Rescuing the victims of the global sex trade.
by William Finnegan May 5, 2008
Stella Rotaru’s cell-phone number is scribbled on the wall of a women’s jail in Dubai. That’s what a former inmate told her, and Rotaru does get a lot of calls from Dubai, including some from jail. But she gets calls from many odd places—as well as faxes, e-mails, and text messages—pretty much non-stop. “I never switch off my phone,” she said. “I cannot afford to, morally.” She looked at her battered cell phone, which has pale-gold paint peeling off it, and gave a small laugh.
Rotaru, who is twenty-six, works for the International Organization for Migration, a group connected to the United Nations, in Chisinau, Moldova. She is a repatriation specialist. Her main task is bringing lost Moldovans home. Nearly all her clients are victims of human trafficking, most of them women sold into prostitution abroad, and their stories pour across her desk in stark vignettes and muddled sagas of desperation, violence, betrayal, and sorrow.
Rotaru is often at the airport in Chisinau to meet those Moldovans who manage to get home with her help. In some cases, she goes to pick them up in Odessa, the Black Sea port in Ukraine—Moldova, an ex-Soviet republic, is half-encircled by Ukraine—where a twice-weekly ferry from Istanbul docks. If a victim’s family is also present, there may be little or nothing for Rotaru to do. Or there may be a lot.
Rotaru doesn’t look like a social worker. She has short, spiky hair of an unnatural brilliance—Red Planet, she told me cheerfully, is the brand name. She is dark-eyed, pale, direct in manner, and elfin in stature, even on the four-inch stiletto heels she always wears. In daylight, she wears vast sunglasses. Her fingernails are long and curved and painted with birds and animals and musical instruments. She talks on the phone and knocks out memos and documents and e-mails in four languages and three alphabets—Russian, Romanian, Swedish, and English. “When Stella is on a rescue call, we must be careful,” Irina Todorova, one of four women who share an office with Rotaru, said. “First, she waves her hand for us to be quiet, and if we don’t notice she pushes her chair back, and if we still don’t shut up then she starts throwing things.”
Brothel raids in other countries yield many of Rotaru’s beneficiaries, as her clients are known. After a raid, she’ll get calls from the detainees, or from cops, consulates, families, or friends—even, sometimes, from prostitution customers. “Rescue calls” tend to be more urgent. Women phone clandestinely, from captivity, and Rotaru may have only moments to get the information she needs. The women don’t always have the information themselves; in extreme cases, they may not be sure what country they’re in. Look out the window, Rotaru will say. Any sign you can see. Exact spellings. Look for an address on matchbooks, or McDonald’s bags. What languages do the johns speak? If she can capture a number on caller I.D., it can be useful, although simply calling back without an all-clear is generally too dangerous.
At Christmastime last winter, a nineteen-year-old being held in a casino brothel in Cyprus called and texted Rotaru day and night. They talked about how she could escape from her pimp during the weekly medical exam that women working in the brothel received at a local hospital. Rotaru called someone in Cyprus at an N.G.O., who made sure that a trustworthy policeman would be there. The woman wore an ivory-colored headband, so that she would be recognized. The plan worked. A round-the-clock guard was stationed at the beneficiary’s hospital room. Rotaru arranged for travel documents and an air ticket; the young woman flew home in time for New Year’s Day, 2008.
How had the woman been trafficked? Rotaru shrugged, and said, “She accepted a high-risk job”—dancing in a casino—“but she didn’t accept prostitution.”
Rotaru sometimes struggles to maintain her professional distance. “You can’t let these stories go through you,” she said. “You have to be practical, and do what you can.” As she was preparing to start this job, a couple of years ago, she read four hundred case reports. “I got so tired, I started laughing at things that aren’t funny. A girl runs away from her pimp, breaks her leg. The pimp makes her work with a broken leg. It’s not funny, but I pictured it and I laughed. That’s when I knew I had read too much.”
Rotaru and Todorova, who is her supervisor, and their boss, Martin Wyss, often work late into the night. (“Never argue with Stella,” Todorova told me. “You will never win.”) Their office is in a shabby part of central Chisinau. The city, which has a population of more than seven hundred thousand, is dilapidated. Much of it was destroyed in the Second World War and rebuilt by the Soviets. Ancient electric buses screech around corners, raining sparks onto the pavement.
