She has also seen women who worked as high-end prostitutes in the United Arab Emirates and returned to Moldova with savings. “They say, ‘I don’t need help. I can buy a place to live now.’ But, after a year or two, many of them come back to us, and say they have family problems, problems with their sexual relations. Each of them is marked by her experience.”
I asked about possible prosecutions.
“We never take information to the police,” Gorceag said. “We never ask for names or addresses. It’s frustrating, but such questions cause the women to close up. We will help with a prosecution, but a victim cannot be pushed to go to the police or the courts. I have no professional or moral right to do that.”
A large part of Vizdoga’s work seems to be persuading victims to stick with cases. There are endless frustrations, humiliations, even terrors associated with trials. Most trafficking cases, no matter how simple, drag on for years. The Organization for Security and Coöperation in Europe monitored trials in Chisinau for six months in 2006. Its report makes for hair-raising reading. In one trafficking case, according to the monitors, “The district court judge appeared to fall asleep after resting his head on the Criminal Code lying on his desk. The defendant quickly took advantage of the situation to threaten the victim with non-verbal hand gestures simulating cutting her throat.”
Things were not much better when judges were awake. At another trafficking trial, the judge told the monitors, “These young ladies are prostitutes, they go abroad and prostitute themselves, then they are not happy with the money they get, so upon their return, they complain they were trafficked. But I know their kind, I’ve seen their pictures, they’re all smiling while dancing, and then they say that they were trafficked.”
The police can be even less sympathetic. “The most powerful pimps in Moldova are all former cops,” Vizdoga said. He named several, and their kryshy—meaning “roofs,” or protectors—in the higher reaches of the police force and the Ministry of the Interior.
Police are notorious in many places not only for protecting traffickers and pimps but for demanding sexual favors themselves. But even endemic police corruption can exist alongside zealous, if selective, law enforcement. Alina Budeci, the La Strada psychotherapist, who works with the police on how to take victims’ statements, sympathizes with the discouragement of honest cops. “You can have a policeman who spends years trying to catch a local mafioso,” she told me. “And he finally puts all the evidence together, and the guy is convicted and sentenced. And the next day he comes to the police station: ‘Look at me. I am free. I paid forty thousand euros for my freedom.’ The policeman in such a case is heartbroken.”
Since the passage, in 2005, of a strong anti-trafficking law urged on Moldova by the U.S. government, Vizdoga and the center have helped to convict recruiters from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Albania, Romania, Israel, and the former Yugoslavia. But nowadays, Vizdoga said, the recruiters seemed to be Moldovans, who were less conspicuous and better protected. Foreign traffickers could buy a woman from a Moldovan recruiter for five hundred dollars, and sell her for five times that amount in a destination country. Or, in the case of ex-victims doing recruitment in exchange for their freedom, the total investment in air tickets, forged documents, and escorts might be even less.
Recruiters, the smallest fish, are the defendants in the large majority of trafficking cases in Moldova, and most of them are women. A policeman from the anti-trafficking squad explained to me that plea-bargaining and turning low-level suspects into informants—the basic methods for rolling up criminal networks in the United States—were not practiced in Moldova; indeed, he seemed to think that they were unethical. And Moldova has no laws comparable to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) legislation, which has allowed American federal prosecutors to make serious headway against organized crime.
The one bigger fish to be charged with trafficking was an ex-policeman named Alexander Covali. According to Vizdoga, Covali, whose nickname is Shalun (Joker, in Russian), used to pay his krysha a hundred thousand euros a year to be allowed to run his businesses, which included brothels in Moldova and abroad. In the summer of 2006, when that official left his post, Covali was arrested.
Outraged, Covali wrote, by hand, an extraordinary twenty-page statement laying out, in great detail, his relations with the Moldovan police. The police raided Covali’s house and seized more evidence. According to Vizdoga, who represents two minors allegedly trafficked by Covali, and who said that he had read the statement, Covali implicated Ion Bejan, the deputy director of a new police unit called the Center for Combatting Trafficking in Persons. The center was launched with a $1.9-million grant from the U.S. Bejan, who had been popular with the Americans and with the foreign press—the magazine GQ called him “one good cop”—was fired. Then Covali, according to Vizdoga, received an important visitor in his cell. Covali retracted his allegations. (A former lawyer for Covali denied that Bejan had been mentioned in the written statement, which has not been made public; however, a State Department report noted that Bejan was dismissed while “under investigation on charges of protecting a major trafficker, Alexander Covali.”)
