Lyudmila, a divorced mother of three, had few prospects at home in Moldova. So when she saw a newspaper ad promising work in Italy, she did not hesitate.
Leaving her children with her parents, Lyudmila joined seven other women seeking a way out of the poverty of postcommunist Eastern Europe. The women were taken by car south, across the Balkans. Only at the border between Serbia and Macedonia did Lyudmila (who did not want her last name printed) realize where they were really headed.
"There was a guy who told us to take off our clothes to see how we looked," she recalls. "Then everything became clear to me. They were staring at us as if we were cows, to see how good we looked."
One of the few businesses that has flourished in the former Yugoslavia is human trafficking. Women from Eastern Europe's poorest countries, especially Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria, are lured into the sex trade with the promise of jobs as waitresses or hotel maids in Western Europe. They are smuggled across borders, bought and sold like cattle, and forced to work as prostitutes.
Lyudmila was sold for $400 and sent to work as a prostitute in a largely ethnic Albanian area in the western part of the country. Over the next two years, she says she was sold a dozen more times, sometimes netting traffickers as much as $750.
Estimates of the number of women and girls trafficked each year from Eastern Europe are as high as 120,000. Most end up in Western Europe, but many, like Lyudmila, remain in the former Yugoslavia, where corruption and weak law enforcement have made trafficking and prostitution a source of easy profits for organized crime. Foreigners who poured into the Balkans to help it recover from its wars also helped feed the market.
A report released in July by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says that peacekeeping troops and civilian workers for international organizations make up a substantial number of the customers and even more of the profits in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
"It's a free-market thing," says Madeleine Rees, who works in Sarajevo for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. "The traffickers brought women to Bosnia because there were peacekeepers here 50,000 men." Although today the majority of the customers are locals, Ms. Rees says that initially, "the majority of men using these women were internationals. They were really the only ones with money."
In some cases, UN police officers sent to Bosnia and Kosovo to improve policing have been caught buying sex from trafficked women. In Bosnia, where international personnel monitor the local police, 18 officers have been sent home for sexual misconduct, according to the UN. In Kosovo, where internationals do actual police work, 10 have been sent home, including an American who reportedly fell in love with a prostitute.
Critics have accused the UN and other international organizations of not taking the problem seriously and, in a few cases, of covering up for their employees. Kathryn Bolkovac, a UN investigator from Lincoln, Neb., won a lawsuit in August after being fired in 2001 while looking into reports of international involvement in trafficking in Bosnia.
In one case, she investigated an American police officer accused of buying a prostitute for $1,000. Another case involved a NATO soldier suspected of smuggling four Moldovans into Bosnia.
In the past two years, however, efforts have increased to stop the trafficking. In Bosnia, the UN set up an antitrafficking police unit in July 2001; in its first year it conducted more than 600 raids, closing down 124 nightclubs and rescuing 182 women. In Kosovo, a similar police unit closed 54 suspected brothels last year and rescued 131 women.
In addition, a small but growing number of traffickers are now being prosecuted. In May, the Macedonian government won convictions against two men from Kumanovo, a town near the Serbian border, who ran a trafficking ring. In Kosovo this spring, a brothel owner from Urosevac went to prison for 4 -1/2 years.
Whether these efforts have slowed trafficking is not clear. UN police in Kosovo say they encounter fewer women who say they have been brought to the province by force. "Nearly all of them come here willing to work as prostitutes," said Barry Fletcher, a police spokesman.
But Yulia Krieger, an expert on trafficking for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says women who are trafficked often deny it. "A lot of these women are so scared, they won't tell the truth for days and days and weeks and weeks," she said. "They are quite traumatized."
Traffickers also have proved adept at outwitting efforts to stop them. Often brothel owners are tipped off before raids. Closed bars are quickly revived under a new name and ownership. In Bosnia and Macedonia, officials say, women are sent increasingly to motels and private residences, which are harder to raid than bars. In Kosovo, traffickers intimidate local judges, says Ariana Mustafa, a legal adviser for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Experts say what's needed is increased responsibility and training among local governments to fight the problem on their own. Borders need to be tightened, judges and witnesses protected, and local people encouraged to see trafficked women as victims. Ultimately, they say, women need better economic opportunities so they won't feel compelled to leave home.
Lyudmila says she "did everything" during her painful odyssey. Like many women, she worked as a waitress and as a prostitute. Macedonia is an ethnically mixed country, and so were the men: ethnic Albanians, ethnic Turks, Slavic Macedonians and foreigners, especially Germans. She says some treated her kindly; a few, including her bosses, would beat her.
In late July, Lyudmila escaped from her "owners." Pretending to be on an errand to a pharmacy, she instead went to the police, who brought her to a shelter on the outskirts of Skopje, the Macedonian capital. There, on a recent morning, she was one of 17 women, all from Eastern Europe, waiting to be sent home.
Venecija, who sat watching cartoons, said she had been kidnapped in Bulgaria and kept in a Macedonian village for two years. "We had a woman for a boss. We were so tired we couldn't get out of bed. But she forced us to get out of bed and to put on makeup and to meet customers."
The women expressed particular bitterness that their owners had profited at their expense. "The money they earn from one woman is enough for the rest of my life in Russia," said Irina, a 23-year-old Muscovite.
According to the UNICEF report, many women who return home end up being trafficked again. All of them face shame and uncertainty. Lyudmila yearned to go back to Moldova, but she was hard pressed to say what she would do when she got there. "I don't know," she said, close to tears.
Earlier, during a session with a psychologist, the women had covered a large flip pad with drawings. Among the pictures of handcuffs, flowers, and a broken heart, they had written a poem to give themselves courage. "Put your hands on your throat to stop yourself from crying," it read."Sit at the table and start from the beginning."