Letter from the Balkans: An Underreported Horror Story  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2003

Letter from the Balkans: An Underreported Horror Story   

Writing about the sex-slave trade is a dangerous assignment.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


A story smoldering in the war-bedraggled Balkans has all the earmarks of a Pulitzer Prize. At the core is a medieval sex-slave trade masterminded by cutthroat crime cartels. The tentacles reach into Italy, Germany and even the United States.

Thousands of women, tortured, raped and imprisoned in seedy "night bars," are the mainstay of the multimillion-dollar industry. Armed thugs, bearing tattoos and buzz-cuts, are part of the decor in the makeshift brothels.

The script of "white slavery," as it commonly is known in this region, resembles a hard-core porn flick. Traumatized victims describe being locked in cages, chained to beds, starved, burned with cigarettes, punched and gang raped until they are broken and forced to perform sex-on-demand.

Some women tell of being hawked at auctions outside of Belgrade, ordered to dance naked for prospective buyers who pay thousands of Euros for lithe, full-bosomed blondes. Most are lured from dirt-poor countries like Moldova, Ukraine and Romania by the promise of jobs as waitresses, au pairs or dancers. The human slave trade operating here has been compared to African slave auctions in 18th-century Europe.

Once they are sold, owners make it clear that if they attempt to escape, family members might take a bullet in the head or a younger sister might be kidnapped and sold.

"It is one of the great underreported stories of our time," says Drew Sullivan, an American journalist working in southeastern Europe. It's also one of the riskiest.

So far, there is no evidence of reporters being killed for delving into the sex-slave industry. That's because none has penetrated its inner workings, explained Sullivan over lunch in Sarajevo. "The closer you get to the heart of trafficking, the closer you get to the Serbian, Albanian and Russian Mafia. It is well known they will kill anybody to protect their business," says Sullivan, who has interviewed more than a dozen survivors.

The issue of forced prostitution has been largely ignored or glossed over by the local and international press corps. In Montenegro, a country in the thick of the trafficking, the government line has been "there is no problem here." In fact, up to 200,000 women are bartered in the Balkan region every year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. A 2002 United Nations report calls trafficking the fastest-growing transnational organized criminal activity and a major violation of human rights.

Most stories on the topic have focused on victims who have escaped or have been rescued, on police raids and on minor players in the trade. Few reporters have dug deeper.

A highly detailed story by Sebastian Junger appeared in the July 2002 issue of Vanity Fair. The author traced the path of one Moldovan woman and delved into the corruption, local laws and victims' fear of testifying that hinder prosecutors.

Around the same period, Preston Mendenhall, MSNBC. com's international editor, aired a series on sex slaves in Europe, including accounts from women who had been rescued and were in hiding. One of them displayed an infected wound on her breast and described how a client had bitten her.

A Lexis-Nexis search found few significant stories under the label of human or sexual trafficking in southeast Europe or the Balkans over the past two years.

A handful of regional journalists have worked the story despite living alongside the killers. In 1998, reporter Dzenana Karup Drusko set out to document that crime cartels were trafficking in women in Bosnia. At the time, the government and the public were in denial. "You can't report on [criminals] unless you get into their minds," she said during an interview in a café across from her newsroom. "If you show fear, it doesn't work."

Across the border in Croatia, veteran investigative journalist Sasa Lekovic poses a series of ethical questions to guide his reporting on trafficking. "Is it ever OK to buy a woman to get her story or to pay for her time?" asks Lekovic, who once tracked a 17-year-old to Italy and helped bring her home. "Should a journalist ever try to rescue a victim? How far should we go to protect their identity if they interview with us?"

Human Rights Watch has said members of the international community, including United Nations peacekeepers and NATO officials, were regular clients of the night bars.

In May 2000, an investigation by the U.S. Army concluded that up to five U.S. government workers were involved in "white slavery." Sources stated that they purchased women from local Mafia to live in their homes for "sexual and domestic" purposes.

When women are freed, there is little chance they will testify against their tormentors. To date, no viable witness protection exists.

Operating behind the scenes are such organizations as the International Center for Journalists and the International Research and Exchange Board, who send media trainers--myself and Drew Sullivan among them--to help local journalists create strategies for covering trafficking.

The U.S. State Department, which sponsors some of the training, has taken a leading role in helping to create a legal framework to further prosecution of traffickers in the Balkans. Still, local watchdogs operate on their own in tightly knit communities.

In June, I traveled to a Bosnian town to join a reporter who was following a hot tip. A notorious crime boss, sentenced to prison earlier this year, had been spotted freely walking the streets on certain days of the week. The night bar he ran continued to thrive. "Will you be able to write the story?" I asked.

A finger across the throat was the reply. "Not if I want to live," the reporter said.

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