Rotaru lives southeast of the city center, in a run-down apartment block. She shares a cramped flat with her younger brother. Their mother, who, before she emigrated, was an accountant, now works as a housekeeper for a family in Bologna. Rotaru’s brother is a student, and has a night job as a cook. He is thinking of going to Ireland. Rotaru, who has a philology degree, and is studying for a master’s in psychology, plans to stay in Moldova. “I love my country,” she said. “I don’t think I could be happy anywhere else.” It was snowing lightly. I watched her stomp up two dark flights to her door. Before collapsing, she had to remember to check that her cell phone was charged.
There are roughly two hundred million migrants today—migrants being defined as people living outside their homelands. The reasons for this are globalization, and wars, and new border freedoms, and, above all, disparities in economic opportunity. Along the nether edge of the huge movement of people, human trafficking thrives.
Migrant smuggling is different from trafficking. Migrants pay smugglers to deliver them, illegally, to their destinations. The line into trafficking is crossed when coercion and fraud are used. (This line is not always clear, and many migrants endure varying degrees of mistreatment.) Trafficking can start with a kidnapping. More commonly, it starts with a broken agreement about a job promised, conditions of work, or one’s true destination. Most victims suffer some combination of threats, violence, forced labor, and effective imprisonment. The commercial sex industry, according to the International Labor Organization, absorbs slightly less than half of all trafficked labor worldwide. Construction, agriculture, domestic service, hazardous industries, armed conflict, and begging are some of the other frequent sites of extreme, illegal exploitation.
Not all trafficking is international. India, for instance, has an immense domestic network, with large numbers of children being sold and resold, for labor and household servitude and prostitution. No reliable numbers exist, though. For cross-border trafficking worldwide, estimates range from half a million people annually to several times that figure.
In some parts of the world, established mafias dominate the trade. According to Phil Williams, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied trafficking, these can be venerable outfits, like Cosa Nostra and the Yakuza. The big players in Europe today are Russians, Albanians, and Ukrainians (and recently, in Italy, Nigerians). In southeastern Europe, Turkish, Kurdish, Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Romanian networks move Eastern European women into Western Europe and the Middle East. Many of these groups simply added human trafficking to existing crime portfolios, often running women alongside traditional contraband, like drugs and arms. (There are stories of Albanian traffickers in speedboats being intercepted by Italian police vessels and throwing women overboard to distract their pursuers and protect their more valuable cargo, heroin.) Some loosely structured commercial sex markets have been forcibly annexed in recent years by organized crime. This happened in Finland, for instance, at the hands of Russian and Estonian mobsters.
Many legitimate businesses share, unwittingly or otherwise, in the profits—travel agencies, hotels, tour-bus companies, night clubs—along with accountants, lawyers, doctors, landlords, forgers, and a large, indispensable contingent of corrupt police officers, border guards, and embassy personnel. Everybody seems to be making money except the trafficked women and girls.
Even in this heyday of migration, Moldova is unusual. Of its four million people, more than six hundred thousand are working outside the country—more than a quarter of the economically active population. Remittances account for an estimated third of the gross national product. These percentages are among the world’s highest, and the main reason is the economy. In the Soviet system, Moldova had an agricultural niche and also its share of factories, many of them military. With independence, in 1991, factories closed and a strip of the country, known as Transnistria, east of the Dniester River, seceded. Transnistria was Moldova’s most industrialized part, and its most Russified. Moscow intervened to stop a civil war over the secession, and since 1992 Russian troops have watched over a “frozen conflict” that leaves Transnistria isolated, unrecognized by any nation, and Moldova sundered.
Moldova was, by the mid-nineties, the poorest country in Europe. (Kosovo may soon claim that spot.) Per-capita income is nearly the same as Sudan’s. A doctor earns two hundred dollars a month. Government corruption is pervasive. One of the few local growth industries is travel agencies—firms that promise to get you abroad, legally or otherwise, often for a large fee. Conditions are ideal for human trafficking.
Few people in Moldova today can say that they weren’t warned. Internationally funded campaigns to heighten awareness of the dangers of being trafficked have succeeded, according to follow-up polls, in reaching nearly every Moldovan. Stella Rotaru and her colleagues barnstorm the country, plastering villages with hotline numbers and staging concerts. The I.O.M. has screened “Lilya 4-Ever,” a powerful 2002 film about the trafficking of a young girl from a post-Soviet wasteland into prostitution in Sweden, in high schools across Moldova. The film, which is based on a real story and ends with the girl’s suicide, has also aired on national television.
