Born in Albania, "Maria" was trafficked into Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Closing the door on slavery seems almost impossible: “The shame for our parents and us is too large…what man will marry me?...It is difficult to smile.” Instead she reopens the door to her slave past and tries to help other trafficking victims—telling them that “they must make a new life” and inviting them to share their stories.
Many women are trafficked into richer Western European countries from the poorer Eastern countries, including Albania. The fall of communism in 1991 led to a rise in organized crime in Albania: in 2001 it was estimated 100,000 Albanian women and girls had been trafficked to Western European and other Balkan countries in the preceding ten years. More than 65 percent of Albanian sex-trafficking victims are minors at the time they are trafficked, and at least 50 percent of victims leave home under the false impression that they will be married or engaged to an Albanian or foreigner and live abroad. Another ten percent are kidnapped or forced into prostitution. The women and girls receive little or no pay for their work, and are commonly tortured if they do not comply.
I’ll call myself Maria in this story. This is a real story about my life and I am not the only one who could be named that name. There are many Marias like I am and that is the reason to bring this story to daylight—to stop ‘Maria’s Story’ from happening again. I come from a little village in Albania where my parents and my sisters still live. They probably think I am dead, and I hope so. It is easier than the truth; I have done things they never can imagine. I shall never see them again.
It was only four years ago when a young man from Skopje came into my father’s shop. He was very polite and well dressed and he asked about life in our town. When I said there was little to do, my father asked if he was there to talk or to buy something. My father is very old fashioned and he was always protecting me from boys, which I did not like. I was almost 17 years old and did not need my father’s protection. The smile the young man gave me said he understood. But he talked to my father politely, paid for some items and I saw him going away in a Mercedes Benz car. I was very angry with my father and many times thought of the young man in his expensive car.
Perhaps two weeks after, the young man arrived again. This time my father was away in a cafe and we talked (later, I wonder if he watched the shop to see my father going out...). His name was Damir and he spoke of the famous cities he often visited. Rome, Paris, Madrid and many other ones I could only dream about. I said how much I wanted to see them and Damir said that he works for a modeling agency that looks for pretty girls like I was (my face became red but I liked him to say such things...). To live and work in Paris!!! If I wanted to do it, he would arrange for a colleague to speak with my parents. I was very excited and said yes. Some days passed and a woman entered the shop. She was Damir’s colleague. Her jewels and expensive clothes made me embarrassed of my own. She spoke to my parents and showed them a contract. I will earn a certain amount of money, so much to me for living and the rest to my parents. When my father asked about safety, Vanja said that young models live together and always with chaperones. I begged them to allow me and finally my father signed. I remember he was very sad about me going away. Vanja took me to a photo shop for passport photos and said Damir hoped to see me soon. I was in Heaven! The next week Vanja returned. In her car were two other girls, one gypsy girl, younger than me and another Albanian, little older. I kissed my parents goodbye. It was last time I saw them.
We drove some hours to Durres on the coast of Adriatic sea. Damir was waiting for us...The other girls knew him also and I was already jealous, but too excited to be angry. He had our new passports but told us he must keep them. It was first time I saw the sea and my first time in a ship. It seemed very big and beautiful. We followed Damir, who had our tickets and travel documents. He spoke with an official and gave him something before we went into the ship and down many stairs. I thought we were near the engine—the smell of oil was very strong, also rotten food and the smell of clothes not washed in a long time. He said for our safety he must lock the door but will return in the morning. Two of us had to share a bed, but only for one night and next day we shall come to Italy! The sound of the engine was very loud and soon the ship was moving very fast. We wished to talk about the handsome men we are going to meet and how the girls at home will be jealous, but the bad smells and moving ship made me and gypsy girl very sick.
The next morning we arrived in Bari. Damir took us to a house where the streets are dirty and we saw beggars and even rats during the day. We were nervous because we expecting something very different than that. When we entered the house it smelled as bad as the ship. There were many girls’ magazines, wine bottles and cigarettes on the floor. Some men were sitting inside, they laughed and looked at us in a bad way and spoke to Damir in Italian, which we did not understand. I asked him who they are, but the polite young man from my father’s shop grabbed my arm and said something very bad in Albanian. He hit me on the face. I fell on the ground and he pulled me by my hair into a room and hit me more than once until my face start bleeding. I did not understand what had happened. I heard other girls screaming. And then he raped me. Then the other men came in and did the same. After that event, each day the same men came again, and then others, who paid money to be with us. If we said no, Damir would hit and kick us and give us no food. He said THIS was modeling that we must do for anyone they said.
He paid for our passports and documents. They belong to him and to be without them in foreign country means going to prison if the police find us. If we try to escape, he and his friends will kill us and no one will ever know. If we succeed and go to police, bad things will happen to our families and everyone will hear we are prostitutes. He laughed and said we were stupid girls from farms. He asked what our parents and friends would say if they knew with how many men we have had already!? It was very cruel to make us feel ashamed for what he makes us do.
One night Damir took me and the gypsy girl to the truck and said another man owns us now and if we thought he is a bad man, this man is worse, so we better do always what he says. He gave our passports to this man and we traveled all night and next day to Marseille in France, where we stayed in a house with the other girls. There I learnt that if I am quiet and do what he says I won’t be punished. Some were given drugs to make them addicts. If they were bad, they did not get the drugs they wanted.
I was in Marseille for almost one year and was sold to a man and a woman who took me to Amsterdam. I slept in a small room with no heat and little food, sometimes only what is left over from their meals. Sometimes I did not eat for one or two days. They were drug addicts and would forget about me—except to bring men. When there were no customers, the man would hit me and burn me with cigarettes and force me to do things, sometimes with the woman there also. He said this was to make me remember that he is the master.
I made no trouble and after some time the woman take me to carry her shopping. I liked these shopping trips with her and did everything she wanted me to do—it was wonderful to be away from my small, cold room. After some time she began to give me some small money for treats. One day I saw a poster about a charity for women. I begin to pray that I will find them and they will help me. But I was frightened because I had no papers. My owners always said to me how without a passport I will go to prison and then be sent to Albania if the police find me. Even after more than two years I cry with shame of my life and shame for my parents if they ever know about me.
One day the woman was looking at clothes. She gave me a small amount of money to buy a treat. But I found a telephone and with the money called the number of the charity. It was difficult to understand me but a Bulgarian came to the telephone and asked where I am. SHE SAID SHE WAS COMING FOR ME!!!!!
I worked for this charity for more than one year and helped girls like me. I talked to them every day, and I tell them they must make a new life. They wept very much. I also, but waited until night so they do not see. We all wanted to go home but we cannot. The shame for our parents and us is too large. I dreamed to be a model. Now I dream about a nice man but what man will marry me? Even if he accepts what happen to me I can never have children because of it. It is difficult to smile.
My new friends in the charity all say that girls like us must be warned. I came to Bulgaria with the person who saved my life. It is not the Albania I remember and love more than any other place, and where I can never return, but it is in many ways closer to my home than Italy or France or Holland. My friend and I talked about my experiences and those of the girls we helped in Amsterdam and wondered how we could help others before they made the same mistakes. My Bulgarian friend said perhaps the way is Internet. And we decided to make a website. My English is not good but she helps me.
We pray that young men and women who are tempted by people who are the lowest animals to smuggle them to the West will find it, and listen to what we suffered. If it saves only one person it will be worth it...We hope many people will find it. Send me your stories of how you traveled from your beloved homeland. What you saw and what happened to you. We should also shame those who tricked, hurt and stole your life from you and your family. These people who think they are above the law—send their names and their crimes.
Narrative as written by the narrator, 2002, in Bulgaria.