Viorel Ciobanu, Moldova’s chief prosecutor for anti-trafficking, told me that the evidence against Bejan was simply insufficient to pursue charges. When I pressed the question, his face flushed and he said that the decision had not been his: it had been made by the chief prosecutor for anti-corruption. He also disputed the notion that police corruption was extensive.
Two years ago, the American Embassy in Chisinau conducted a study of trafficking trials in Moldova. It found a wholesale failure to protect victims who appeared as witnesses, and a disappointing pattern of downgrading trafficking charges to pimping, thus reducing many sentences to fines. And most defendants were released from jail before their trials were complete. The great majority of cases, furthermore, were for recruiting a single person—another disappointment. Ciobanu blamed the Americans. “The State Department has said that the effectiveness of the Center for Combatting Trafficking in Persons will be judged by the number of prosecutions,” he told me. “So the police bring more cases than the evidence warrants.”
The Americans deny this. “We’ve thanked them for the stats,” a State Department official told me. “But we’ve urged them to go beyond the Soviet-style ticking off of lists and look at the larger picture. We want high-level, high-quality cases.”
Ion Bejan sued the government for firing him. The court, moving with unusual alacrity, ruled in his favor, and he was apparently offered a job in a different ministry. (I was unable to reach Bejan.) Covali is still in jail, fighting organized-crime and trafficking charges. (His lawyer declined to comment on the case.) The Americans are still insisting that Bejan be legally pursued. But, according to Vizdoga, they are the only ones doing so.
The United States has made itself a global policeman concerning human trafficking. A series of alarming reports in the nineties, describing the problem as growing wildly, including inside the U.S., led to the passing, in 2000, of a landmark law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The law made trafficking a federal crime and greatly increased prosecutorial resources and, to a lesser extent, victim protections. Five thousand “T-1” visas were set aside annually for victims. But only a few hundred applicants materialized each year. In 1999, a report published by the C.I.A. had estimated that fifty thousand people were trafficked into America each year, but they never emerged. (The State Department’s most recent estimate ranges from fourteen thousand five hundred to seventeen thousand five hundred.) Because trafficking is often transnational, however, the law also mandated annual reports on the anti-trafficking efforts of other countries, with sanctions to be enacted against governments that were deemed uncoöperative.
The United States uses a tier system to rate nations. Tier 1 countries are doing their part. Tier 2 countries need to do more. Tier 3 countries are doing little or nothing and may be punished with sanctions. In 2003, a Tier 2 Watch List was added—a sort of red-flagged status to indicate that a country, despite its efforts to reduce trafficking, has a high or an increasing number of victims, or that those efforts have stalled. As with the State Department’s annual human-rights reports, a great deal of politics is said to go into the rankings. In 2007, after the Bejan debacle, Moldova fell from Tier 2 to the Watch List, where it remains today. Moldova, dependent as it is on aid, regards the threat of a further decline very seriously.
The U.S. has doled out more than half a billion dollars in anti-trafficking aid packages to governments, N.G.O.s, and intergovernmental organizations since 2000, about eleven million of it to Moldova. (The E.U. and the U.N. also give substantial amounts.) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chairs an anti-trafficking task force that includes twelve federal agencies, and the F.B.I. has sent agents to dozens of affected countries, including Moldova, to try to improve local anti-trafficking capabilities. Some academics and N.G.O.s criticize the American campaign for what they see as its overemphasis on prosecution, as opposed to the economic factors driving trafficking. Others see an overemphasis on prostitution, as opposed to non-sex trafficking. (The State Department, when asked to comment, said that U.S. funds were allocated to combat both forms of trafficking.)
