ITALY & MOLDOVA – Nadia’s Story
- The Offer
- Nadia—The Judas Kiss
- The Border Crossing
- The Livestock Market
- Passage Through Hell
- A Surprise Ending
Saying good-bye to Stefan turned out to be harder than Nadia had imagined. At the tender age of six, Stefan could not comprehend why his mother had to leave.
“Mommy, are you mad at me?” he asked when she came into the room with her suitcase in hand. The words cut her like a knife.
“No, Mommy’s not abandoning you. She loves you,” she whispered through sobs. “I’ll make some money, and then I’ll be back home.” She moved hastily to the door before she fell apart completely.
Initially, Nadia did not seriously entertain Katrina’s offer to arrange a restaurant job for her in Italy. Nadia knew plenty of girls who had left Chisinau to work in the West. But she did not know how she could manage Stefan on her own in a foreign land. At least here in Moldova, her family could take care of him whenever she found the odd bit of work.
But she had a change of heart the day she failed to get Stefan enrolled in school. Nadia could not afford to pay the school’s enrollment fees or buy a school uniform. Her family could not help her. They had no savings; every penny went to put food on the table.
Following that depressing day at the school office, she sought out Katrina at the café. The two had met long ago in grammar school. Though they had never been the best of friends, they continued to bump into each other at the occasional party. When they last met, Katrina had mentioned that she had a connection in Italy who gave jobs to teenage girls. “Let me know if you are ever interested.”
She found Katrina exactly where she hoped, at the corner table of the café. Following a bit of small talk, Nadia moved the conversation to her agenda. “Hey, remember you told me about jobs in Italy? If they’re still available, I’m interested.”
“You bet,” said Katrina, pleased to help out her friend. “I just talked with my contacts, and a few more jobs just opened up. But they need to fill the positions really fast. Do you think you could be ready to travel a week from tomorrow?”
Now faced with the moment of truth, Nadia had to swallow hard. Could she bear to live apart from Stefan? Maybe she could make enough money in a year’s time to come back home with a bit of savings in her pocket. “OK, count me in,” she blurted out.
“Fabulous,” Katrina said, beaming. “We’ll have such a good time together in Italy.”
She told Nadia to arrive at her flat in eight days’ time with her bags packed, ready to travel.
Nadia—The Judas Kiss
When she arrived at Katrina’s flat, Nadia was surprised to find six additional girls with baggage waiting there. She had assumed that she and Katrina would be traveling alone.
Katrina did not bother to explain the circumstances. After a brief greeting, she asked Nadia in business-like fashion, “OK, you brought your passport along, right?”
Nadia nodded her head, dug the document out of her purse, and held it up.
“Great,” Katrina said. “Let me have it, and I’ll give it to the guide for safekeeping.”
Once Nadia handed it over, Katrina scurried off to speak with a middle-aged man who paced across the flat. They had a short conversation while the man’s eyes fixed on Nadia. He handed Katrina what appeared to be a roll of money.
Uncomfortable with the man’s glare, Nadia turned her attention to the other girls. She noted at once that she had at least five or six years on them; none of them had yet reached eighteen, she guessed.
One of the girls wandered over to Nadia and, with a hint of anxiety in her voice, asked, “Do you know where we’re going?”
“Katrina found me a job working in a restaurant in Italy,” Nadia reported as a matter of fact.
“Oh, she told us that too,” the girl said. “But I was wondering whether you knew exactly where in Italy we would be traveling?”
Before Nadia could answer, the man whom Katrina had presented as “the guide” spoke up. “We will be leaving in a few seconds.” He paused and then proceeded with instructions.
“Outside we have three vehicles waiting. I will assign you to one of the cars. Don’t worry which one you end up in because we’re all going to the same place.”
Katrina picked up her suitcase and led the way out the door of the flat. Nadia followed and climbed into the backseat of her assigned vehicle. She settled down next to a girl whom she had not yet met. The driver started the engine once the lead car lurched onto the road.
The three cars moved along as a caravan for several hours. Nadia did not speak a word. She passed the time thinking about Stefan. In a panic she second-guessed herself. Shouldn’t she be at home raising her son? Who cares if she can’t afford all the things that she wanted for him? But what kind of future would he have without an education? With the droning wheels of the car sounding the backbeat, her internal debate rapped on for some time.
