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#6 - JRL 7065
17 February 2003
Guilty secrets of Russia's 'sex slaves'
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC Moscow correspondent

In her tiny flat, Natasha sits hunched over a rusty old sewing machine.

As she turns the hand wheel, the needle struggles to join two pieces of purple cloth.

Natasha dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

But she's haunted by her past, by the memory of what happened to her.

"A woman came up to me at the train station," Natasha told me. "She offered me part-time work in Germany as a nanny. I said 'yes'.

"When I got there, though, she took away my passport. Then she drove me to a bar on the edge of town."

'Too afraid'

Natasha had been caught in a trap.

Like thousands of young women each year lured from the East to the West by the promise of a good job, she was forced into prostitution.

She became a sex slave, sold on from one pimp to another.

"Natasha's no exception," says Mariana Solomatova from the Angel Coalition, an organisation which tries to prevent sexual trafficking from the former Soviet Union.

"Most women don't expect to be enslaved - they think they're going for legitimate work, like nannies or waitresses. In most cases their passports are taken away.

"They're threatened. They're told they'll go to prison. They're too afraid to complain."

Lack of awareness

For young women seeking work abroad, there's certainly plenty of choice.

Russian newspapers are full of ads offering what appear to be golden opportunities: up to $2000 a month for waitressing, or for washing dishes in a restaurant.

Too good to be true? It often is.

But because there is so little public discussion here of the problem of human trafficking, Russian women are unaware of the dangers.

"It's no riskier working abroad than in Russia," Yana told me. She is a dancer from the same town as Natasha and is keen to find a job in Western Europe.

"Life's dangerous wherever you live. I mean, I could get run over by a car here tomorrow. Anyway, who dares wins!"

UN campaign

But the risks are high.

A United Nations video campaign has been trying to raise awareness.

It features stark images of sex slaves.

The UN is also helping Russia's parliament draft a law against trafficking.

Tackling the problem in such a large country as Russia is seen as vital to the global war on organised crime.

"Organised crime is going global," warns Christopher Ram, from the UN's Centre for International Crime Prevention.

"It's like a commercial operation. And the profits generated by human trafficking are used to fund other criminal operations - drug trafficking, the smuggling of other commodities like weapons. And there's always the possibility that some of the profits are being used to fund terrorist organisations."

Natasha's ordeal came to an end when German police raided the club where she was working.

She was deported back to Russia.

Six years on she still hides the truth about what happened from her friends and her family.

"The nightmares are gone," Natasha told me. "But I still can't tell anyone what happened to me. They won't understand. They'll say it was all my fault."

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