Serbia: Sex Trade Booms in Presevo

Southern Serbia has become a key hub for criminals trafficking women through the Balkans

Serbia: Sex Trade Booms in Presevo

Southern Serbia has become a key hub for criminals trafficking women through the Balkans

Monday, 3 December, 2001

Last year's conflict in the southern Serbian Presevo valley pitted Serbian and Albanian communities against each other. But mafia organisations from both sides have now found some common, lucrative ground. Trade in women sold into sexual slavery is booming in this corner of Serbia, which borders Macedonia and Kosovo.

Ruza, not her real name, is a victim of this trade. Thrown out by her family after having an illegitimate baby, the seventeen-year-old accepted a job as a waitress in a night-club in the centre of Bujanovac. Lured like many other girls by the prospect of earning 450 German marks per month - almost four times the national average - she did not realise that her duties included satisfying her clients' every desire. Before long, Ruza became literally trapped in her job, cowed by threats of violence from her boss.

She is not alone. Groups such as the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, believe that as many as 250,000 Eastern European women are smuggled through Serbia and neighbouring countries. They say that southern Serbia is a key hub for criminals trafficking women through the Balkans. The girls and young women - many from Romania, Moldavia and Ukraine - are tempted by newspaper advertisements for well-paid jobs in bars and clubs, often with the promise of good careers in Western Europe.

Once lured to Serbia, the IOM believes the girls are divided into two groups. They are either taken to Kosovo to serve the 60,000 foreign workers who arrived in the province after the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces in 1999. Or they are smuggled through Montenegro and northern Albania, destined for Italy and beyond.

This trade is thought to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Serbian and Albanian mafia. The women can earn up to 1,000 marks a day working the streets of Western cities, but they see very little of this money. Deprived of cash, papers and passports, they are literally held prisoner by the traffickers and pimps and are subjected to vicious sexual abuse to prevent them trying to escape.

The women's humiliation often begins at a type of market, where they are inspected and sold like cattle. Serbian police in Vranje have told IWPR that the traffickers compile dossiers for the sale of each girl. These files give their name, age, nationality, weight, experience in prostitution, married status and similar data. When a potential buyer arrives, he closely inspects the information before handing over his money. The price of a woman will depend on her "quality" and can range from between 300 to 3,000 marks.

From there, the women are then forced into prostitution. This can be in night-clubs, strip bars and even in private apartments. In Western Europe, they usually end up working the streets. The women can be sold and re-sold several times. In southern Serbia there are several clubs. One, located between Bujanovac and Presevo, where "waitresses" from many countries in Eastern Europe cater for Serbian and Albanian clients. Cheerful coloured lights welcome the customers, and its courtyard is bedecked with trees and flowers.

One Bulgarian woman working there told the IWPR that she is well treated and that she is making good money. She said that she has been bought and sold several times and that her bosses are making huge profits from trading her and other women. "After working in many bars, I think that this is the best one. That's because I'm making a great deal of money and that is the most important thing for me," she said.

Verica, not her real name, also worked at the bar, but had a very different experience. She said she was badly treated and was eventually rescued by a client. "One of my customers finally helped me to get out. We stole 4,300 marks from my boss and left separately," she said.

The Serbian police finally seem to be grappling with the problem. They recently uncovered a trafficking chain in Vranje. They arrested Miroslav Stankovic, a Serb in the village of Trgoviste near Bujanovac, on suspicion of trafficking 146 women. He drove the women to the border with Kosovo where they were handed over to unknown Albanians. From this arrest, police were able to uncover a whole chain of smugglers in Romanian, Moldovan and Ukrainian women from Belgrade, Stara Pazova, Pancevo and Nis.

Observers know that this police operation is just the tip of the iceberg and that it will have come too late for victims such as Ruza. In appreciation of her good work, her pimp recently provided her with a flat, the rent for which she must pay in kind. Her surroundings may have improved but she is still effectively a slave.

Jasmina Arsic is an independent journalist based in Serbia.

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