Anti-trafficking efforts have been caught up in the debate over the meaning and the morality of prostitution. In the West, rescuing prostitutes has historically been a popular philanthropic and religious mission, particularly among middle-class women; two of the constituencies driving American anti-trafficking policy, evangelical Christians and women’s-rights groups, are in that abolitionist tradition. Prostitution abolitionists often conflate trafficking and prostitution, ridiculing the notion of “consent”—no improvement in working conditions, they say, can change prostitution’s essentially dehumanizing nature.
In line with this view, a 2003 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act provided for cutting off aid to N.G.O.s and governments that “promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution.” The provision threatens many groups that work with prostitutes on H.I.V./AIDS prevention—in the same way that family-planning clinics throughout the developing world have lost U.S. funding because they continue to offer abortion services.
On the opposing side are advocates of decriminalization, including unionized “sex workers” and other groups, who see a wide range of transactions taking place under the heading of prostitution. Captive trafficking victims—“modern-day slaves”—occupy one end of that spectrum. (In Calcutta, organized sex workers campaign against trafficking, identifying victims, especially minors, and turning them over to rehabilitation centers.) Some of these critics see a self-admiring narrative at work in the “rescue industry,” one that seeks to turn all prostitutes, but particularly migrants, into victims.
There are, of course, a great many victims, and they need help. But multiple agendas and institutional interests are involved; there is also a fair amount of theatre. In February, the United Nations held a major anti-trafficking conference in Vienna. Ricky Martin, Julia Ormond, and Emma Thompson delivered “celebrity spots” against trafficking. Thompson also offered a wrenching performance called “Trafficking Is Torture,” in which she played an Eastern European woman sold into sex slavery. The event was underwritten, to the tune of fifteen million dollars, by the United Arab Emirates.
Sweden, in 1999, began targeting johns rather than prostitutes, by outlawing the purchase of sexual services but not their sale. (Previously, both had been legal.) The Sex-workers and Allies Network in Sweden, a group that advocates for prostitutes, argues that the new legislation has driven the trade underground, making the work more dangerous. But the law is popular, and has reduced street prostitution—and, according to officials in Stockholm, trafficking. Policymakers in other countries, including, most ironically, former Governor Eliot Spitzer, of New York, have admired the Swedish model and sought to adopt some of its provisions.
Stella Rotaru approves of the Swedish approach to prostitution. “I like that they punish the clients for a change,” she said. She sometimes relies on johns, though, in rescues. Tourists, especially, can be helpful. They realize that something is wrong, and they can inform on a pimp or a brothel, or even take a victim to the police, without fear of repercussions, since they’re on the next plane out. Some johns undoubtedly don’t care whether or not a woman is trafficked—some are even said to find the idea stimulating—but people doing anti-trafficking work hear more often of women who are threatened by their pimps for sullenness. Enthusiasm, smiles, however faked, are thought to be good for business. And then there are the customers who fall in love with trafficked women, and buy or simply take them out of captivity. The couples rarely live happily ever after, though. “The women come home, and dream he will come for them,” Rotaru said. “Then he never does.”
On the outskirts of Odessa, I met a Ukrainian woman named Yana, who, improbably, had been trafficked to Moldova. We rendezvoused in a toy store, where I waited beside a display of Barbie and Bratz dolls. Yana was twenty years old, round-faced, with thin eyebrows, and wore a pale fake-fur coat and a red turtleneck sweater.
Yana came from a village in southern Ukraine, near the Moldovan border. After farming was privatized, the village went bankrupt. Her father, an alcoholic, had deserted the family when she was a baby. Her mother was also an alcoholic, and mentally ill. At sixteen, Yana had never been to Moldova or to Odessa. She had never heard of human trafficking. A former classmate, Angelaica, appeared one day at their vocational school, pregnant. She had been working in Chisinau, she said, at a fancy restaurant, making a good salary. There were more such jobs available. “I had only two more exams to graduate, but I needed money,” Yana said. So she and a friend, Galia, agreed to go with Angelaica.
A stranger drove them. At the border, he made the girls hike across the fields in the dark while he drove through the checkpoint. Later, their car was stopped by armed men in uniform; the driver paid them off. At a bridge, the girls were transferred to another car. The new driver asked Yana and Galia odd questions. Did they have any scars? Were they sick? Would their parents come looking for them?
