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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Woman tells of 'stolen babies'

By Mike Thomson
BBC Radio 4's Today programme correspondent in Rome

A 22 year-old Romanian woman is weeping - my visit, and request for an interview with Tatya, which is not her real name, brings back terrible memories.

Many prostitutes in Italy come from Albania
Many prostitutes in Italy come from Albania
After she has recovered her composure she tells me how nearly two years ago she was stopped in the street and offered the chance to leave her small, impoverished village behind.

A youth, who she knew quite well, told her he knew people who could find her well-paid work in Italy.

It was, he said, the chance of a lifetime for her. He was lying.

A month later, Tatya recalls, she was smuggled into Italy by sea and then forced to work in a brothel to make money to pay for the trip.

She became pregnant a few months later, and was taken to be examined by a man claiming to be a doctor, she says.

He confirmed she was five months pregnant. Three months later, she recalls, she was brought back to the same man who induced her to give birth.

They told me that the babies had died but they were not telling me the truth, I know

Tatya says her baby was born without any apparent problems and seemed well.

But before she even had the chance to hold him or even look at him properly, they took him away. "I remember just seeing his body. He was alive though," Tatya said.

She was never to see him again.

Ordeal replayed

Two weeks later, Tatya says, she was put back on the streets and told to continue selling herself for sex.

Many, many girls have had to do the same things that I had to do

Within two months she was pregnant once more and the same gruesome ordeal was replayed again, she says.

After carrying the child for eight months the birth was induced and the baby taken away from her within seconds of being born.

She pleaded with the men to tell her what they had done with this baby and the one before him.

"They told me that the babies had died but they were not telling me the truth, I know," Tatya said.

"I think that my babies were taken for their organs or to be sold. I don't know for sure, but one of these things."

'Far from unique'

Within a fortnight of giving birth to the second baby, Tatya says she was again put back on the streets to work as a prostitute.

Luckily for her she was arrested by police for prostitution and taken to a safe house run by a priest after giving evidence against the gang.

On talking to other women at the safe house, she says it soon became clear to her that her experiences were far from unique.

"I know that this has happened to many, many girls. Many, many girls have had to do the same things that I had to do," Tatya said.

"Been put on the streets and got pregnant and then been forced to have the babies, been induced, for organs."

Profitable business

The safe house Tatya now lives in near the city of Lecce, in the far south of Italy, is run by Father Don Cesare Lodeserto.

He says he has heard similar stories from scores of other women over the last few years.

Father Lodeserto claims it has now become clear to him, from talking to the these women, as well as police officers who have investigated their claims, that the babies are taken for two main reasons.

The first, he says, is to sell organs like kidneys and livers to meet growing demand from the international transplant industry.

The second is to supply babies for illegal adoption, which can be a very profitable business, he says.

'Hitting criminals hard'

Perhaps not surprisingly, Father Lodeserto is not popular with people traffickers whose business he is interfering with.

That at least partly explains why heavy steel gates dominate the entrance to his premises and armed police patrol behind a high wire fence.

"Those of us who are looking after these people can't be frightened all the time. But certainly, every time we take a woman off the street and save a child," he told me.

"We're damaging criminals economically, hitting them hard because we're taking away their income. For the last three years I haven't been able to go anywhere without a police escort provided by the state."

But Father Lodeserto insists he has no plans to give up this work.

Instead he says: "I think we all have to get together, non-government organisations, the police and the authorities to fight this odious crime. We're trying to do what we can but we've got to do more."

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