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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 12:40 GMT
Victims of Bosnia's sex trade
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By Alexandra Kroeger
BBC Bosnia correspondent
line

There are several of them, all in a row, garish motels on one of the main roads through Bosnia.

Concrete swans, pink neon signs and American-sounding names - brothel chic, Bosnian style. Several expensive cars with tinted glass are parked outside - black, naturally.

We go inside - two women and two men. The lighting is dim. A woman with long, dark hair lolls on the sofa, her head tipped back over the armrest.

She looks drugged. She takes no notice of us.

The waiter bustles up to us. "Drinks are five marks ($2.25)," he says.

He looks at me and the other woman in the group, "But I can see you're not here for our business."

Held against their will

Post-war Bosnia is an impoverished place - especially outside the capital, Sarajevo - but the sex trade is flourishing.

Many of the women working here as prostitutes come from even poorer countries - Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.


When we asked when we would get to Italy, the driver said we would never get there, as we had been sold for money in Belgrade

Alexandra
They answer adverts in the paper, looking for work as waitresses or au pairs in the West.

Some know they may end up as prostitutes, or perhaps 'exotic' dancers. Most do not.

Even the ones who know what they are getting in to, do not expect to be held against their will, deprived of their earnings.

Police raids

Many of the women have small children in their own countries. If they had any alternative, they would not have left in the first place.

Most of the women are trafficked through Hungary and Serbia before being sold to bar owners in Bosnia.

They may be beaten. They will certainly have their passports taken away. If they are caught in police raids on the bars where they work, they are liable to face prosecution for invalid work permits or visas.

Alexandra, 21, comes from Kazakhstan. In 1999, she answered an advertisement in a newspaper offering cheap travel to Italy.

She and her sister, and three other women were taken to Yugoslavia instead. From there, they were transported illegally across the border to Bosnia.

"When we asked when we would get to Italy, [the driver] said we would never get there, as we had been sold for money in Belgrade," she says.

Bid for freedom

The women were taken to a restaurant where they were told to stay until further notice. Alexandra escaped after two nights.

She hitch-hiked to a village where she met a restaurant owner who promised to help her. The reality turned out to be very different.


I was beaten and raped regularly by the bar owner, even within the kitchen area

Alexandra
"He used to threaten me and beat me regularly," she says. "He took my passport and all my money away from me. He held a pistol to my head, threatening to kill me."

After three weeks, he sold her to another man, also a bar owner, who put her to work as a waitress for around two and a half months.

Auctioned off

"During that time, I was beaten and raped regularly by the bar owner, even within the kitchen area. He forced me to expose my breasts in front of customers, and used to bite them for fun, causing severe bruising."

In the Arizona market near Brcko, in northern Bosnia, women used to be auctioned off like cattle. But a public outcry prompted a clean up.

Brcko is an independent district, separate from Bosnia's two ethnically based entities.

The Arizona market was set up as a prototype free-trade zone. But the trade which really took off was the trafficking of women.

Ethnic identity is no barrier to organised crime, which is efficient, profitable and widespread.

Most of the customers are local, but the really lucrative trade comes from the internationals - some of the 20,000 peacekeepers and police officers stationed here, not to mention thousands of civilians.


We discovered we were trapped when it was too late

Alona

Several United Nation police officers have been sent home for sexual impropriety - a subject that embarrasses and angers UN officials in Bosnia. They vehemently deny there has been any cover-up.

If the women do manage to escape, their best chances of going home may lie with the UN.

Since 1999, in co-operation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN has repatriated more than 400 trafficked women.

Dupped

The IOM runs two shelters in Sarajevo - one for high-risk cases, one for the rest. The high-risk cases are the women who are prepared to stay to help prosecute the bar owners.

Most, however, just want to go home.

Alona is afraid the traffickers will catch up with her after she returns to Romania.

Like Alexandra, she thought she was going to Italy to work as a waitress.

She was given a false passport and trafficked through Yugoslavia. She entered Bosnia illegally, where she was taken to a bar in a rural area.

"We discovered we were trapped when it was too late," she says. "The owner took our passports and all our clothes, down to our underwear, and told us we had to perform a striptease for his guests. If we refused, he would punish us and beat us."

One of the waiters used to beat the women for no reason, she says. They were always cold because they had to remain in their underwear all the time. They were locked in a tiny room - the only exit led to the bar where they had to dance.

"We wanted to escape, especially after we heard that the owner wanted to sell us to someone else. One night, one of the customers helped us escape in his car. He took us to his home, bought us some clothes and told us we could stay there for some time," Alona remembers.

"We were afraid to go out, because someone from the bar where we were kept could have recognised us and taken us back."

Even if a woman does manage to escape, her troubles are not over. If she has lost her passport, her country of origin may be reluctant to issue a new one.

In the Balkans, where ethnic and state borders overlap, countries may try to evade responsibility for a troublesome, unwanted woman, tainted by her past.

She may require expensive medical treatment - or may even have contracted HIV or Aids. If her community finds out what she has really been doing, she is likely to become an outcast.

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