As they neared the border with Romania, the caravan came to a sudden halt. It seemed to Nadia as if they were in the middle of nowhere. After ten minutes, she could see three pairs of headlights approach slowly from the other direction. The cars stopped directly across the road from where they were parked. Nadia saw “the guide” swagger over to them and speak into the window of the first car. He then returned to her vehicle and opened the back door.
“Grab your bags, girls,” he ordered. “You’re shifting cars for the next leg of the journey.”
Once Nadia had moved to her newly assigned seat, she peered out the window. Across the road she could see Katrina sitting in the backseat of one of the cars that the girls had just departed. The first whiff of trouble reached Nadia’s senses. Why wasn’t Katrina coming along with them?
Nadia rolled down her window and waved her arms to get Katrina’s attention. Having failed at that, she yelled out her friend’s name. Katrina did not flinch, keeping her gaze dead ahead.
A minute later the caravan was driving across the border into Romania.
The Border Crossing
The caravan of cars traveled for several hours across Romania before pulling up behind an old country house. Though Nadia could see the lights of a small village in the distance, she had no clue where they had stopped.
The drivers barked out orders to move swiftly into the house. They ushered the girls into a dimly lit room and locked the door behind them. Three young Romanian girls sitting on dingy sofas already inhabited the room. They stood up expectantly when the door opened, but dejectedly slid back down onto the chairs once they heard the click of the lock.
“Can you tell me where we are?” Nadia asked.
“I really couldn’t tell you,” replied a blue-eyed girl of exceptional beauty.
“How long have you been here?” Nadia charged on, hungry for information.
“Oh, I’d say two weeks,” the blue-eyed girl replied, “but to be honest, it’s hard to keep track.”
“Two weeks!” Nadia exclaimed. “Has anyone explained to you what’s going on?”
“They’re having trouble securing tourist visas for us,” the Romanian reported.
That’s the only explanation Nadia ever received about their incarceration. A man brought them simple meals twice a day but would not let them step outside the room.
“Why are you keeping us here?” Nadia yelled each time the man entered with the food tray. He invariably grunted that she should “shut up” and departed.
After seven days in confinement, a well-dressed man entered the room, trailed by three scary-looking goons. “Good news,” the elegant man announced. “We have your travel visas. So we’re off to Serbia!”
Almost as an afterthought, he said, “From there we’ll put you on a bus that will take you to Italy. Your new employers have secured apartments for you there, so you can start earning money right away.”
The rosy announcement lifted Nadia’s spirits for the first time since she had left Chisinau. The goons led the girls outside the house, where two white vans waited. The girls stepped up into the vans and immediately hit the road.
For the rest of the day the vans negotiated narrow mountain roads that cut across desolate wilderness. Late in the evening, the vans veered off the road into a sheltered cove of trees. The goons ordered the girls out of the vehicles.
The elegant man then shared a part of the travel plan that he had conveniently omitted that afternoon. “Girls, we have visas for you to work in Italy, but we failed in our attempts to obtain tourist visas for you to enter Serbia. So you are going to have to sneak across the border under the cover of darkness.”
The girls unleashed a cacophony of complaints and queries. The elegant man brusquely cut them off. “I’m sorry. It’s the only way we can get you to the bus that will transport you to Italy.”
Cars would be waiting for them on the other side of the border, he explained. The drivers would blink their lights three times every two minutes until they all arrived. He went on to warn that if captured going across the border, the girls would be thrown into prison, maybe for years. “And trust me,” he said, lowering his voice ominously, “you do not want to serve time in a Serbian prison.”
The men guided the girls for nearly half a mile until they reached a clearing. They rested until they could see lights flashing amid a line of trees on a ridge in the far distance.
“There, that’s it,” the elegant man said, pointing his finger. “Go now, and don’t stop running until you reach that ridge.”
The Livestock Market
The girls started off across the border in a sprint. The elegant man had not mentioned how hard it would be to cross the terrain. Unable to see their own feet, they repeatedly tripped over sharp rocks and brambles armed with pointy thorns. By the time they reached the ridge, most of the girls had lost at least one shoe. All had deep cuts and bruises up and down their legs. Nonetheless, they managed to track the flashing lights and reached the destination with their entire band intact.
