France.

It did not happen, of course.

The sisters were brutally beaten and bundled into a car bound for Moscow, where for the next six months they were chained to beds and forced to have sex with hundreds of men.

Blind risk

I looked over again at Florica who was still knitting mechanically, staring into space with dull eyes.

Lilia seemed to know what I was thinking. "She's not quite alive, is she?" she whispered.

"Once, I asked her how she felt, being raped by all those men, and she told me that at first it was so cruel she was sure she had gone to hell, and then after a few days it just didn't matter any more, because she had ceased to matter."

And the most frightening thing is that to many people in Moldova, Florica really does not matter. Or at least they cannot afford for her to matter.

Moldova is Europe's poorest country. In the capital city, Chisinau, the average wage is about $2 a day. In the countryside, it is half that.

And that is what prompts so many people to look for work abroad. One in three Moldovans now live outside their country.

The hope of a more prosperous future means risk is embraced almost blindly. Tell a desperate girl like Florica a fairytale about France and she will believe you because she wants, and perhaps needs, to believe you.

Grim reality

Teaching young women the art of reading between the lines is the goal of one of the charity groups working in Moldova, the International Organisation for Migration.

It is sponsoring the screening of a special film called Lilja 4-Ever in all Moldovan secondary schools.

Lilja 4-Ever is a gritty, frightening movie which many Western European parents might object to their teenage daughters seeing.

Sixteen-year-old Lilja, abandoned by her mother, is left to fend for herself until she meets a man in a bar who promises her a flashy job in Sweden. When she arrives in Stockholm, of course, that flashy job turns out to be prostitution and there are graphic scenes as Lilja is shown being brutalised by scores of old and dirty men.

Watching the film in a Chisinau high school one afternoon, I was embarrassed to find I was crying.

The actress playing Lilja was a slender blonde and she shared no physical resemblance with Florica, but there was something about her eyes which was all too familiar; dead eyes which reflected nothing and which entertained no hope.

I should not have been self-conscious about the tears, all around me the students were sobbing. Many of them would have had older sisters or friends who had gone abroad and who had then mysteriously failed to write home ever again.

"However much we need money," instructed their teacher after the film was finished, "we must not be tempted to take risks."

Poverty

Money is needed everywhere including, I discovered, at the local police station.

Superintendent Ion Bejan had kindly agreed to talk to us about the Moldovan police force's efforts to crack down on the trafficking gangs who were targeting girls like Florica.

He was embarrassed as he showed us into his office at Chisinau police station; he did not have much furniture, he said, and he apologised for the room being a bit dark, but not all the lights had bulbs in them.

We do not have enough patrol cars, we cannot afford enough officers and our weapons are old
Superintendent Ion Bejan

On his spacious desk there were a few neat piles of paper folders which he tapped proudly.

"All our solved cases," he said. "The Moldovan police force really is cracking down on the trafficking gangs."

But I know that Florica's case notes are not among those triumphant papers. I know that because I am aware the police have not even begun an investigation into what happened to her.

It is not that they do not care, they simply do not have the funding for yet another case.

When I called up the Chisinau police station and asked one of the officers if we could drive to the Romanian border with them to film their work at the crossing point - the spot where Florica had been sold - there was an awkward silence on the line before a strained voice responded.

"Well, could you possibly pay for our petrol?" they said. "You see, we only get a limited amount for the week."

Superintendent Bejan is a proud man and he does not like it when I mention money.

As soon as I say I want to start filming him he excuses himself. He goes to a cupboard in the corner and pulls out a beautifully pressed uniform - carefully preserved in plastic sheets - so that he might "look more the part."

Once you meet a girl who has been sold into the sex trade and you see the terrible injuries she has received, you want to get the man that did it to her
Superintendent Ion Bejan

Once dressed, he sits down again behind his vast desk. And then suddenly I realise why the desk looks so big. The Chief of the Moldovan Police Force does not even have a computer.

"No, we do not have much, " he agrees miserably. "It is pretty hard to keep track of cases when you only have paper records. It makes sharing information across different districts a bit difficult."

He looks down at his paper folders and becomes more animated.

"We do not have enough patrol cars, we cannot afford enough officers, our weapons are old and, well...," he points to my chair. I am sitting on an old car seat which has been glued to two lumps of metal.

It is a known fact that where there is abject poverty in a society, there is usually overt corruption too. Superintendent Bejan acknowledges the problem but says he is confident things are improving.

