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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 October 2005, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
Hidden victims of Albania's mafia
The BBC's Paul Kirby
By Paul Kirby
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Thousands of young Albanian women have been forced into prostitution abroad in recent years, and the families they have left behind have struggled to cope with the consequences.

Women who return home are often rejected because of the stigma
Vangjel's wife was duped into thinking she was heading for a better life as a waitress in Italy.

The family had always been poor and they had made ends meet by selling milk from one of their only assets, a cow.

But if she made any money as a prostitute on the streets of Milan there was no sign of it making its way home.

Vangjel thought she was now somewhere in France: "My wife left me because we were poor and because the trafficker knew the tricks.

"He cheated her and said 'I'll find you a good job' and then sent her to become a prostitute."

As I sat in Vangjel's tiny cottage, his elderly mother gently clasped my wrist, demanding my attention.

She spoke in Albanian but the message was clear: "Help my family."

It was as if my visit could somehow help her son and four grandchildren.

Gang violence

Berat Mayor Fadil Nasufi, against the backdrop of his town
The devil did something to this town
Berat Mayor Fadil Nasufi

Albania's economy went into freefall in 1997 with the collapse of get-rich-quick pyramid schemes in which two thirds of the population had invested.

Gun-toting rebels took to the streets of towns across the country, and with the anarchy that followed, many were tempted into organised crime, trafficking in particular.

From their home in Berat in southern Albania, Vangjel's wife was easy prey for the traffickers.

In the Berat region alone, it is estimated that more than 1,400 girls and young women have either been abducted or lured into prostitution.

Set in a valley in the Tomorri Hills, Berat is a small historic town dating back more than 2000 years.

Life in the Shadow of the Mafia will be broadcast on Thursday, 6 October, 2005
But when the collapse came in 1997, its cultural background was of little help.

"The devil did something to this town," said Berat Mayor Fadil Nasufi.

He said the gang violence into which the town descended led to a funeral almost every day.

The traffickers are no longer welcome in Berat, he added.

"They're condemned not only by the law but by public opinion. For us they are like terrorists," he said.

Exposed areas

Josif Shtembari, chief of police in the port city of Vlora
The traffickers look for women in rural areas
Josif Shtembari, Vlora Police
One of the main routes exploited by the traffickers was through the coastal port of Vlora to Italy, and then on to other European cities, including London.

The police chief in Vlora, Josif Shtembari, said the criminals are still active.

"The exposed areas are the rural parts of Albania, especially in the centre and east of the country," he said.

"The traffickers look for women in these rural areas that are not as developed as Vlora."

Mr Shtembari believes they have stemmed the tide of boats leaving for Italy from the coast around Vlora.

But the traffickers are now actively involved in other routes - south over the mountains into Greece, or through Tirana airport with the help of forged documents.

The police have also had to deal with allegations of collusion with the traffickers.

In August, a 17-year-old woman who had gone on television to accuse policemen of forcing her into prostitution was stabbed to death in Vlora.

Julia's ordeal

The case merely reinforces the dangers faced by victims of trafficking who never know who to trust.

Julia's ordeal began at the age of 13 when she was abducted as she went to her aunt's house to iron clothes before a wedding.

Julia does not expect she will ever lead a normal life
She was taken to Greece and forced to work the streets for a year and a half before a man risked his life to help her.

Julia eventually made her way home, but like many of the girls who do try to go back to their families, she was rejected because of the stigma of prostitution.

Julia does not expect she will ever lead a normal life.

She sees her future in a women's refuge where she helps other Albanian girls and young women who return home.

One young woman she is working with is 17 years old and from Berat.

"I can help her look out for herself and teach her to be strong," she said.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 6 October, 2005 at 1102 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 10 October, at 2030 BST

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