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Woman for Sale

The selling of women into prostitution has been growing across Europe during the past decade, but rather than solve the problem the international community has become complicit with the traffickers in Bosnia, reports John McGhie

May 5, 2000
10 min read

Two years ago an American general serving with the United Nations contingent in Bosnia had a bright idea. The armed struggle between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians had ended but the peace was distinctly fragile. Tension between ethnic groups ran high and no one trusted their neighbours unless they’d fought alongside them during a civil war that had killed 250,000 and made refugees out of a million more.

So how to get them together? Well, free trade of course. If the great engine of capitalism could be harnessed, people would have to learn to trust one another. People who buy together don’t die together.

The trick was finding a secure location where a physical market could be constructed. The general, whose name now eludes the military, solved this by clearing a strip of land outside Brcko in North-west Bosnia, near the frontier with Serbia and Croatia. With his troops ringing the area to check for guns, a market was born and traders moved in.

They called it Arizona. For a while it flourished. Stalls sold the usual household goods, plus black market cigarettes, CDs and alcohol. Croats, Serbs and Bosnians came by their thousand.

Today you can still buy all of these things but the real business is done behind closed doors. Organised crime has taken over the market. Cars stolen to order, drugs, medicines and guns are all on the shopping list. But the most serious trade is in people.

For Arizona has simply become the biggest slave market in Europe. Its here that the former warlords turned crime bosses of the fledgling Bosnian state buy and sell women. Most of these women left their homes in Eastern Europe in the belief they would become waitresses or nannies in Italy or France. But if they have not already been forced into prostitution by the time they reach Arizona, they soon will be.

The route into the country is always similar. The women answer job adverts in local newspapers in the poorer, usually rural, areas of their homelands. They meet with men from an agency who promise to accompany them and ease their passage across borders. Wherever their starting point, the women first enter Hungary or Rumania. There they are tricked into handing over their passports under the ruse that the men require them to process their visa applications. From Hungary they cross illegally into Serbia. Then it’s on to Belgrade, where they are swiftly and brutally disabused of any notions of waitressing.

It’s at this stage that they receive some of the worst treatment. Women are told it’s prostitution or a beating, or death. Some are beaten anyway and others are raped before being sold to a cafe or bar owner. This man will ’employ’ them for a few months before selling them on to other gangs. These new owners transport the women in small trucks or cars to the border with Bosnia. Here they usually cross the rivers that mark the frontier by night in small boats.

In a deeply ugly trade, the women are sold at Arizona and a couple of other major transit posts inside Bosnia. International police based in Brcko said women are often put on stage in a backroom bar, pirouetting in different costumes while buyers inspect their flesh and look into the women’s mouths before making a bid. The more attractive ones fetch DM2,000-DM4,000 (£650-£1,300).

Some women stay at Arizona, servicing the cross border shoppers and local policemen at a dozen or so ‘night clubs’ that infest the market. The rest will be taken to cafes and brothels all over the country.

There, the ‘clients’ will include Bosnian men, but, more significantly, they will also be forced to service the vast numbers of foreigners who make up the international peacekeeping and reconstruction forces.

For the appalling truth is that the Bosnian slave markets are propped up and abused by the very people who are meant to be helping protect and rebuild the country. It is a shaming fact that in a country that saw the full horrors of civil war, some of the worst human rights violations are today being perpetrated by the international community.

Nobody knows exactly how many women have been trafficked into Bosnia. At the beginning of June the estimate was 4,000-20,000 women. Brothels are endemic. Some brothels are like the ones in Arizona with names like ‘Acapulco’ and ‘Romanca’. Others are simply roadside cafes where the owner keeps a couple of women for passing trade.

Madeleine Rees is the head of office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia and the most senior UN figure fighting trafficking. She first gathered her evidence from women’s groups who worked with rape victims during the war. They noticed a change in prostitution from about 1993. Prior to that there were some local women, but afterwards it was almost exclusively women from Eastern Europe.

‘If you look at the patterns of trafficking world-wide, essentially you only get it where you’re going to have a market,’ says Rees. ‘It’s a demand-led thing, and basically in 1993 we had the presence of Unprofor (UN Protection Force Ð the military predecessor of the Stabilisation Force, Sfor), and undoubtedly that was one of the pull factors.’

