Chisinau, 6 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "I was sold for $2,000. That's how much they asked for me. Once they sold us somewhere, we would not go back. They sold us for good."
Alina, a petite 23-year-old, was born in a village in central Moldova. She says she wanted to earn money working as a waitress in Turkey during the summer so that she could afford to go to school in Chisinau.
Alina -- who asked that her real name not be used -- was lured with promises of a job in a bar in Turkey. The traffickers took care of her passport and visa -- every document needed. Two days later, she says, she was in Istanbul.
"When we would not have enough clients, they would beat us up and lock us up until 9. When I did not want to work, they kept me locked up for a week and beat me."
But Alina told RFE/RL that she ended up being a prisoner forced to have sex with tourists in a hotel near Istanbul.
"During the day, we were locked on the third floor of a house with iron bars on the doors and windows. We did not have a TV or a phone. It was very strict. At night, they would take us to a hotel, which had guards and a tall fence around it, so we could not get out. There were people guarding us around the clock," Alina said.
Twenty-two-year-old Angela is a young woman from a poor family in northern Moldova. She is tall and very thin and is always staring at the floor. Angela says she wanted to visit a cousin in Italy who she thought could help her get a job there. But in Chisinau, she contacted the wrong kind of people, hoping they could help her get to Italy cheaply.
Angela ended up in the United Arab Emirates, via Odesa. Once there, she says she was beaten by Moldovan and Ukrainian pimps and forced to work as a prostitute under the threat of death before being sold to other traffickers.
"I did not want to go to work as a prostitute. I started crying and said I wanted to go back home, and I did not want to work. They told me, 'If you don't work, you'll end up dead and buried in sand in the desert.' I got scared, and I went with them. From 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., we had to work in a disco. All day long, we were locked up in a house. When we would not have enough clients, they would beat us up and lock us up until 9. When I did not want to work, they kept me locked up for a week and beat me. I got really scared, and I tried to swallow pills to make them get me out of the house [to a hospital]. But they simply sold me in another city," Angela said.
Alina also says she was beaten. She told RFE/RL how she was treated by traffickers in Turkey.
"The boss did not beat us himself, but his driver did. I had a period when I felt very sick. I felt I couldn't even walk, and I was trying to make him understand that, 'Please, I cannot. Understand me. I cannot work.' But he didn't care, and he hit me. He wouldn't pay attention and would beat us, [telling us,] 'Move, do the job,' and that was it," Alina said.
Ion Vizdoga is a lawyer who heads the Center for the Prevention of Human Trafficking, a nongovernmental organization in Moldova. He says traffickers often use violence to force into prostitution girls who have left the country legally, through employment agencies.
"Those girls who fall prey [to traffickers] are beaten, blackmailed.... In case they refuse to obey, they are also pressured psychologically. Traffickers gather 10 to 15 girls, and one of them is publicly beaten up in front of the others. There were also cases when girls were shot or tortured," Vizdoga said.
Both Angela and Alina come from rural Moldova, the poorest parts of arguably the poorest country in Europe. The average income in Moldova is estimated to be under $100. But such trafficking in women also afflicts other former communist countries, especially Ukraine, Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
There is no firm information about how many Moldovan women have been trafficked. But Vizdoga says statistics from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show that 70 percent of the 1,300 women repatriated over the past two years come from rural areas, and that 12 percent are minors.
Most Moldovan women are trafficked to Russia because they don't need visas to enter the country, but also to Turkey, the Gulf states and the Balkans.
Victims are usually young girls from poor families who graduate from middle school without few, if any, prospects for the future.
But older women can also fall prey to traffickers.
Twenty-nine-year-old Mariana is from a village in northern Moldova and spent more than four years in Macedonia after being sold to Serbian traffickers.
She thought she was being led into Italy, but instead, this is what she says happened.
MARIANA: When we arrived in Macedonia, we were sent to a policeman's house. The policeman bought girls and then sold them to nightclubs. We spent one month and a half at his place. I did not know where I was and asked him when we were going to Italy. He said, "Italy is here." Then he sold me to a club.
RFE/RL: Did you know his name?
MARIANA: Agron. He was an [ethnic] Albanian. [It was in] Tetovo, Gostivar [regions] ...
RFE/RL: Is he still in business?
MARIANA: No, he is in prison now.
Mariana says Agron was regularly importing girls and selling them to bars. During the day, she says, the women were locked up and beaten if they refused to work as prostitutes.
"The clients were people who came to night clubs, both locals and foreigners, such as Italians, Germans, Bulgarians. Clients would not pay us directly, but they would negotiate with the club owner, who settled the price -- 50 euros per hour, or 100 euros for a longer time," Mariana said.
The three women -- Alina, Angela, and Mariana -- were lucky to escape from their ordeals with the assistance of NGOs.
Alina and Angela have been helped by the Center for the Prevention of Human Trafficking. Mariana found support through the International Center for Women's Rights Protection and Promotion "La Strada."
La Strada has been active in Moldova since 2001, thanks to financing from the Dutch Foreign Ministry and other Western organizations.
La Strada operates in eight other countries in Central and Eastern Europe -- Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Poland, and Ukraine.
Viorelia Rusu, a La Strada activist, says the program also runs a rehabilitation center, which was opened with the help of the International Organization for Migration:
"After we meet them at the airport, the women and children are placed in asylums, where they get medical, legal, and psychological assistance, as well as assistance in furthering their education and learning a profession. We also try to get them a secure job. Since September 2001, La Strada offered repatriation and post-repatriation assistance to some 200 women, out of whom 15 percent were minors, and also assisted more than 250 family members, such as children, since 25 percent of human trafficking victims are single mothers," Rusu said.
The Moldovan authorities have recently taken some long-overdue steps to monitor migration and trafficking. Moldova's Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev spoke with RFE/RL.
"We took several measures. First of all, we created, for the first time, a department for migration, which began to put order into the data we had. Migration in itself shouldn't be a problem. But [there is a problem] with illegal migration, with human trafficking, with other unwanted phenomena, which are causing obvious complications not only for Moldovan citizens, but also for other countries. The department for migration has already been a success," Tarlev said.
The government also established a National Anti-Trafficking Committee, which includes government officials and representatives of both NGOs and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Observers, however, question how effective the new efforts will be.
As for the three victims -- Alina, Angela, and Mariana -- they are now trying to put their lives back together, step by step, although it is a painful process.
With the help of La Strada and the Center for the Prevention of Human Trafficking, they are studying so they can get normal jobs in Moldova.
"I'd like to get my life back here in Moldova. I don't want to ever have to go away to some foreign country," Angela said.