Still, the counterpropaganda—seductive media images of life abroad, but also hard evidence of the wealth to be earned there—is stronger. Remittances from migrants, many sent through the country’s ubiquitous Western Union offices, are estimated by the World Bank at more than a billion dollars annually, financing consumption that, by local standards, is stunning. One’s neighbor suddenly buys a car, a bigger house, better food, better clothes. The pull of emigration is particularly powerful for young people, and for parents struggling to feed their children.
Even those in the group at highest risk—poor young women—tend to see trafficking as something that may happen to someone else, but not to them. In surveys, most Moldovans say that they don’t know anyone who’s been trafficked. That may be partly because women often conceal this experience, even from their own families. (Men, too, who have been trafficked, most commonly for construction or farmwork in Russia or Ukraine, are ashamed to admit that their emigration was an emasculating fiasco.) And most of those who go abroad do get where they’ve paid to go, and find jobs, for better or for worse. One estimate, accepted by the I.O.M., is that between one and two per cent of all Moldovan migrants may find themselves trafficked at some point. An unworldly, underemployed young person considering a vaguely dubious job offer overseas would probably not be stopped from migrating by those odds. Add desperate poverty and an unhappy household—the standard “push factors”—and the pipeline of likely trafficking victims out of Moldova never runs dry.
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is now the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, after weapons and narcotics. Annual profits are reckoned to be in the tens of billions of dollars. On this scale, trafficking requires extensive transnational networks. But many of the trade’s foot soldiers, particularly at the recruiting end, are amateurs, opportunists, even former victims. A Mafia boss in Kiev may be living on a cut of the proceeds from your exploitation, but your personal hell will very likely start, if you’re Moldovan, with a betrayal by a friend or a relative angling for a commission. You might even be sold into prostitution by the person sleeping next to you.
“I wanted money, and I was deceived,” Lena said. (Some of the names in this article have been changed.) She was from a village in northern Moldova. She had high, thin eyebrows and a worn face. “I was nineteen. My boyfriend told me I could be a waitress in Portugal. We had been together for a year and a half.” Her boyfriend organized her trip, paid her airfare, drove her to Odessa, and put her on a plane to Lisbon. A friend of his met her flight, and told her that the waitress job had fallen through. He offered to take Lena to Dubai, where there was, he said, more work. He seemed trustworthy, and they flew there together. An Arab met them in Dubai, and the next day a woman from Uzbekistan took her to an apartment.
“That was when I realized I had been sold,” Lena told me. “Because she gave money to the Arab guy, and my passport was taken.” There were six Moldovan women already at the Uzbek woman’s place. They were working, they said, as prostitutes in discos, all paying off travel debts that the “she-pimp,” as Lena called her, claimed they owed her. Their clients were mostly Arabs and Russians. “The she-pimp was very aggressive,” Lena said. “She beat disobedient girls.” Lena was put to work.
She ended up spending a few years in Dubai, on and off the street, in and out of jail. After escaping with two other women, Lena went to the police, who arrested her. The Uzbek woman declined to hand over the passports of her ex-workers, and went on with her thriving business. Lena phoned her mother from jail but got no help. When the police released her, after a month, Lena was penniless. She went back to work as a prostitute, now freelance. Later, she fell in love with an Egyptian waiter named Salim, moved in with him, and quit sex work. But then she was arrested during a police sweep for having no documents. She was three months pregnant at the time. Making matters worse, the police registered her as a Kazakhstani, because a group of women caught in the same sweep were from Kazakhstan. It took the authorities more than a year to identify and, finally, deport her. In the meantime, she had given birth in jail. Salim never visited her, never saw his son. Lena was not able to reach him, even by phone. “Maybe he was afraid of the police,” she said quietly.
Now she was living with her grandmother and her son, who had just turned three, back in the village, and looking for work. She had still not heard from Salim. “I have given up hope,” she said. She had been helped, she said, by a psychologist at an American-funded women’s center, where I interviewed her. “We talk about what happened in Dubai,” she said. She thought that the old boyfriend who sold her to the traffickers was still around, but she had no interest in filing a complaint against him. She was twenty-four now, and had a child to raise.