Now safely in Serbia, they piled into three cars and wove their way through a seemingly endless succession of mountain passes. They finally came to a remote stone house that seemed to be planted in the middle of a forest.
Upon entering the house, the girls once again merged with more trafficked victims. A dozen girls, also battered and bloodied, sat on the floor in the entry foyer, leaning their exhausted bodies against the walls.
The woman in charge—who appeared to be in her early thirties and blessed with gorgeous blonde locks—spoke in flawless Russian to the assembly gathered in the foyer. She seemed genuinely concerned with their condition and instructed her staff to bring hot, wet towels so that the girls could clean their cuts.
The Russian woman then divided the girls into groups of five or six and assigned them to an upstairs bedroom. As it was now well past midnight, she urged the girls to get some sleep. “You need your rest because you have a big day tomorrow,” she remarked cryptically.
The depleted girls slept to nearly noon the next day. Caretakers woke them up with loaves of bread, butter and jam, and steeping hot tea. It had been a couple of days since they had eaten a scrap of food, so Nadia and her roommates devoured the bread.
After their meal, the girls lay back down on their mattresses and shared details of their escapades. The Romanian girl with the deep blue eyes, whom Nadia had met at their last stop, was a roommate. Two girls told of their journey together from the Ukraine, and the fifth girl told of her trek from Bulgaria. Like Nadia, they had all been promised jobs in Italy.
The woman with the golden locks opened the door and interrupted their peaceful interlude. “OK, girls, I need you to perform well for me,” she sang out. “Downstairs in the parlor an important group of men is waiting to evaluate you. We’ll go down together as a team, and before we enter you will take off your shirts.”
At first Nadia thought she must have misunderstood her Russian hostess. “Sorry, but what do you want us to do?” she asked, trying her best to stay calm.
“Undress to your waist, with your breasts bare,” the woman said as casually as if she had asked them to kick off their shoes and walk in with bare feet.
“You must be joking!” Nadia said incredulously.
“Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you,” the woman said in an effort to reassure her. “It’s just a check. Your employers in Italy have sent these men to ensure that you are healthy.”
Noting their puzzled expression, she added, “Sometimes recruiters beat their cargo, and the girls are unable to work. We just need to prove to them that you are in good shape.”
Despite her misgivings, Nadia went along with the pageant. Her group descended the stairs and halted at the double doors leading into the parlor. They then shed their shirts while the Russian woman clucked, “Alright, alright, that’s it, that’s it. We’re ready. Let’s go.”
Passing through the doors, the girls spotted a dozen or so men seated in a circle around the four walls. The Russian woman asked the girls to stand apart from the pack one at a time, announce their names, and rotate slowly in a full circle. The men eyed them carefully as if they were examining livestock at the county fair.
Once this humiliating exercise ended, the girls returned up-stairs to their bedrooms, and rested. Within the hour, the Russian woman swept into the room and called out Nadia’s name and that of the blue-eyed Romanian. “You two will be leaving with your courier in five minutes,” she stated curtly.
The two girls hurriedly arranged their bags, wished their roommates good luck, and scampered downstairs. A slight-framed man with black, greasy hair awaited them at the foot of the stairs.
“You work for me,” the man said in halting Russian. “You go with me now.”
He led them out the front door to where a car stood idling. He directed the girls to the backseat and addressed the driver in a language that Nadia guessed must be Serbian.
They drove in silence for a couple of hours until they reached Belgrade. Their “courier” delivered them to an apartment located in a residential district. “You wait me here,” he instructed them in his broken Russian. “I be back in few minutes.”
Half an hour later, the girls heard the apartment door open. It was the courier, accompanied by two portly men, both of whom sported soiled brown leather jackets. The men eyed the girls lustily as they spoke to each other in a thick Serbian dialect. Once they appeared to reach an agreement of some sort, the courier grunted, “OK, you work now.”
“What do you mean?” asked a befuddled Nadia.
“You cost me much money,” he replied angrily. “You give good sex to these men.”
