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Last Updated: Friday, 23 May, 2003, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Europe's human trafficking hub

By Bethany Bell
BBC, Moldova

In a small village less than an hour's drive from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, Ana - not her real name - told me what happened to her daughter.

Her hands, callused from years of farm work, clutched the seat of her wooden chair.

Elena, trafficking victim
Elena was forced into prostitution in Italy
"The best friend of my daughter came to her and said: 'Let's go to Italy,'" she said.

"I thought she would just go for a short time and make some money. She went and one year passed and there was no sign of her. Where was she?

"After one year and eight months she just called and said: 'Mother, I can't tell you where I am because I am being watched.'"

Ana's daughter was forced to spend three years working as a prostitute in Bosnia - a virtual prisoner of a man known as Rocky. She was repeatedly beaten and raped. Now back in Moldova, she is frightened to leave her parents' house.

'Largest supplier state'

Hers is not an isolated case. Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world and the problem is particularly acute in Moldova.

Their papers are taken away and essentially they become slaves
William Hill
OSCE ambassador

The Moldovan Government acknowledges the problem and has been working with the European security body, the OSCE, on drafting anti-trafficking legislation.

William Hill, the OSCE's ambassador to Moldova, says the phenomenon grew rapidly during the late 1990s.

"By late 2001, it was clear that Moldova was the largest supplier state in all of Europe," he said.

"A lot of the victims are lured into it by deceptive advertisements that promise them work. Typically, once they answer these ads, they are fooled, they go off with the traffickers and once they get into a foreign country their papers are taken away and essentially they become slaves."

Seeking fortunes

Wandering through Ana's village, it is not hard to understand why her daughter was eager to leave.

Children's painting
Human trafficking is a fact of life in Moldova
Few people here have running water, which has to be hauled from local wells. Grinding poverty and chronic unemployment since the fall of the Soviet Union has made many Moldovans desperate to seek their fortunes abroad. But it does not always work out as planned.

Elena, who is 25 years old, had been promised a job in Italy at a pizzeria by her best friend Marina. But Marina sold her to a pimp who forced her to walk the streets of Bologna.

"He took up his knife and he said: 'If you don't do what we tell you, you will never go to Moldova again, you won't see your children again,'" she said.

"So you have to do what we tell you."

Rebuilding lives

Elena was eventually rescued by the Catholic relief organisation Caritas. They treated her for a sexually transmitted disease and helped her to get back to Moldova.

There's a big difference between wearing a new T-shirt and an old T-shirt - think about it

Dr Viorel Gorceag, who works at a shelter for victims of trafficking in Chisinau, says more than 90% of these women need medical and psychological treatment.

"There was a case, a girl coming from Italy where she was used to make porno movies," he said. "This girl came back with schizophrenia. Only our psychologists know the true story."

Elena and Ana's daughter are now trying to rebuild their lives. Elena now has a flat where she lives with her three children. Ana is hoping her daughter will one day find a husband to take care of her.

But trafficking carries a huge stigma. Iurie, a technician standing by the bus stop, told me he would never let his son marry a victim of trafficking.

"There's a big difference between wearing a new T-shirt and an old T-shirt," he said. "Think about it."

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