There is usually a decision to be made, when trafficking victims are repatriated, about whether to pursue criminal charges against those who exploit them. Doing so can be dangerous. But first Rotaru needs to know whether it is even safe for the women to go home. A La Strada survey found that a majority of trafficked Moldovan women had been victims of domestic violence. Rotaru may recommend that they go, instead, to a residential treatment center in Chisinau established by the I.O.M.
Once, Rotaru was waiting at the airport for a girl who had been trafficked to the United Arab Emirates. The girl’s father, who had a military background, was drunk. “He was changing all the time,” Rotaru recalled. “Oh, he couldn’t wait to have his little girl back. Then it was ‘I’m going to kill the bitch!’ Finally, she arrived, and everybody hugged and cried.”
Few victims arrive feeling ready for a fight. Many, according to Rotaru and her colleagues, seem broken. Beatings, rape, and torture are common methods of labor control among pimps, and, along with threats to harm the women’s families, including their children, they usually have the intended effect. That may be why Rotaru took a grim sort of pleasure in the attitude of a girl who had been trafficked as a minor from a village in northern Moldova by a woman who offered her a job as a barmaid in Bahrain. “She had already worked in a market in Ukraine,” Rotaru recalled. “She is one of those rural girls who know how to make their way in the world.” In Bahrain, the girl was forced into prostitution and then was flown to Istanbul, where she overheard her captors negotiating her resale. That night, she drugged her pimp and escaped with a hundred and fifty dollars. The money was enough to get her to Odessa by ferry. Rotaru drove down to meet her.
The girl was seventeen. She was dark-haired, tiny. She spent one night at the Chisinau treatment center, but did not want to work with law enforcement. “She told us she would deal with the recruiter herself,” Rotaru said. “She said, ‘I know how to find her. I will beat her.’ It was an unusual reaction to the trauma. I liked her.”
Were all her beneficiaries from broken, violent, alcoholic, impoverished families?
“Not all,” she said. “We received a call from one of our embassies last year. A girl from a prominent family had been trafficked. They wanted to keep the case quiet, of course. So this tragedy happened to her, but she has good parents. Bright future. Not like most girls.”
Photocopied head shots of young women stared hauntingly from her case files, which she kept in loose-leaf binders. As she flipped through one, the faces swung past. Most of the women had taken some trouble with their hair, their makeup, their jewelry. Some looked excited to be getting a passport. Many were teen-agers.
Rotaru fished out a file. “This is great,” she declared. “Here we have a woman, Violeta. She was trafficked to the Balkans long ago. Her husband first contacted us in December, 2006. He lives in a village in Transnistria with their daughter. The girl cannot remember her mother, but she cries for her all the time. Anyway, we have found her!”
Violeta had answered a newspaper ad offering a waitress job in Italy in 2000. She travelled as far as Albania, on forged papers, but never made it to Italy. She was sold into prostitution in Kosovo. There she worked as a stripper in bars and night clubs, and eventually escaped from her captors after a police raid. Now she was living in a shelter in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, and wanted to come home. “This is one of the cases that make me want to jump for happiness,” Rotaru said.
Rotaru started at the I.O.M. as an office assistant, and she still dealt with the daily, building-wide lunch order, collecting money, calling the restaurant, handing out the food. I asked if she planned to become a psychologist after she finished her studies.
“No,” she said. “Everybody is a naïve psychologist. I think next year I will study business—M.B.A. I am good at organizing things.”
A fat file on Rotaru’s desk contained a man’s photocopied passport photograph. “Here is a guy who trafficked a lot of women from Transnistria to Emirates,” she said. “He was arrested in Dubai.” She leafed through faxed pages of travel documents, all with the same man’s picture on them, but under various names.
“Is he still in business?”
Rotaru pursed her lips. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “His friends are still in business.”
Moldova is an important “source country,” but, unlike Russia and Turkey, frequently cited as hubs of trafficking, it does not seem to have a powerful, centralized human-trafficking mafia. (It’s hard to be sure, because of ineffective law enforcement.) Local recruiters work with local front companies, forgers, and corrupt officials. But nearly all Moldovans who find themselves trafficked seem to be sold into non-Moldovan networks.
