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Last Updated: Friday, 7 November, 2003, 08:54 GMT
Trafficking troubles poor Moldova
Angus Roxburgh
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online in Moldova

"Moldova is the first former Soviet state to start the process of joining the European Union" said a front-page headline in a Moldovan newspaper recently.

That would have come as a surprise to the European Commission, which treats this tiny, east European state, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, very much as part of the "wider Europe" which is not at all ready to think about joining the EU.

Moldova is Europe's poorest country. Almost one-fifth of its 4.3 million people are believed to have gone abroad, in search of work and a better life.

Moldova market
Moldova is Europe's poorest nation
And a huge majority of those who remain, according to research, would leave if they had the means.

Compounding the misery are political tensions to east and west.

In the east, the sliver of land along the Dniester river, known as Transdniestria, populated mainly by Russians and Ukrainians, has declared de facto independence.

The EU wants Russia to pull its forces out by the end of the year, but there is little sign of that happening. In the meantime, the two parts of Moldova snarl at each other across the river, and even - according to locals - disrupt each other's mobile phone networks.

To the west, the Moldovan government is locked in an ideological war with Romania, denouncing Bucharest's talk of "two Romanian states", which Chisinau regards as a slight on its own, Moldovan, statehood.

The country's language is Romanian, but the authorities here refer to it as "Moldovan" in order to bolster their separate identity.

'Not for sale'

The political instability alone would be enough to keep Moldova out of the EU. But it is worse than that.

The country is the source of much of Europe's human trafficking. Billboards in the streets of the capital, Chisinau, depict a girl gripped in a huge clenched fist, being exchanged for dollars.

The caption reads: "You are not for sale". There are few countries in the world where people have to be reminded of that by public advertisements.

I was so poor I couldn't even buy clothes or food for my little girl
In fact, tens of thousands of Moldovan women have been sold into prostitution in more affluent countries. And the trade in human organs, particularly kidneys, is a growing and frightening problem.

"The traffickers are smart psychologists," says Ana Revenco of La Strada, an organisation set up to help the victims of the sex trade.

"They go to poor villages where women are most vulnerable. For many of them, prostitution is a survival strategy."

I met Jana, a 22 year-old who escaped from captivity as a sex slave in Turkey, and now lives with her little girl, Valeria, in a draughty, damp hovel in the outskirts of Chisinau.

Jana says she went to Istanbul voluntarily, believing she was being offered work in bars and restaurants.


When she realised her employer wanted to turn her into a prostitute, she tried to escape, but was caught, handcuffed and driven to the seaside town of Bodrum. She tells how she was sold to a succession of pimps, her price-tag rising with each sale.

Her last owner, an Armenian woman, put a gun to Jana's head when she refused to work, beat her, and even pushed her off a yacht into the sea for complaining. Jana says she never received a penny for her "work".

Prostitution is a 'survival strategy' for many Moldovan women
She speaks with horror of how another woman in the town who refused to work was brutally murdered, her face and genitals carved up. The pimps showed photographs of the body to Jana as a warning.

Eventually Jana escaped with the help of a benevolent client. She stole her passport back, and with her client made her way overland back to Istanbul, where he paid for a ticket home. It was four months of terror.

Why did she go there in the first place, I asked. Wasn't she naive?

"Maybe. But I was so poor I couldn't even buy clothes or food for my little girl," she said. "I couldn't even buy her sweets."

In a village in the north of Moldova I found victims of another kind of trafficking. Iurie, a young man with dark stubble on his face, looked tough enough to take care of himself. But tears brimmed in his eyes as he told me how he was forced - again, in Turkey - to have a kidney removed.

He says he went there thinking he would be given work as a stevedore. Instead, he ended up on an operating table. He was sent home, $11,000 richer, but traumatised for life.

The realisation that one can live with just one kidney has prompted many Moldovans to go abroad voluntarily to make a quick buck. In the village of Oknita a 20-year-old woman had bought a car and a house with the proceeds from her kidney.

Poorly equipped

In Edinec, a young musician named Sergiu plays the saxophone he bought with his. He hopes the instrument will enable him to earn money.

"Of course it was a risk," he says, "but I had nothing. Absolutely nothing. Now I have this saxophone, and a clarinet, and a house."

I found these people with the help of two officers from Moldova's anti-trafficking unit. Victor and Vasile are proud of their work, and determined to rid their country of the trafficking gangs.

But it's an unequal struggle. They themselves are poor: their salaries just $100 a month. Their 20-strong unit has no computers or specialised equipment.

For our four-hour car journey from Chisinau to the north, I even had to pay for their petrol.

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23 May 03  |  Europe
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21 May 03  |  Europe
Country profile: Moldova
08 Oct 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Moldova
02 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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