While inexcusable, it is explicable why Bosnia became a trafficking destination. There were reports of soldiers visiting brothels on a regular basis. But the war is now over and yet the international community is still deeply implicated in trafficking. Rees is not the only UN figure to admit it, but given the politics of the UN she is taking a risk in so doing.

‘The presence of the international community creates the market. Not everybody who is here goes and uses trafficked women for sex, but some do. And some care not at all whether they are voluntarily working as prostitutes or whether they have been forced into it. And then they are part of the problem,’ she says.

And it is not just the soldiers of Sfor who are to blame. Both UN personnel and staff from the 400 or so non-governmental organisations in Bosnia either use the trafficked women or, in a significant minority of cases, are actually the traffickers themselves. Evidence includes:

a UN report, unpublished outside Bosnia, of ‘compelling evidence of complicity’ of local and international police and Sfor in 14 cases;

four other cases, one involving Sfor and three the International Police Task Force (IPTF), where men had trafficked women;

in one small IPTF base two officers admitted to us they regularly visited brothels where they knew trafficked women were held;

five IPTF officers were recently sent home for being caught in raids on brothels;

a number of staff (unconfirmed reports say six) from the Office of High Representative – the most senior UN body in Bosnia – were also recently caught in a brothel raid;

we saw, and filmed, European Union vehicles parked outside a well known Sarajevo brothel, and saw UN vehicles outside other brothels;

we secretly filmed a senior US member of the international community in a brothel boasting about how easy it was to buy a woman ‘as property’.

It is chillingly clear much of the international community in Bosnia has a culture of using prostitutes. The feeling is that if the women are trafficked, well, they probably want to be there, and many of them look happy enough and if they get their money, what’s the fuss about?

A local woman living near a brothel used by a British IPTF officer said she’d seen women coming out in tears after apparently being beaten up. And when we visited the same brothel we saw one girl, who said she was 18 but looked much younger, who made it absolutely clear she wanted to get out. We told both the local and international police about the place but as far as I am aware the brothel is still in operation and that young girl is still being held there against her will.

The official response to all this is that whenever men are caught in a brothel they are sent home. But this is a reactive response and as such is seriously inadequate. Apart from one or two anti-traffickers there is little sense that this is a major issue. And if the UN chiefs know what is going on, there is hardly a feeling of urgency in combating it.

However, there are some signs of progress. Rees has teamed up with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to start an education programme aimed at Sfor troops. But an advertising campaign aimed at the women themselves is hampered by lack of resources Ð there’s not even enough cash to staff a hot-line for women in trouble.

One success in a sea of despair is the safe house system. When women escape and are lucky enough to run to authorities that will not just return her to her pimp Ð as has often happened Ð they are sent to Sarajevo. There they are looked after by Frederick Larsson of the IOM. There is finally money for an official safe house but until now escapees have been despatched to different addresses around the Bosnian capital in a kind of unofficial ‘Underground Railroad’. While they are in these safe houses the women are counselled and the paperwork is prepared to send them home. So far only 67 have made it back.

It is dangerous work. Now that proper efforts are being made to try and prosecute pimps Ð and there’ve only been a handful thus far Ð pimps will go to great lengths to get their ‘property’ back. Ten women in the past year have been murdered. One was found dead in the river, her mouth bound shut with tape from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Ð many believe it was a signal from organised crime that they will not tolerate women speaking out. The problems in fighting trafficking are legion. Corruption is endemic; there is a prevailing culture where it is all right to visit brothels and most local police are unwilling to tackle the ‘low priority’ problem.

For people like Larsson and Rees it’s a hugely frustrating struggle. ‘I find this one of the most disgusting areas to have to work in,’ says Rees. ‘The impunity with which men will use women in this way and the idea that no one is really taking responsibility for it or dealing with it should cause international outrage.’ It is now abundantly clear that the international community is part of the problem, and we must stop it from behaving like this.

This is not some issue in a far away country over which we have no sway. It is in the middle of Europe and the international presence there is our responsibility. So we must take it.

John McGhie leads the Channel 4 News investigations unit at Just TV. This article is based on an report broadcast on 8 June 2000

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