Trafficking is largely a horizontal business at the Moldovan end—a primitive collection system, basically, of the industry’s raw materials. The business model for human trafficking in the former Soviet Union has been described by Louise Shelley, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, as a “natural resource” model, which treats women purely as a source of short-term profits, like timber or furs, to be sold to intermediaries. Another model, used by Chinese organized-crime groups and dubbed by Shelley “trade and development,” takes a longer view. This model is integrated, controlling the flesh trade from recruitment through brothel management. It cultivates relationships with villages, which can share in the profits, and can be, relatively speaking, less brutal. There are also harsher regional models, such as the wartime system of sex slavery that developed in the Balkans in the nineteen-nineties (or the experience of Japan’s “comfort women,” in the thirties and forties).
Trafficking routes and patterns change. For Moldovan women, the Balkans were the major destination until six or seven years ago. Now, according to La Strada, it’s Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai. Methods also change. Traffickers who once drove terrified captives, sometimes drugged, across the borders in sealed containers, or made them hike through forests and cross freezing rivers, have more recently come to see ordinary air travel as a safer, easier option. Less brutalized women also make, as a rule, better earners as prostitutes.
Traffickers have become smarter, too, about recruitment, increasingly using a technique known, with some dissonance, as “happy trafficking.” (Anti-trafficking organizations object to the phrase.) Happy trafficking involves a Faustian deal. Victims who have worked off their “debts” (invented by pimps, arbitrarily increased by “fines” and alleged costs, and fully reinstated, if not increased, with each resale) are permitted to go home on the condition that they send back someone else—or two or three someone elses—to take their place. In order to make the sales pitch persuasive, they must represent their own emigration experience as having been a positive one. They may sometimes admit that it involved prostitution, but never that it was an onerous, degrading job in which, say, they were given no choice about the number of clients, what sexual services to provide, or whether condoms would be used. (A certain number of trafficked women go abroad knowing that they will be working as prostitutes of some sort. They become trafficking victims after the situation goes horribly wrong, and they find that they are trapped.)
Ex-victims turn out to be effective recruiters. Because they are women, they tend to gain the trust of their targets more easily than men might, particularly when those targets are their own friends, sisters, cousins, or daughters. And, after a successful “promotion” to recruiter, some ex-victims take positions in the trade, as traffickers and madams. It is the business they know.
Repatriated victims of trafficking, or V.O.T.s, are also vulnerable to “re-trafficking.” They nearly always come home to the same poverty and domestic troubles. They know the same people, often including the people who trafficked them. Some believe that because they now understand the dangers of emigration they will avoid them the next time. But many women, having worked as prostitutes, seem convinced that they are incapable of earning a living another way.
“It’s good if we find a victim while she is still in the state of fighting her exploitation,” Victor Lutenco, an I.O.M. trafficking-prevention specialist, told me. “Because later the victims develop big psychological problems. Some develop Stockholm syndrome. I saw an arrest in Moscow where the victim insisted on being handcuffed to her trafficker! Some women become terrified of anybody in uniform, and totally dependent on their pimp.” Even at the treatment center in Chisinau, Lutenco said, “We have some beneficiaries who want to go back. They have seen a higher level of living in the destination country. This puts us in new challenges.”
Public skepticism about the gullibility and true intentions of the young women who become victims is also a challenge. “Victim blaming is the Moldovan national sport,” an anti-trafficking official in Chisinau said. Over time, this stigma, or merely the mentally oppressive threat of it, inclines some victims to leave home again, and risk re-trafficking. It also helps discourage them from pursuing criminal charges against their traffickers.
Irina Todorova says that it is critical for countertraffickers to track the changing tactics of their adversaries. When newspaper ads gave way to the Internet as a prime source of bogus overseas-job offers, it was essential to know the Web sites, the latest destinations, the language of the come-ons. “They are dynamic, and so we must be dynamic,” she said. “And we must always remember, at our trainings”—meetings of government officials, police, and others ostensibly involved in counter-trafficking—“that they may be there, too. Traffickers may be listening.”
Maria didn’t strike me as someone at risk for re-trafficking. The reason was partly her shattered body, but mostly it was her strength of mind. Now in her thirties, she has long red hair, big clear eyes, and a lopsided grin. She grew up in a village near Chisinau and was trafficked to Turkey in 1999. She remembers the staircase that led to the room, on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Istanbul, where she found out that she had been sold into prostitution. A woman who was with her started weeping. Maria looked to the window. There were curtains blowing in on a breeze. She crossed to the window, stepped between the curtains, and jumped. When she hit the ground, she broke both legs and both arms.