Both girls took several steps backward, and Nadia spoke strongly: “No way! You have the wrong idea about us!” Desperately searching for a way out of this mess, she offered an alternative. “We will work very hard for you in a restaurant, but we cannot do this kind of work.”
The Serbian man had no patience for negotiation. He reached inside the right side of his jacket and pulled out a flat instrument. Nadia could not make out what he was holding until she saw the blade flick out from its shell. He deftly grabbed her by the hair and pressed the blade against her throat.
“You show men good time, or I cut throat,” he threatened.
Shaking with fear, the girls went into separate bedrooms, where the portly men raped them.
Over the next month, this script was played out countless times. Four simple words—“You go work now”—transported Nadia into a living hell.
Passage Through Hell
Just when Nadia concluded that she would never get out of Serbia, the Russian woman with the golden locks turned up in her life again.
“Oh, look at you two. These Serbs are real pigs,” the woman remarked as she reached out and caressed the face of the Romanian girl. “Let’s get out of here,” she added. “Looks like you both could use a hot meal.”
Though Nadia had been deceived once before by this woman’s faux compassion, she could not help herself from appreciating any warmth that might come her way.
“It’s taken a while, but I finally got you visas to work in Italy,” she announced once they settled into some seats at a nearby restaurant. “Soon you will be working a normal job in a café in Rome.”
She held open Nadia’s passport and showed her an official stamp as proof. “Now you’ll be protected if the police in Italy ask you for documents. You’ll leave in two more days.”
From that point forward, Nadia counted the minutes until her departure. The Serb continued to bring a steady flow of paying customers to the apartment. She did not understand the business arrangement the Serb had with the Russian woman, and she feared him too much to ask. But Nadia mouthed a quiet curse on the apartment two days later when she walked out the door for the final time.
Two burly Russian men transported Nadia, along with the blue-eyed Romanian and three young girls from the Ukraine. They stopped in Montenegro for a few days at a place that the Russians called a “safe house.”
On the evening of the third day, they left the safe house and drove to the edge of a very large lake. The driver stopped the vehicle but left the headlights beaming out on the water. Before long, a small rubber dinghy appeared in the headlights. The Russians ushered the girls to the lake’s edge and instructed them to jump into the boat.
Nadia asked one of her burly escorts if the boat would be taking them to Italy. “No, first you will go to Albania,” the man replied. Her heart sank. She wondered whether her trek would ever end. The Russians left the girls in the care of the Albanian pilot.
As soon as they moved away from the shore, he throttled the motor at full bore for well over an hour. He spoke Russian fairly well and tried to strike up a conversation with a few of the girls. None of them felt chatty, though, and they kept their contributions brief.
Eventually they could see a cluster of lights off in the distance. The Albanian indicated that their destination lay just beyond the lights, and then he unexpectedly cut the motor. Nadia initially thought the engine had run out of gas.
“Now I’m going to choose one of you to screw,” he said bluntly. “If my selection refuses to cooperate, I will drown all of you right here. I don’t give a damn.”
The girls exchanged frightened glances. “I can’t swim,” one of the girls from Kiev said in a small voice. One by one, the girls admitted to being completely helpless in these deep waters.
“OK, let’s give this bastard what he wants,” the Romanian girl said in a resigned voice. Saying this, she instinctively grabbed Nadia’s hand, and Nadia did the same to the girl next to her, and so on, until the five were all linked together.
They braced themselves for the selection. The pilot squinted his eyes as he scanned the circle, and then he pointed at Nadia: “You come here.”
Nadia looked at her companions with dread. “Please, go on,” the Kiev girl pleaded. “Don’t be ashamed. You’ll be doing it for us.”
Nadia stood up in the raft and moved toward the pilot. He undressed her and then raped her in front of the other girls. After he finished, he declared, “You were really good. If you didn’t perform well, I was going to drown you and your friends.” He let out a loud laugh and restarted the engine.
When they floated toward Albanian soil fifteen minutes later, an unexpected welcoming party awaited them. All of the men standing on the shore hoisted machine guns. Nadia was even more surprised that some of the men wore uniforms. Her concern heightened once she lifted her eyes to the road above the beach and saw “POLICE” written on the side panels of two vehicles. How ironic. After getting so close to Italy, it looked as if she would end up languishing in an Albanian prison.
