The recruiters who originally promised her a high-paying salary were men who posed as representatives of a legitimate employment agency. Maria says they gained her trust because they looked professional and persuasive.
"The process I went through to get there was normal. Everything looked fine. There were two other girls with me. They were from the same region, but I didn't know them. I was going [to Italy] to work as a housekeeper. In Ukraine, they told me already that I would work either as a housekeeper or work in a bar washing dishes," Maria said.
Maria says her nightmare began after she and the other women arrived in Italy and were met by several suspicious men. They were human traffickers in the illegal global sex industry.
"We went there and arrived in one city. They took us to a building on the outskirts of the city and they told us to clean off, to relax from the travel. Later, they confronted us with the fact that we would be providing sex services. It is a shock for a human being. Escape from there was impossible. The windows were barred and there was the constant presence of a guard," Maria said.
One man in the building told Maria he had "bought" her for several hundred dollars. He said she owed him money for the cost of the airplane ticket and would have to work for him until the debt was repaid.
For the next nine months, Maria was forced against her will to work as a prostitute. Sometimes she was forced to have sex with 10 different men within a single day. She was beaten brutally whenever she refused. And if a customer complained about her performance, the brothel owner added a fine to her debt -- prolonging her sentence as a sex slave.
It was only when the brothel was raided by Italian police that Maria was freed from captivity. Authorities in Italy charged her with prostitution and deported her back to Ukraine.
Maria's story is a common one in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Trafficking from the region for sexual exploitation has become so common since the early 1990s that it is considered by experts as a distinct wave in the global sex trade.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people are trafficked against their will across international borders every year and that millions more are trafficked internally.
John Miller directs the U.S. State Department's Office for Monitoring and Combating Trafficking in Persons.
"Information on slavery is very inexact. But we believe that the majority of slave victims -- in the neighborhood of 80 percent -- are the female gender, and that around 50 percent are children. We believe that the largest category of slavery is sex slavery. This is not to minimize other large categories -- domestic servitude slavery, forced labor in farms and factory slavery, child soldier slavery," Miller said.
Organized criminal groups have created intricate transport routes to move women to different countries. Most of these routes -- whether over land, sea, or air -- originally were established by weapon and drug smuggling syndicates.
The so-called "Eastern Route" through Poland and into Germany is a key overland corridor for smuggling women into the European Union from Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and the Baltics. The cities of Prague, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt also are common destinations. Large numbers of these women also reportedly end up in Italy, Greece, Belgium, Austria, and France.
The so-called "Balkan route" is another notorious path for sex-trade traffickers. It moves through Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.
A third major trafficking route passes through southern Bulgaria into Greece. Eastern European women, especially Ukrainians, also end up in Turkey after traveling overland through Georgia and Bulgaria, or after crossing the Black Sea on boats from the Ukrainian port of Odessa.
Meanwhile, the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia have emerged in recent years as new recruitment zones -- with women being moved through Central Europe to the EU or to the Middle East and China.
Israel, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Thailand, China, and Japan also are considered key destinations for criminal groups that smuggle women for sexual exploitation.
Miller, who is responsible for the State Department's annual report on trafficking in persons, says Canada and the United States also are becoming significant destinations.
"Human trafficking is synonymous with slavery. Human trafficking relies on coercion and exploitation. It thrives on converting hope to fear. It's maintained through violence. The trade in people is a major source of revenue -- in the billions [of dollars per year] -- for organized crime, along with the drug trade and the arms trade. Let there be no misunderstanding. Modern slavery plagues every country in the world -- including the United States," Miller said.
Canadian-based journalist Viktor Malarek is the author of "Natashas: The New Global Sex Trade." His book documents how criminal groups have increasingly preyed upon the hopes of young women like Maria since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.
Malarek says that in places like Israel and Turkey, the name Natasha has become synonymous with prostitutes or victims of the sex trade from all the former communist countries of Eastern Europe -- whether they are from Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine or Russia. And regardless of their nationalities, brothel owners and their customers usually refer to these women as "Russians."
Malarek says not all of those caught up in the international sex trade are innocent and naive women who have been led astray. He says police and government officials stress that some women willingly enter the sex trade. But he says the vast majority of Eastern European women lured into the trade are not aware of the nature of sex slavery or the conditions they will work in.
Malarek concludes that virtually every city, town and village in Eastern and Central Europe has seen some of its girls and women disappear -- becoming expendable pawns in the sex business.
It has been several years now since Maria returned to her home in Ukraine. She still has not told her family about her ordeal in Italy. She says she is unsure if she ever will be able to tell her husband the truth.
"It was not worth it. What is important in life is family -- my children and my husband -- in spite of everything. At the beginning, the desire for material wealth was at the front of my mind and family came in second place. But after what happened, my priorities have been reversed," Maria said.
Maria now offers advice to other young women who are being recruited for jobs abroad as a cleaners, nannies, bartenders, waitresses or models. She says before traveling, women should think long and hard about where they are going, why they have received the job offer, and what they expect to happen to them once they leave home.
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)
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