I talked to Maria for hours, although she let her psychotherapist, Alina Budeci, who works for La Strada, tell me about what happened in Turkey. Talking about it was too much like reliving it, she said. Maria preferred to talk about her family, and the life that brought her to Turkey.
She had been a teen-age bride, “stolen” by a boy whom she hardly knew. “I tried to run away, but his male friends all stopped me,” she said. “If a boy steals you like this and you don’t get married, it’s a great shame to your family and you.” Her parents, who were peasants, agreed to the match.
The marriage was a disaster. Maria gave birth at eighteen, but her husband drank, beat her, and could not hold a job. “The only happy thing concerning him was my daughter. Otherwise, I hate him.” Her mother counselled her to obey her husband. “She used to say, ‘You have to listen to him, because the sword doesn’t cut the bowed head.’ That’s a saying in Moldova.” (A similar adage, which I heard more than once in Moldova, goes “The woman who is not beaten is like a house that is not cleaned.”) After several years of abuse, Maria fled. She left her daughter with her parents and headed to Odessa, where she sold rug-cleaning machines and other products on the street. Her husband pursued her to Ukraine, and she returned to him briefly, but he drank up her savings and beat her. She went next to Romania, where she found work as a waitress. She returned to Moldova to see her daughter.
Here her narrative broke off. Tears streamed down her face. “Those years when my daughter needed me the most, I wasn’t there,” she said. The troubles with her husband resumed, and Maria and her daughter went to live with her parents. She decided to get a divorce.
“Then a woman came to the village offering jobs in Turkey,” Maria said.
After a long stay in an Istanbul hospital, she returned home. “I was not really a human being,” she said. “I could not walk, could not work.” Despite several surgeries and rehabilitation, she still walks with a great deal of pain. She put off one operation she needed, she said, when she came to believe that the local doctor wanted to remove the main steel pin in her leg only because it was high-quality metal, which he could resell.
She found a job at a pizza place, where she met a reasonable man. Now they lived together, in Chisinau, with her daughter. Her boyfriend was working in construction. Maria had big plans—to buy the little house they rented and turn the front half into a shop. “I have such a desire for life,” she told me. When she first came to La Strada, Maria gratefully accepted psychotherapy but turned down an offer of clothes. “I said, ‘Please buy books for my daughter instead.’ ” She and Budeci went together to bookstores to choose titles. Maria only finished the eighth grade, but she wants her daughter to go to university. The girl was now fourteen. “She is going through adolescent crisis,” Maria said. “It’s hard for me to understand her disobedience. I was so obedient.”
UNICEF estimates that nearly a third of all Moldovan children have lost at least one parent to emigration; thousands are missing both. These children are known as “social orphans.” Sometimes a relative or a neighbor looks after them. Often, they fend for themselves. Many end up in orphanages. I visited a couple of Moldovan orphanages; they are spartan, premodern places. Agafia Procop, the director of a large orphanage in Chisinau, said that her budget was seventy-four dollars per child per month. “That is for food, teachers’ salaries, all utilities, and maintenance,” she said. “But food alone is forty dollars a month.” We were sitting in her big, dim, chilly office. Like other local orphanages, her institution relies on private charities and non-governmental organizations.
Procop was grateful for the help, but also critical of the European Union. “The E.U. wants Moldovan labor cheap, but it needs to thank me for taking care of the children while their parents are off working,” she said.
Emilia Mocanu, the director of an orphanage in the southern town of Cahul, told me that she worries about what will become of her children when they leave. “Most have no place to go, and are not ready for independent life,” Mocanu said. She added that, as far as she knew, none of her children had been trafficked, but they are thought to be particularly vulnerable. N.G.O.s go to orphanages and give presentations on the dangers of trafficking. She went on, “And after every presentation at least one child will come to me and say, ‘Maybe my mother was trafficked, and that’s why I never hear from her.’ ”
One of the charities that assist Moldovan orphanages is Children’s Emergency Relief International, an American Baptist organization. Through CERI, I met a group of young women who shared a flat in Chisinau and had all had experience with foster families or orphanages. The oldest was twenty-two. A sixteen-year-old, Valentina, had just left an orphanage. They were all studying and were extremely poor—barely managing to pay the rent, even with CERI stipends, on their tiny two-bedroom place. Leaving Moldova seemed to them to be their only hope of self-improvement.