There was no restaurant, of course. Angelaica, they later learned, had been working as a prostitute in Chisinau and had agreed to settle a “debt” to her pimp by recruiting two new girls. The pimp, Maxim, showed up the next morning. “We started to cry,” Yana said. “He said we had to help him repay the money he had paid for us.” Maxim was Moldovan, in his forties, short but powerfully built. He shouted at the girls, frightening them into silence. “He told us there was no way back. We could do nothing but obey.” Then they were put to work.
Yana was taken to meet customers in apartments, saunas, hotels. Most of the johns were Moldovan; some were Turks or Romanians. She worked from 4 P.M. till 5 A.M., seven days a week, except when she had her period. Maxim took every cent she made. She and Galia were not allowed to go out alone. If they tried to escape, and went to the police, Maxim said, they would be returned to him—the police in Chisinau were all his friends—and punished. Yana never tried to escape; Galia did. And Maxim was right: Galia was returned to him, and beaten. Undaunted, Galia escaped again, and this time found her way to the Ukrainian Embassy. According to Yana, Maxim got a call, went to the Embassy, and retrieved her. She was severely beaten again.
This went on for half a year. Then Galia sought the protection of another Chisinau pimp, and Maxim did not pursue her. The new pimp, who was “a nicer guy,” Yana said, eventually took Galia, at her request, back to Ukraine.
Unwilling to abandon Yana, Galia went to the Ukrainian police and told them that she was being held captive. Maxim got wind of the investigation, and panicked. He drove Yana across the border, dropped her at a railway station, and gave her ten dollars. She bought a ticket home.
Yana told no one about what had happened to her. Her older sister, who had three children, was also living in the house. There was very little to eat. Then Yana’s mother died. Some time later, her sister hanged herself. When we talked, in February, Yana had not seen her sister’s children since her funeral, in August, 2006. They were living in an orphanage.
Meanwhile, Galia had helped the police find Angelaica, their recruiter. Angelaica led them to one of the drivers. An anti-trafficking N.G.O. in Odessa, called Faith, Hope, Love, took an interest in the case, and Yana ended up moving to the group’s shelter in Odessa. Angelaica and the driver were charged with trafficking minors. They were found guilty, and the driver was fined, though neither served any jail time. Yana, who testified at the trial, was disappointed with the sentences, but the prosecutor told her that, because the driver had children to support, he could not go to jail. Angelaica, Yana told me, was treated at the trial not as a recruiter but as a victim. The prosecutor told Yana not to be angry, and she had, it seemed, taken his advice. “I have a very soft temperament,” she told me. “I cannot be upset with anybody for very long.”
Yana stubbed out a cigarette. She was now working as a cashier at a grocery store. She would be happy to help the Moldovan police bust Maxim, she said. Yet no investigators had showed any interest in that part of her case. Indeed, she had never spoken to anyone in law enforcement in Moldova, and she no longer expected to do so.
When I visited the breakaway region of Transnistria, I got a sense of what the anti-trafficking effort in Moldova had been like five or ten years ago, before the new laws and international attention. Even compared with Moldova, Transnistria is a lawless backwater, and very few international aid groups have a presence there. Viktor Bout, the reputed arms trafficker, who is in jail in Thailand, operated from Transnistria, and mobsters from Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova go there to hide. The local police are so mistrusted that, when families fear that one of their members may have been trafficked, they don’t normally call the authorities, who may be assumed to work with the traffickers, but, instead, a telephone hot line maintained by a small N.G.O. called Interaction.
Oxana Alistratova, the director of Interaction, showed me around the office, in the basement of a decrepit apartment building in the capital, Tiraspol. Volunteers had built the office out of raw space and wreckage. The authorities had been no help—officials wouldn’t even give Interaction their phone numbers. (“Civil society is not well developed in Transnistria,” Alistratova said.) The Transnistrians were able to advise potential emigrants who called the hot line, but SOS calls, and repatriations, were usually referred to Stella Rotaru—they didn’t have her resources.
