Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Prostitute's Call - 'We Will Take Over Kosovo'

Kosovar Albanians are used to living their lives according to a traditional moral code that - among other things - guides the conduct of women in public. The arrival of organised prostitution shows that like so much else in the tormented province, that co
By Imer Mushkolaj

Two beautiful, blonde young women stand by a car park at one o'clock in the morning as the traffic dies down. Only a few kilometres outside Pristina, on the road to Peja the women are offering their sexual "services".


"Fifty marks for an hour," says one as her colleague moves closer to the car for a better look at the customer.


Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, is turning into a comfortable nest for many young girls involved in the 'oldest profession in the world'. Elda, one of the girls "working" at the car park, is only 18. She is from Albania and came to Kosovo only two months ago.


A prostitute in Tirana, she came to Kosovo to "bring her experience to the Kosovar girls". "It's a good business. Kosovar girls who want to get into it, should go ahead," she added.


Prostitution was rare but not unknown in Kosovo before the war. In Pristina, for example, a so-called "meeting house", the "Park Hotel", was owned jointly by a Serb and an Albanian. Serb policemen and paramilitaries as well as Albanian businessmen were regular customers. The Albanian owner, Sebajdin Rexhepi, was found dead in unexplained circumstances last year, while his Serb partner, known as Bata, has now left Kosovo.


But prostitution in Kosovo is changing. Street prostitution, which is illegal, is on the increase as are the number of illegal "mini bordellos". In Pristina there are at least three apartments serving as "mini bordellos". Usually only one or two prostitutes operate in such establishments, in pleasant surroundings and for significant sums of money. In almost all cases the prostitutes are the 'property' of the apartment owners.


Sanija, a widow in her forties, owns such a "bordello". She "employs" two young girls in her apartment, and makes at least 2,000 German marks a month. "We have two or three customers a day. Many of them are young, but there are also older people who come.


"Madame provides us with free food and lodging and some out of pocket expenses," said one of Sanija's two girls. The young woman, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said her family is from a Kosovar village and that they do not know what she is doing. "They think I am working for a humanitarian organisation," she explained.


The street prostitutes are "owned" by several pimps, some of which are successful businessmen. Arben, for example, is in his thirties and admits to running 7 prostitutes on Pristina's streets. Four of them are from Albania and the other three from a small village just outside Pristina.


"What I am doing looks like a normal business to me. I consider them as my collaborators. We all make money," Arben said. He denies accusations that the girls are forced into prostitution. "No, no," he said, "They all wanted to do it. No one forced them."


Young students also make up the growing ranks of prostitutes in Kosovo. Lulja is one of them. She is currently studying Law and has been working as a prostitute for three months. She said that fellow students are her usual clients. "I charge very little for the students. I only charge them 10 marks. I make 30-40 German marks a day," she said.


Lulja said poverty was the main reason for her turning to prostitution. "If I had money, I would have never done this", she said. Lulja sends part of her income to her family, who live in a village in southern Kosovo, badly damaged during the war. "My father is sick. We have no other income," she said.


Lulja said she knew of at least ten other students who were working as prostitutes. One male student from Peja, who wishes to be known only by his initials S.C, said he was a regular customer of these prostitutes. "It is cheap, and good, so there is nothing wrong here," he said.


A large proportion of the prostitutes now working in Kosovo has come from abroad, from the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Poland.


Jeton B., from Mitrovica, returned two months ago from Germany. He brought two Ukrainian girls with him. Both girls were full of praise for their Albanian pimp. "He is very nice to us. We do our job and he pays us for that," said Julia, 25.


UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) officials admit they are aware of prostitution in Kosovo. "Yes there are some cases. A few days ago we captured three girls on the streets. They had come from Ukraine. One of them said that she was kidnapped and brought here, while another one said that she had escaped from home and came here for work," said Jack Seamson, Chief Detective of the UNMIK Police in Pristina.


But Seamson denied that UNMIK had come across Albanian or Serb prostitutes working the streets. Seamson said UNMIK is committed to combating this phenomenon, particularly organised, criminal prostitution.


"Prostitution is legal in the meeting houses, but not on the streets. We will fight this phenomenon. Our primary task is to arrest these people, the pimps, who are taking these girls onto the streets, and not the victims," Seamson said.


There are currently 1,800 international police troops in Kosovo. Bernard Kouchner, UN Administrator for Kosovo, has requested 6,000 but such a figure has yet to be approved. Some Albanian officials have pointed the finger at the international police for the failure to combat rising prostitution.


"There are many prostitution cases. The UNMIK police is working very slowly on this issue," claimed Avdi Rraci, an official of the Ministry of Public Order in the Interim Government of Kosovo.


raci complained that members of the Public Order Ministry were being prevented from carrying out their duties as necessary and that this was fuelling an increase in criminal activity. "We are trying to do our job, but we are constrained the UNMIK police," Rraci said.


The Ministry of Public Order is part of the interim government formed by the former leader of KLA, Hashim Thaci. Officials in the ministry claim they have 1,500 personnel ready to form the core of a new police force in Kosovo, under the supervision of the UN.


And it is not only in Pristina that prostitution is enjoying something of a boom. In Prizren, southern Kosovo, the "Skenderbeu" restaurant has become an illegal "meeting house". Lorry drivers from Albania form the bulk of "Skenderbeu" customers. "This is the best way to relax after such a long trip from Tirana," said Gjergji, 36, on his way to the upstairs rooms. Azem, a caf‚ waiter in the town centre, claimed, "There are at least three other similar places in the town."


Such places exist in Mitrovica, Gjilan, and Ferizaj. In Pristina, one can find prostitutes in the "Mars" restaurant and in a nightclub in Slatine, only a few kilometres from the capital.


The widespread destruction caused during the war has forced large numbers of rural people to move into urban areas, at least for the winter. Despite a very strong moral code, still strongest among rural communities, some girls from such communities are turning to prostitution.


Mahmut Germizaj, a psychologist from Pristina argues that "this phenomenon is not something new to Kosovo, it exists in other places as well, especially those which have just come out of a war." He explained that "prostitution, as a social phenomenon in Kosovo, has emerged as a result of the dramatic economic and social changes, which have occurred in our society after the war."


According to Germizaj, "this is the result of a total absence of adequate institutions and the counselling they should provide. No foreign or local organisation is not involved in the prevention of such phenomena, prostitution included."


But the spectre of a thriving prostitution industry, especially one involving Kosovar Albanian women, is a difficult reality for Kosovars to accept. "Albanian prostitutes?! I do not believe it. We have a strong moral code," exclaimed Sami, a shoemaker from Pristina.


"Those who go on the streets and sell their bodies are not Albanians. If there is any such Albanian, they need to be executed," declared Ahmet, 50, from Prizren.


But to some the appearance of prostitutes on the streets is a sign of civilisation. "Why not?! We can go forward towards the civilised world only like this. They are brave girls," said Agron, the owner of a textile shop. He admitted to visiting prostitutes at least three times a week. "I go to them often. Why shouldn't I go there?"


Despite the strong Albanian moral code and the refusal of many Kosovars to accept the reality of prostitution, the number of women involved is rapidly increasing.


The international police force, already stretched by general crime and inter-ethnic violence, face a tough task controlling this lucrative activity. "We will take over Kosovo," said Elda, before climbing into a customer's blue BMW and disappearing into the night.


Imer Mushkolaj and Mentor Shala are journalists in Kosovo