|THERE IS NO FREEDOM IN SLAVERY: FORCED PROSTITUTION IS REAL.|
You are a teenage girl growing up in Estonia. You're dirt poor. Your prospects are dim. One day, you see a want ad in your local newspaper: "Agency seeking young women to work as au pairs. High paying opportunities throughout the European Union and United States."
Encouraged, you meet a local employment agency recruiter for a few interviews and what luck! The agency finds you a job. Not only that, they supply you with a travel visa and plane tickets. Next thing you
know, you're on your way to Athens to work as a live-in for a diplomat's family. Life is good.
Only you don't make it to Greece. Rather, you wind up in some Serbian backwater where you are starved, beaten and forced into prostitution. Over the next year you service 10 to 15 men a day, earning your Estonian syndicate bosses about $50,000. In exchange for your labors you receive more beatings, enough food to keep you alive and crappy cigarettes. This is your life.
This is just one out of dozens of true story lines described in the recently released The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade
by award-winning, investigative journalist Victor Malarek. Malarek, who writes for Toronto's The Globe & Mail and whose television news show The Fifth Estate is Canada's answer to 60 Minutes, spent two years researching and dissecting the $12 billion business of sexual slavery. He calls human trafficking the human rights issue of the new millennium. The Black Table spoke with Malarek recently about child prostitutes and Serbian gangsters.
BT: Have you ever observed a sex slave auction?
VM: Not an auction per se. The worst I've seen is the what goes down in the brothels in Kosovo, where it's totally animalistic. The men, 10 and 20 at a time, literally maul these women.
BT: Your average Russian mobster -- how does he smell?
VM: It's funny, you know, how often the clichés are borne out by the reality. Eastern European thugs especially. But with them it's the dress code. They may live in Greece, Kosovo, Bosnia, Tel Aviv, Rome Frankfurt, London, you name it, but they all seem to sport leather jacket and buzz cut. It's an intimidating look. If you want to be a pimp you have to intimidate the Johns, too, not just the women. Most smell like cheap cologne, I guess.
BT: What kind of front do these so-called employment agencies put up in order to lure "employees"?
VM: Well first, the ads appear to be officially sanctioned. They're decorated with the American stars and stripes or the Canadian Maple Leaf or the tri-colored flags of Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and so on. In countries like Ukraine, Romania, Russia and the Czech Republic, bogus recruiters will set up offices adjacent to legitimate employment agencies. Some go so far as to hold "career days" at local universities. Of course, not all women fall victim to the spin of phony employment agencies. The first link in the chain is just as often a relative or a boyfriend or some acquaintance in a trusted position.
BT: Kind Uncle Zootroy lined up a job for you in Istanbul?
VM: That's right.
BT: Don't some of these women have an idea of what they're getting into?
VM: There are a number of women who know they're going to go and strip. And there are a certain number who even know they're going to be prostitutes. They're given a story though. And it's almost akin to the movie Pretty Woman: Hey, you're gonna do one or two, maximum three men a night. No need to work seven days a week, five is fine. You're going to be making $5,000 a week that goes directly into your pocket. You can take the week off when you're on your period. And you can say no to any man. What actually happens is a nightmare.
BT: Such as?
VM: Your average trafficked woman does -- is forced to do -- between five and 30 men a day, usually without a condom. (Bareback is especially popular Tel Aviv, where the orthodox clientele are forbidden by their religion to "waste" their semen.) She is kept under lock and key usually in an overstuffed apartment. She is accompanied at all times by a "bodyguard" whose job it is to ensure two things: That she satisfies clients and that she doesn't escape. She works 24/7, 30 days a month, period or no period. She can never say no to a man and cannot say no to an act.
BT: What about madams? Somewhere along the line you must have interviewed women who managed to flip or subvert the power dynamic and, you know, run their own business.
VM: Not one.
BT: Hmm. The New York Times recently did a story on a Korean girl in Jersey City who runs her own very profitable escort service. About all that's bugging her are stomach ulcers.
VM: OK, no Asian woman runs an escort service without a Triad (mafioso) behind her. You see, this is the naiveté sometimes of people. They can front whatever they want to front. And what I have found is that a lot of formerly-trafficked women have suddenly become madams, but they do not control the operation. They are the front. I will defy anyone -- you follow the money that this madam makes and you will see that a large portion of it is going somewhere else. Madams and pimps are field workers.
BT: You mention the "breaking" process in your book.
VM: Yeah, it's a pimp term for the systematic intimidation and disorientation
that the women (I say women, but we're talking about mostly 15- through
19-year-olds) are subjected to before they start working in brothels.
First they're put in huge debt bondage, told that they must work off travel
expenses before they can even think of being let go. They're stripped
of their identification and held in a foreign country where they don't
know the language. They're told that their families back home are being
watched. If they try to run, their mother or father or brother will be
beaten or killed. They're then starved and roughed up. You have these
apartments in Tel Aviv or in Hamburg and you have a dozen in an apartment
or 50, 150 girls in an entire building. And the girls are brought in to
the men individually and sometimes in pairs. The men come in, five, six,
BT: And the ones who manage to break free and get repatriated?