Local traffickers were luring Transnistrians with the kind of classified ads that no longer worked well in Moldova. Alistratova showed me that week’s shopper’s paper: ads for strippers and dancers in Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Slovenia; for young women “without complexes” to work as au pairs, waitresses, or maids in Ukraine, Russia, and the Czech Republic. One company said that it was looking for surrogate mothers. Interaction had called the contact number, a cell phone in Ukraine, and learned that its real business was in stem-cell-rich spinal fluid and other tissues, which were taken from the fetuses and sold. “We called the police after that conversation. They did nothing.” (The ad later stopped appearing.)
Another company had advertised for good-looking young women to work in Dubai. That company had an office in Chisinau. I asked a young Moldovan woman to check it out for me. After talking to the people there, who told her that they were looking for saleswomen, she was half-convinced that it was a legitimate offer; a desperate teen-ager, I thought, would be even less skeptical. It didn’t help, in evaluating the pitch, that neither of us had ever been to Dubai. And yet Moldova and the emirate are intimately connected: there wouldn’t be source countries without destination countries. I decided to go to Dubai.
At police headquarters in Dubai, an official served me coffee in beautiful china. She wore a black full-length hijab. We talked about the influx of Eastern European prostitutes. “Some men want blond hair, pale skin,” she said. “Where there is a market, there is a problem.” She had worked with Stella Rotaru on the repatriation of Moldovan detainees. Every case was difficult, she said, because Moldova had no embassy or consulate in the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is, in the world of human trafficking, the quintessential destination. A city-state boomtown on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf, it has a population of 1.4 million, nearly eighty-five per cent of whom are foreign-born. There are hundreds of thousands of construction workers, housemaids, waiters, and shop clerks from South Asia alone. For traffickers, it’s an almost perfect recipe: mass immigration, mass transience, a tremendous concentration of money and anonymity, and a robust demand for labor. Many migrants arrive on contracts that look a great deal like trafficking: they owe either travel agencies or their employers substantial debts (as much as two years’ pay) for their recruitment, are not allowed to change jobs, and, although the practice is illegal, routinely have their passports taken by employers. The prostitution market is huge. Between tourism, naval traffic (the port of Dubai is one of the world’s largest), a three-to-one ratio of males to females, and the traditional sequestering of local women, the demand side of Dubai’s commercial sex industry never flags.
Prostitution is hardly invisible in Dubai. At an intersection, I saw four Eurasian-looking women solicit customers. In one bar, with an English-pub theme, the prostitutes told me that they were from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Ghana; in another, from Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, India, Jordan, and Moldova. (The Moldovan was blond and looked hard-used; she wouldn’t tell me much.) And a great deal of the local prostitution is “closed site”—in apartments, massage parlors, and brothels.
In 2005, the U.A.E. was dropped into Tier 3 in the State Department’s anti-trafficking rankings, down there with Burma. That did not fit the brand being so painstakingly built in Dubai, which has aspirations to become a world business capital and mass tourist destination, with the world’s largest snow dome and what will soon be the world’s tallest building. In 2006, the emirate passed an anti-trafficking law that helped get it hoisted to the Tier 2 Watch List, where it remains, along with Mexico (and Moldova).
Dubai is an autocracy, ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The space for civic institutions is minuscule. Still, a modest private shelter for battered women and children, called City of Hope, has subsisted since 2001 in a beachside suburb. Its founder and director is Sharla Musabih, an American-born Emirati who has been married for twenty-five years to a local businessman. She generates a certain amount of animosity in Dubai. City of Hope takes in victims of domestic violence—housemaids, wives, their children. It also shelters trafficked women.
Musabih, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, is short and gregarious, and wears a hijab. In City of Hope’s airy living room, where we spoke, I studied a framed plaque on the wall, and was startled to see that it had been presented to Musabih by a Moldovan anti-trafficking group. It had been signed by Ion Bejan.
Two Uzbek women appeared. They were both young and shy. One wore bluejeans and a sweatshirt; the other kept a hand to her mouth. They sat with Musabih on a couch, on either side of her. Another Uzbek woman translated for us.
They were cousins, they said, from the same village. One of the women was a widow, the other was divorced and had a child. Life in the village was hard. Then someone they trusted told them about Dubai. The wages, they were told, were good—a thousand dollars a month. One of them was promised a job as a waitress, the other a job in a beauty salon. One sold her wedding gold to pay for their travel documents and air tickets. When they arrived in Dubai, they were taken to an apartment where six other girls were living. Then, with no warning, they were each slapped hard across the face.
