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

Romania: Tackling the Traffickers

Police question gang suspected of involvement in case of teenage girl bought for 400 dollars on the streets of Bucharest.
By Paul Cristian

She hasn't learned all the letters of the alphabet yet, but this teenage girl is happy and proud to be able to write her own name on a postcard - Diana.


Just over one month ago, she was being bought and sold like an animal on Bucharest's backstreets. She was beaten, raped and abused by countless men, and forced to spend freezing nights chained up in a dog cage.


She was rescued when undercover reporters from the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism paid the traffickers 400 US dollars - provided by the daily newspaper Evenimentul Zilei - and whisked her away to the safety of a women's shelter in Pitesti.


Shelter director Iana Matei told IWPR that the girl, who has serious learning difficulties, was settling in well, eating and sleeping as much as she can. "Diana's learning to write. She likes stamping and cutting postcards in nice shapes with specially designed scissors," she said.


Since this investigation and its companion documentary hit the headlines across Europe, Diana's case has become a major national issue. The Romanian authorities and civil society alike reacted with anger when faced with such stark evidence of human trafficking in their capital city.


Using material gathered during the investigation, the police acted swiftly and arrested a group of men on February 12, who have been charged with human trafficking and held in custody.


Diana's nightmare has prompted the authorities to establish special task force to deal with the smuggling of prostitutes from now on. Bucharest police chief inspector Gelu Drajneanu said officers "will increase their efforts in fighting the phenomenon".


In fact, as a result of increased police efforts, another girl was freed after being sold from one trafficker to another - in the same area where Diana was rescued - for 100 dollars.


However, Matei believes that long-term improvements will only be possible if society's attitude toward prostitution and trafficking changes.


Matei is also only too aware that a warm meal and nice bed are only a small part of the solution, "We must be aware that these girls go into prostitution and are trafficked because they are from problem families - Romania's poverty is leading them down this road."


Without long-term support, there is a very real danger, she said, that the girls cared for by the shelter will return to their families and fall into the hands of organised crime gangs once more, "The girls' environment must be changed and this is why we should build shelters for the victims where they could stay for around one year, and become accustomed to another kind of living."


Until Diana's case was highlighted by the media, the Romanian authorities had spoken about the provision of more shelters for the victims of trafficking and tougher law enforcement to deal with the scourge - but had done little in practice.


"The local authorities didn't want to hear about human trafficking. They want to disguise the tough reality," Matei claimed.


Women rescued from traffickers face another hurdle in their attempt to lead normal lives once more - they're not accepted by the Romanian education system and have no chance to go back to school to gain vital qualifications.


"If they are lucky they will be accepted by a professional school where they will learn skills such as construction - and this is considered to be a big favour," Matei told IWPR.


"It doesn't matter that the girl doesn't like building walls. The system says she should be content."


As a result, Matei believes that the only way forward for the girls is to learn business skills with a view to supporting themselves in the future.


"We are building a new shelter where we'll have a small tailoring place so that the girls can learn management and book-keeping," she told IWPR.


" In this way, I hope they will eventually be able to run their own companies."


For now, Diana is only cutting postcards but - with a little help from society - she could build herself a future that would heal the scars in her memory.


Paul Cristian Radu is a member of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.


More IWPR's Global Voices