“There is no future in Moldova,” Olga, who is twenty-one and studies cosmetology, said. “We can never dream to have anything like a house.” Ana, who studies office management, hoping to become a secretary—and who once lived by begging on the streets of Chisinau—seemed to know all about the risks of trafficking. If you used the wrong travel agency, she said, you could end up being tricked into prostitution. Still, she hoped to go abroad someday. “There is nothing here,” she said.
None of the girls had ever been outside Moldova. Three of them had just been to an opera for the first time.
“ ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”
“It was great!”
“They both died.”
I was driving with Rotaru to the treatment center for victims of trafficking in Chisinau. She was still excited about the imminent repatriation of Violeta from Kosovo. Violeta’s husband had been calling twice a day. “I like doing a job where I feel I’m doing some good,” Rotaru said. “These people who have been trafficked, they have been treated so badly, they’re very suspicious. They can’t believe there’s someone who just wants to help them.”
Rotaru has no illusions about her government. And yet she takes pride in working with various ministries; the treatment center, for example, is now run in coöperation with the government. Relations with host governments—“capacity-building”—are a perennial issue for international agencies. The I.O.M. was created, in 1951, by the United States and Western European governments to help settle displaced people from the Second World War. With headquarters in Geneva, it now has more than a hundred and twenty member states and more than four hundred offices worldwide. It is an intergovernmental organization, not an N.G.O., with a mission to promote, according to its charter, “humane and orderly migration.” It has been criticized by human-rights groups in some instances for working too closely with governments in its handling of refugees. But the I.O.M. is the world’s largest and most effective aid group dealing with migration, and holds permanent-observer status at the United Nations.
At the office, Rotaru had received a call from Nomi Levenkorn, a director of a migrant workers’ hot line in Israel, about a presumed trafficking victim from Moldova with H.I.V./AIDS. Would there be treatment available if she were repatriated? Rotaru described the rules for receiving H.I.V. treatment free in Moldova—citizenship, disease stage. But she also had some questions for Levenkorn. And the more she heard about the victim’s family situation in Moldova, the more she thought that she might be better off staying in Israel and being treated there.
This sounded to me like a counter-repatriation. Rotaru threw up her hands. “Whatever is best for the beneficiary,” she said. For the woman to stay in Israel, her status as a V.O.T. would likely have to be confirmed. “You know, I think stranded migrants and women who get in jail also deserve our help. We should not let them rot. But many N.G.O.s get money only for V.O.T.s. The donor wants to fund a certain activity. Some are just for Balkans. Some are just for minors.”
The treatment center is in a modern building in a quiet neighborhood. Twenty-five women and half a dozen children were in residence, and not to be disturbed, but Lilia Gorceag, the center’s psychologist, was willing to talk about her work. Gorceag, a warm, serious woman in her fifties, showed me pictures that beneficiaries had drawn as part of their therapy. Blasted landscapes, parents without hands, daggers plunged through hearts—the expressions of trauma and sorrow were intense, and the stories behind the pictures horrific. An under-sized fourteen-year-old girl trafficked to Moscow and gang-raped at a construction site; a minor sold to a violent Albanian who pimped her from country to country and left her covered with knife scars and cigarette burns. “We still see cases like this—difficult, tragic cases,” Gorceag murmured.
I asked about a pen-and-ink drawing stuck on a bulletin board. It showed a girl sitting astride a globe, one arm raised. She was wearing boots, a bustier, and a studded bikini bottom. An eagle hovered in the background. “Her clothes reveal her experience,” Gorceag said. “There is a lot of aggression. She’s riding the earth. The whole earth is her. I asked her to explain it, and she said, ‘Now I consider myself a winner. I have won everything I have been through.’ It’s an interesting vision of her life. It’s also sad. Everything’s in black. But there’s more bravado in this drawing than in reality.”
Gorceag sees a lot of bravado, and plenty of aggression. Beneficiaries sometimes become abusive with their children. “With children conceived from their trafficking experience, especially, the mothers transfer all their negative feelings toward their pimp and clients to the child, associating it with all their suffering, and then they hate the child. So they need time to gain new strengths and perspectives. Some are ambivalent. They hug and kiss, and then they beat the children terribly.”
r,” Rotaru said, wearily. “Some things cannot be fixed.