The story paused there. “They were given cheap, slinky clothes to wear. Stiletto heels,” Musabih said. “These are Muslim village girls. But what traumatized them the most was being held down and having their boss shape and pluck their eyebrows. For them, that’s so humiliating. If they go home like this, everyone will know.”
The women seemed to know what we were talking about, and looked like they wanted to hide. Their eyebrows had the same high, thin arc I had seen on trafficking victims in Moldova.
“But then they ran away,” Musabih went on. “They just held hands and ran straight into the street. That’s so rare! The traffickers were afraid to run after them, once they were in public. Then somehow they made their way to the airport—it was the only word they knew in English, ‘airport.’ They lived in a rest room there for two days, with no food. Finally, somebody who spoke Turkish, which is close enough to their dialect, I guess, took them to the Uzbek consulate, and they brought them to us.”
I asked the women to confirm the story, and they did. They had been at City of Hope for a month now, they said, and they wanted to go home.
“We still don’t have their passports,” Musabih said. “Their boss took them with her. The police were too slow.” At the same time, Musabih was urging the women to stay in Dubai long enough to testify against their traffickers.
A few days later, the cousins were gone. According to Sharla Musabih, they received a phone call from an official at the Uzbek consulate, which had somehow been alerted to my interview. He convinced the women that the American reporter they spoke to had paid Musabih four thousand dollars, which she had pocketed. (I had not given Musabih any money.) Musabih tried to reassure the women, but they left late that night. Soon afterward, they were sent back to Uzbekistan. There would be no trial of their traffickers.
The police in Dubai were not especially happy when I turned up in their precinct. Even an Interpol captain with whom Rotaru had conducted, via phone and text, long searches of the rougher souks and sections of Old Dubai for captive women who had called her—with at least one spectacular rescue to their credit—suddenly remembered that he was not authorized to speak to a journalist. But I was able to talk to one of Rotaru’s favorite contacts, Omer, the prison officer.
Warrant Officer Omer Ahmed Ali arranged for me to meet him in an Emirates airline ticket office. He was a huge man in his late forties. He wore a floor-length white dishdasha with a full white headdress and had a big, kind, unshaven face. He was picking up tickets for five women in jail. They would be flying back to China, India, and Bangladesh. He called them “the ladies.”
At a nearby café, Omer told me that he was originally from Yemen. He had been a Dubai policeman for thirty years, and had been assigned to the prison system since 2004. Nowadays he specialized in repatriation. “We were getting too many ladies,” he said. “We already had to ask for a bigger women’s jail. We received it—little cells with bunk beds and an intercom, not just one big hall for two hundred, three hundred people. Much cleaner, all computerized, central air-conditioning. Not keys and iron bars and little windows, like the old place. Still, too many ladies were coming.”
The boom in prostitution had created a problem. Even with the protection rackets that surround the sex trade, more and more women were being picked up in raids and, in accordance with Dubai’s laws, given long prison sentences. Some of them had been trafficked. None of them were being treated as victims.
Omer chewed on a Snickers bar and sipped an espresso. “We saw that strict enforcement of the law would make too much,” he said. “We would have many thousands of foreign ladies in our jails. We don’t want that. Sheikh Maktoum doesn’t want that. So we changed the approach. I tell the ladies, ‘We’re here to help you, not to punish you. The court will do that. We’re not happy to have you here. Just give us your correct information, and we’ll try to take you home.’ ”
Repatriations are rarely easy, given that many of the women lack papers. “The Moldovan ladies, their chances are zero for getting the outpass except through Stella,” he told me. “The good and special thing she is doing for Moldovans—maybe they don’t know. Our target for the Moldovan nation is through her.”
He stood up. He had more work to do, more ladies to send home.
After a successful repatriation, Rotaru always sends Omer the same message: “Passenger has arrived.” She made a wry face when she told me that, back in Moldova. “It means ‘Everything under control. Normal.’ ”
The flight from Budapest was the last of the night. Stella Rotaru got to the airport early. This was the repatriation of Violeta, who was trafficked to Kosovo in 2000—the case that, a few days earlier, she had said made her want to jump for happiness. Rotaru found the husband and daughter in an upstairs café.
