Albania's ties to sex slavery

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VELESTA, Macedonia - Olga winced as she drew back the bandage on her right breast, revealing an infected puncture wound that hadn’t healed since a man bit her in a fit of sexual rage. But the wound, for which the 19-year-old Moldovan lacked even basic medicine, is only a small part of Olga’s daily agony. For more than a year she has been held as a sex slave in this town in western Macedonia, where human trafficking flourishes and young girls are forced to endure the sexual whims of thousands of men.

Sitting in a brothel bedroom in Velesta, a town synonymous with forced prostitution that police and experts consider one of the most dangerous places in Europe, Olga said that her “owner” would kill her for telling a reporter about her state of captivity. But the cruel conditions under which she is held, and her deteriorating mental and physical health, compelled her to speak out.

Her head hung in shame, Olga’s dark brown eyes welled with tears. She brushed back her long black hair, revealing a fair complexion flushed with anger at her fate. “There is only one word for this,” she said. “Slavery.”Forced to have sex with as many as 10 men every day, Olga and other women clandestinely interviewed by MSNBC.com as part of a four-month investigation into the sex trade in Europe, insisted that their real identities not be revealed.

Their fears are not unfounded. Those brave enough to seek help have been savagely beaten — and sometimes killed — for trying to escape.

Flourishing Sex Trade

In Europe alone, officials estimate that more than 200,000 women and girls — one-quarter of all women trafficked globally — are smuggled out of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics each year, the bulk of whom end up working as enslaved prostitutes. Almost half are transported to Western Europe. Roughly a quarter end up in the United States. Human rights activists say the numbers do not tell the full story, because most women remain silent rather than turn to frequently corrupt authorities for help.

The rapid rise of this sex slave trade can be traced to the fall of the Soviet Union, where borders once heavily guarded by the Red Army suddenly became porous and Soviet republics and Eastern European satellites once in the Kremlin’s grasp saw their industries and subsidies collapse overnight. Millions of young women like Olga came of age amid this economic misery. Their childhood fantasies of a better life in the West soon became a human trafficker’s golden opportunity.

Billions in Profits

Ten years of wars in the Balkans have turned the region into a trafficking highway paved with lawlessness and corruption that has prompted former enemies — Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanians — to set aside ethnic rivalries in the name of vast profits. “You’re talking about big international organizations,” said Rudolf Perina, a former U.S. ambassador to Moldova who was involved in Washington-funded anti-trafficking efforts.

Ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo, Macedonia and south Serbia — long the masters of drug running in the Balkans — are deeply involved in the human smuggling business, using the flesh trade to fund their separatist movements.

In the Heart of Europe

Farther along the trafficking pipeline, hundreds of women and girls are smuggled into Europe every day and forced onto the streets of cities like Hamburg, Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Amsterdam, a city synonymous with hedonism, is perhaps best known for its legalized sex industry, in which prostitutes pay taxes and undergo regular health exams. The city’s Red Light District is a virtual Disneyland of sex — with only European Union passport holders allowed to ply the trade.

But only a few miles’ drive from the city center, traditional Dutch tolerance is helping fuel the trafficking problem. In Theemsweg, a fenced-in, football field-sized parking lot built by the government for unregulated sex workers, girls sit in bus shelters — also courtesy of the government — waiting for clients. There are no EU citizens here — and the prostitutes’ countries of origin are strikingly familiar: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic. On weekends, men looking for cheap sex wait in cars that back up for a mile. Sexual encounters, which take place right in the cars, cost $20.

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