The same guys running the bars using trafficked women are the same ones running drugs and guns, Wyss adds. “I’ve told Macedonian officials that drugs and guns don’t talk. But women can.” Though the new center helps women testify, traffickers are still going free. It’s a situation that Wyss and Stojkovski are trying to change.
The dramatic rise in the number of trafficked women throughout Macedonia coincides with the arrival of some forty-five thousand so-called peacekeeping troops to the region, in the wake of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia two years ago. Kosovo sits about twelve miles north of the Macedonian capital, where many of the NATO-led troops and other international staff come to relax on the weekends. “Interest in the prostitution business went up after the soldiers came to Kosovo,” says Stojkovski. “On the weekends, they flood the brothels in Macedonia.”
Also fueling the problem is the fact that organized crime has become a major player in a region with economies battered by war. Added to this are hundreds of ethnic Albanian rebels from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who fought to liberate the province from Serbian control two years ago. Some of them have now moved into northern Macedonia and are clashing with security forces. The fear is of civil war between Slavs and the ethnic Albanian minority.
“You have a group of people who grew accustomed to surviving amongst this chaos by running guns,” says a Western diplomat who asked not to be named. “That environment is starting to change. There is more democratization in the region. But the rebels don’t know how to operate under the rule of law. So they do what they know: smuggle guns, drugs, or women, and fight.”
Wyss says that 1,000 women have escaped from the Macedonian sex industry in the past eight months alone. Like Mariana, Andreea, and Irina, more than 70 percent of these women are between the ages of 15 and 24, and nearly three percent are under 15 years old.
Mariana and Andreea’s experience is typical. They were recruited by Valja, a Romanian acquaintance whose last name they didn’t know. She offered them jobs as waitresses in a hotel in Italy. After they accepted, they were put in a taxi that took them to Romania’s border with Serbia, then told to cross over illegally at night. There, they were picked up and taken to the Belgrade apartment of a Serbian woman they knew only as Puja. They were given counterfeit Moldovan passports and put on a bus from Belgrade to Skopje, several hours south.
“When we arrived in Skopje, it was the middle of the night,” says Andreea. “We had no idea what to do. We didn’t have any money, and our documents were fake. Someone drove up and asked, ‘Are you from Moldova?’ We said yes. They said, ‘O.K., let’s go.'” The teens were driven three hours away to the Hotel Slavija. There they met Leku and his Macedonian partner, Latze.
“He beat me to persuade me to have sex with a customer,” says Mariana. When asked who came to the Slavija, Andreea rolls her eyes. “Everyone. Macedonians, Albanians, French, Italian, and German and American KFOR,” (the acronym for the NATO-led soldiers in Kosovo). In response to the boost to the sex industry from NATO soldiers, the IOM now targets them through campaigns, distributing thousands of mini 2001 calendars with a warning message and a hot-line number.
Wyss recounts that one German soldier who had been frequenting a brothel in Tetovo gave the calendar to a girl he’d been with. She called the hot line, the nightclub was raided, and she was released. But Stojkovski says that actually bringing traffickers to justice has been an uphill battle. Bar owners, he says, sometimes bribe police officers, who release them and deport the women who spoke against them. Underpaid border guards and customs officials are also paid to look the other way.
Leku is a classic example. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has tried to raid his bars, but