The daughter was around sixteen. She was wide-faced, a big girl, very pale, with jet-black hair and a lime-green headband. Rotaru asked her if she remembered her mother. “Just a little, like in a dream,” she said. She wore a black fake-fur jacket, a striped miniskirt, black stockings, and high-heeled black leather boots that were aggressive even by local standards. The girl seemed strangely, extravagantly bored. “She’s just nervous,” Rotaru murmured.
The husband was short, with bad teeth and a tight physique. He talked very fast, in Russian, and he smiled a lot, although only with the upper half of his face, giving him a monkeyish look. He wore a black-and-red Puma windbreaker, pointy-toed black cowboy boots, and bluejeans.
After a while, Rotaru said to me, “The situation is worse than I thought.” It seemed that the husband was expecting Violeta to arrive with a lot of money.
Did he not know that Violeta had been living in an I.O.M. shelter in Pristina?
“They don’t necessarily know that she is a V.O.T.,” Rotaru told me quietly. “To them, she went abroad a long time ago and should be rich.”
Rotaru started flipping through Violeta’s file. Violeta’s daughter glimpsed a small, blurry photocopy of a photograph of her mother and, in her first show of emotion, breathed in sharply. She wanted to see it. Rotaru gave her a quick look at it, said that it was a bad picture, which it was, and put it back in the file. The daughter’s gaze followed the page into the file and stayed there for a long time.
Rotaru asked the husband what his plans were. He said that he wanted to go abroad, perhaps to Russia.
Didn’t he want to spend time with his wife?
He had been looking after their daughter, he said. Now it was his wife’s turn.
Rotaru gave me a long look. “He is also stressed,” she said. “Also disappointed.”
While the husband went for a smoke, Rotaru asked the daughter about her studies—her father had told Rotaru that she was living with him, going to school. The daughter didn’t know what she was talking about. “He doesn’t know what I do,” she said, sneering. “I live near Chisinau. I rarely see him.”
The flight from Budapest landed. We made our way to the doors where arriving passengers emerged. One young woman dropped her bags, ran into the arms of her family, and lifted her grandfather off his feet, spinning him around while he roared and their relatives cheered and wept. The flow of arrivals trickled slowly to a halt. Violeta still hadn’t appeared. Rotaru approached a pair of border guards and was soon at the center of a scrum of uniformed personnel. Apparently, there were complications with Violeta’s papers. Rotaru was a vision of patience and calm in the middle of waving arms, softspoken among raised voices. She even smiled and, occasionally, laughed, as if she were inhabiting some alternate universe, and certainly not the grim, harried, midnight airport that the rest of us were in.
Violeta’s husband and daughter hung back, looking enervated, uninvolved. He had brought a friend, a burly fellow, and they went outside regularly for cigarettes. The daughter slouched under an illuminated advertisement for a local Internet service provider. It showed a smiling skydiver falling toward a tropical coast.
After an hour or so, Violeta appeared. She was a big, tough-looking woman in a black leather jacket, with burgundy hair and mirrored sunglasses pushed up on her head. She was walking fast and looked furious. It was not clear whether she saw her family—she stopped and turned her back on them to confer with Rotaru. Her husband said, rather loudly, that he hardly recognized her—she had gained a lot of weight. Rotaru was explaining Violeta’s identity documents to her. Finally, Violeta turned and, after Rotaru pointed her out, looked at her daughter. She let out a little moan. Then she crossed to her daughter and gave her a quick embrace. She did not acknowledge her husband’s presence.
The husband and his friend swooped in and picked up Violeta’s large bag, each holding one handle, and headed out the airport door. There was a brief assembly on the sidewalk. Violeta, who still had not spoken to anyone but Rotaru, spat a big wad of gum on the ground. Her daughter was standing to one side, studying the parking lot. Then the group set off toward a small black Lada parked down the hill. I had heard nobody thank Rotaru. We watched them climb into the car, cramming the bag in the back, and then drive off in the direction of Tiraspol.
“There will be a big fight inside that car, or, if not, then late