VM: Well, the sad reality of repatriation is there's nothing waiting for them. Take Moldova, which I call the Haiti of Eastern Europe. They go back to Moldova and there are no treatment programs for them, no rehabilitation programs; there are no therapies, there's nothing for them. Often they have all kinds of STDs. Some of them have HIV. And so they go back to their villages where they're known as: "The whore [who] has come back." After a while, some of them commit suicide.
There are some programs setting up in Kiev and Bucharest and Moscow for when they do return. But they're very few and far between because the governments claim there is little money out there for rehabilitation. My counterargument to that is the governments of places like Moldova should confront countries like Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Israel and Turkey and say, "When our young women are repatriated from your country and when we know what has happened to them, your government should give us money so we can rehabilitate them."
BT: Sounds doubtful.
VM: Yeah, but you know what? Look at the "comfort women" from South Korea that are now fighting for some kind of retribution or reparation for what the Japanese did to them during the Second World War. Their case is getting heard, so it's not that outlandish.
BT: In The Natashas, you say there have been four waves of human sex slave trafficking, the first three originating respectively in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Aside from geography, how does the current wave differ from the preceding three?
VM: It's far more brutal and far more organized. When you look at the organized crime syndicates that are involved, in particular the Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian mafias, they've realized what the potential is out there and there seems to be this incredible, insatiable desire for these kinds of women. It's the speed of this thing as well. In 1991 the Iron Curtain crumbles, the wall comes down, democracy sort of rushes into the former Soviet states and this huge market suddenly opens up and it's vast.
BT: If I brought this subject up in company, many people would find it tawdry, maybe even a little bit banal. Period. Why should anyone care?
VM: I've always been one that gets really upset with respect to abuse. My whole life has been one that looks at child abuse issues. That largely is driven by my own childhood. I grew up in the child welfare system and protection system in Quebec. I was put in foster homes and boys homes and I was a first-hand victim and first-hand observer of major abuse of kids. When I got into journalism, that's one of the areas I keyed in on. That sort of stays with me all the time when I look at any issue.
I think we should care because these are girls and young women who are being raped. We're not talking about voluntary choices. These are girls who are being forced into absolutely hellish existences, all for the pleasure of men. We look at these young women who are on the streets and we make these snap judgments. We think: Whore. But we don't look beyond the stilettos and miniskirt to ask what lead this person to this point in their life?
Now, when I look at U.S. State Department statistics, U.N. statistics, Europol and International Organization for Migration statistics and the consensus is that there are 800,000 to 1 million of these young women trafficked every year, well there's no way in hell that a million of these young women are lining up for this. That's all it takes for me to care. I've been a journalist for 35 years, been in wars and famines and all kinds of deep shit and I'm not hardened. I take it personally. I can't sit back because one day, who knows, it could happen to my daughter or your sister. You have to protect those in society who can't defend themselves and that's children and senior citizens.
BT: So you've interviewed hundreds of these trafficked women. Is there anything weird about being a guy and covering this subject?
VM: It's a stupid thing but you feel guilty for mankind, you know? And yeah, in interviewing young female victims and discovering the world of shit they've been living in I've sometimes felt guilty as a man because it's men who are responsible for their suffering. But it wasn't me.
BT: OK, but you're dealing with young, pretty girls who're incredibly vulnerable. How do you keep from feeling in some way like you're crossing a line, being just one more intruder?
VM: I'm surprised and not surprised when people open up to me. My wife and several of my friends have said to me that children and people who have gone through hell seem to have a sympathetic ear for me. I remember being in Costa Rica, in a place where young girls had been rescued off the streets and I was talking to the woman who was running it, Mara, and she told me a horrific story about this 9-year-old girl who was made to service hundreds of men orally and was beaten if she didn't swallow. As a result of the trauma she could no longer consume cheeses, milk, eggs, ice cream or any dairy because it was too much of a reminder. She flat out refused to speak to anyone. She was very afraid, but especially terrified of men. She'd gone mute, essentially.
Later on in the day we were in the main yard which, by the way, is guarded by a man with an AK-47 because several times the pimps have tried to charge the safe house to get these young girls back. [O]ne little girl came up to me and we started to talk and she had a beautiful smile. She was a beautiful young lady and she was speaking to me in Spanish and saying she would like to learn English and just chatting. Eventually I noticed Mara was staring at me and I asked her, "Is anything wrong?" She said, "That's the girl I was telling you about. She doesn't talk to anybody."
For some reason, people come up and talk to me. They open up to me.
BT: You're described often as a "crusader" journalist. Is "crusader" a modifier you embrace?
VM: Eh, I'm one of these guys who charges into places with a sword. And again it goes back to nobody swung a sword for me as a kid. And I decided that rather than be another self-fulfilling prophecy, you know, destined to be a bad kid, I'd try and change things for myself and maybe others.
BT: There's a movie on you. Is it any good?
VM: Yeah, I guess. After it came out I got this rep for being an angry young man, you know? People today ask me if that's still the case and I say, "No. I'm an angry middle aged man."
Andy Baker is a writer living in New York.