"It used to be really bad," he said. "But now the officers are committed to stopping trafficking. Once you meet a girl who has been sold into the sex trade and you have seen for yourself the terrible injuries she has received, well, you want to get the man that did it to her, you want him brought to justice."

Go-between

I thought of Florica back in her hostel, silently knitting baby clothes for her rapist's child and I knew that she had long given up any hope that justice would come her way.

"But people are caught," insisted the superintendent, and perhaps to drive home the point, he suggested I go down to the police cells to meet someone he had arrested last week on suspicion of trafficking. I agreed to go.

The jail was in the basement, it was a dungeon, a place of childhood nightmares; damp, dark corners with peeling paint, and the fusty air was filled with the sound of strange, muffled shouts and cries.

Woman selling cigarettes in Chisinau, capital of Moldova
The average income in Moldova is just a few dollars a day

"She is in here," said Bejan.

"She?" I asked incredulously.

"Oh yes" he smiled. "Svetlana is a woman and a family doctor. In Moldova, many people will do anything for a few dollars."

Svetlana's cell was tiny and it contained nothing but a filthy double bed which she shared with another woman.

Along the corridor, a radio was blasting out a maddening football chant. It could not be switched off, I was told - it was there to stop prisoners talking to each other.

Svetlana was a fat woman whose face was dripping with perspiration and tears. She stank of old meat.

"I was just the go-between," she kept saying. "I told you I did not know the girl was going to be sold to the traffickers. I just got the papers for her so she could go abroad."

"I know you are lying," said Bejan. "It was the girl herself who told us about you." Svetlana began to sob.

"I was not even paid," she insisted. "I was not even paid."

We have talked about poverty and corruption in the Moldovan police force... What makes you think the justice system is in any better shape?
Superintendent Ion Bejan

Superintendent Bejan asked if I had any questions for Svetlana. I asked her if she knew what had happened to the girl she had arranged the papers for her.

"She thought she was going to be a dancer in Germany," she said softly. "But she was made to work as a prostitute in Saudi Arabia."

I asked her if she felt bad about the part she had played in bringing the girl such unimaginable misery. Svetlana covered her face with her hands and wept.

Later, after she had been taken back to her cell, I became curious about the sentence she would receive if found guilty at her trial.

Superintendent Bejan smiled. "She will probably get away scot-free," he said. "We will get her to court and then she will probably just walk away at the end of it."

I looked at him incredulously and felt my face flush red with anger.

"We have talked about poverty and corruption in the Moldovan police force," he said politely. "What makes you think the Moldovan justice system is in any better shape?"

Unimaginable misery

It is sometimes difficult to remember that Moldova is a European country but if Romania succeeds in its bid to join the European Union, then Moldova will form the EU's external border.

With African levels of poverty, no-one is exactly on tenterhooks waiting for Moldova's accession date to be announced.

In fact, few people see any future in staying in the country. Day after day the bus stations, thick with diesel fumes, are packed with impatient people buying tickets for the battered, blue minibuses which will take them over the Romanian border.

I met one of the buses at the crossing point and talked to some of the young women on board who were jittery with excitement.

One of them, Elena, was about 19 and dressed from head to toe in fake Gucci, from her pink-tinted sunglasses to her synthetic leather mini skirt.

"I am not really going to Romania," she blurted, "I have got a friend in Italy, he is my boyfriend... well, I have not seen him for three years, but he says if I meet him in Romania, he can get me a job in a fashion house in Rome!"

I asked Elena warily if she was sure she could trust this "boyfriend" she had not seen for so long?

"He loves me!" she laughed. "It is a great chance for me."

An immigration officer stamped her passport and slipped a leaflet inside it.

"Can you be sure you are not the victim of a trafficking scam?" asked the leaflet, printed by an international charity organisation. "If you are worried," it said, "and want to talk to someone in confidence, call our hotline."

I felt a ridiculous urge to run after the bus, to thump on its windows and yell at Elena and her young friends to get off, to turn around, to go back. But to go back to what? A dollar a day?

A dollar a day when you know that just over the border is the real Europe, the Europe where people go to college, can find jobs, can afford to buy nice clothes? A chance, as Elena said, there was just a chance that it might work out OK.

But as I watched the bus recede into the distance, with Elena's grinning face beaming at me through the back window, I could not help wondering if that is how Florica had looked when, six months before, she had boarded a bus she thought was taking her to Paris.

Some of the names used in this article have been changed to protect identities.


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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