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Kosovo: Sex-Slave Trade Becomes A Serious Problem

  • Alexandra Poolos

Women from former East Bloc countries are being trafficked in large numbers to former Yugoslav territories to serve as prostitutes for the area's large population of soldiers and aid workers. In Part Two of a two-part series on trafficking of East European women, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports on the sex-slave trade in a former war zone.

Prague, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The sex-slave trade in Eastern European women -- one of the major crime scourges of post-communist Europe -- is becoming a serious problem in Kosovo.

As a former war zone, Kosovo is a prime location for the burgeoning trafficking trade. Porous borders, the presence of a large clientele in the form of international troops and aid workers, and the lack of a working criminal justice system offer excellent conditions for the sex-slave trade.

East European women make up much of the work force in Kosovo's underground brothels. Their native countries are close by and are home to well-established organized-crime networks.

In the past six months, United Nations peacekeepers and police have rescued women from Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Albania. The police say that most of these women and girls -- some as young as 15 -- were transported from their home countries to Macedonia, which borders Kosovo to the south. There, they were held in motels and sold at auction to ethnic Albanian pimps for $1,000 to $2,500.

The women were stripped of their passports and held in unsanitary conditions in bars or motels. They were then forced to engage in unprotected sex with local police and international peacekeepers for no payment. They were told that before they could keep any of their earnings, they first had to pay the pimps for their purchase price and the cost of their travel. If the women resisted, they were beaten.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, has provided support for women victims released from brothels by UN police and NATO-led peacekeepers. Rolf Welberts, the OSCE's human-rights director in Kosovo, says his organization has assisted some 50 women. He believes the number of women still held in bondage is much higher:

"We're talking about women from Eastern Europe who are brought into Kosovo to serve as prostitutes, or when they arrive they're submitted to conditions that they didn't know about -- meaning passports taken away, money withheld, and so on. It is a form of slave trade."

Welberts says that the conditions in Kosovo are ideal for international traffickers:

"A postwar society is always an unstable society. And unstable societies leave more room for crime -- also for organized crime -- than most stable societies. In the situation we live in here, it is simply easier to organize crime and trafficking in women than it is elsewhere. The demand is certainly here. The other issue is, of course, the large presence of internationals."

Welberts says that "internationals" -- foreign soldiers and aid workers -- are very often brothel patrons. The same phenomenon also exists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the presence of peacekeepers and aid workers initiated a major trade in trafficked women from Eastern Europe that continues to thrive today.

Human Rights Watch -- an international monitoring organization -- documented that women from Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and Albania were lured into Bosnia by promises of legal work and safe passage. When they arrived. brothel owners seized their passports and subjected them to slave-like practices. They were often sold from one brothel owner to another, with the women forced to work without wages.

Human Rights Watch says that international officials were aware of the trafficking problem in Bosnia, but did little to combat it. The organization says that some officials were actively complicit in the abuses, participating in the forced prostitution of the women or patronizing the brothels.

Jill Thompson -- an adviser on trafficking issues for the OSCE's Warsaw-based human-rights office -- estimates the number of trafficked women throughout the former Yugoslavia in the tens of thousands. Thompson told RFE/RL's Lily Hyde that the trade prospers with the connivance of local law enforcement authorities:

"The pattern in a lot of countries is that local police are involved at various levels. Sometimes they are customers, sometimes they provide protection for the clubs, sometimes they are actively involved in the trafficking operation."

There is now considerable international cooperation in tackling the trafficking problem in the former Yugoslav territories. In Kosovo, many organizations -- including the UN's local police force, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), NATO-led peacekeepers, the OSCE, and the International Organization for Migration -- have recently started working together to help trafficked women.

Still, the OSCE's Welberts says that is very difficult to combat the problem with the weak justice system that exists in Kosovo:

"Those who brought women in, or those who have women working for them, consider them as a very valuable investment, and they are not happy with letting them go. So the readiness for violence is tremendous."

Welberts says that, as a result, the OSCE often has to hide rescued women in safe houses until they can be repatriated to their home countries. But he says that's where OSCE's victim protection ends. Once the women are repatriated, then they must face on their own any threats and intimidation from home-country traffickers.

(Lily Hyde in Kyiv contributed to this report.)