The police took the girls into custody and drove them in their squad cars to the city of Shkodra. But they never reached a police station. The officers brought them to a private home, and before departing each took a turn raping the girl of his choice.
A Surprise Ending
Nadia considered herself very lucky to spend only a month in the brothel in Shkodra. The Albanian pimps kept the girls moving on a treadmill. On one single day, Nadia counted twenty-five individual encounters with men paying to have sex with her. It was easy to pick out the girls who had “served a sentence” of more than six months in Shkodra. They looked utterly wasted. If a girl complained or demonstrated the least bit of resistance to her handlers, she would be treated harshly. Even if a girl acted 100 percent docile, the pimps would occasionally throw her a punch or put a gun to her head as a reminder. They beat one girl so badly that they had to remove her from the brothel, and Nadia never saw her again.
Nadia’s age turned out to be her salvation; at twenty-two, she was considered over the hill. “We have sold you to the Italians,” the cruelest of the pimps revealed to her out of the blue one day. “They don’t mind old hens in Rome, I guess,” he scoffed.
The next night Nadia was sitting in a motorized rubber raft once again. But this boat was at least four times the size of the dinghy that had carried her into Albania. If the dinghy operated like a taxi, this raft was a bus. Nearly forty passengers of all ages—even a mother who cradled a baby in one arm and sat a toddler on her knee—crammed into the boat.
Once they had moved off the shore some distance, the sea turned rough. The boat carried them up and down steep water valleys. Passengers who leaned their heads over the side of the raft to vomit more often than not received a sharp slap of water in the face. The children at first screamed in terror and then whimpered.
Two Albanian goons sat at the front, keeping a watch for any sign of lights from Italian coast guard crafts. The pilot had his hands full keeping the boat heading straight into the waves lest they get sideswiped.
Even though it was pitch-black out, Nadia kept her eyes tightly shut. She tried to focus on Stefan, wondering how her son might be faring back in Chisinau. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she admitted to herself that she would likely never see him again.
She opened her eyes and saw bright lights on the distant shore ahead. “Italy?” she asked one of the goons positioned in front of her.
“Yes, Italy,” he said without looking back at her. Nadia lost her mind for a moment. “Italy? Italy? Italy?” she kept repeating, now practically screaming.
“Damn it! I already told you! It’s Italy over there,” growled the goon angrily.
That afternoon before she had boarded the raft, the cruelest of the pimps had handed her a plastic baggie. Inside she could see her passport, a bit of Italian money, and a small card with scribbled text.
“When you reach the beach near San Foca, your new owner will be waiting,” he said. “If for some reason you get lost, I have given you his phone number and enough money to make a phone call. He will drive you to Rome, where you will work for him.” Nadia nodded. He took the gun from his belt nonetheless and put it to her head. “If you try to escape, we will hunt you down. There would be no place to hide; we have people on both sides of the sea.”
Now, perched in the hull of the raft, she had a more pressing concern. The pilot had taken the boat within twenty yards of shore, and the Albanians were yelling for everyone to jump out before the authorities detected them. Those passengers who did not comply got tossed forcibly into the sea.
As she entered the sea, the water reached up to Nadia’s nose. As the waves crested, she lost contact with the sandy floor and took in large gulps of salty water. She floated, stumbled, and fought her way to shore. A number of other passengers washed ashore on the beach at about the same moment. After a pause to gain their bearings, they all made a chaotic rush to get off the beach and avoid detection.
Nadia slept until daylight nestled in a crevice in the middle of three large rocks. The sound of a loud horn jarred her awake. Peaking over the top of the rocks, she saw a roadway no more than fifty yards in the distance. She reached inside her pants to see if the plastic baggie had survived her ordeal, and she was pleased to discover that all the documents had remained dry.
Now Nadia had to consider her next move. She knew the fate awaiting her if she called her new owner. She could never willingly go back to that hell. If the mafia wanted to track her down, so be it.
Absent a plan, she started walking in search of food. It did not take her long to reach San Foca. She used her “phone money” to buy a loaf of bread at a small bakery and started eating it greedily as soon as she hit the sidewalk. Propped against the wall of the bakery, she luxuriated as the sun came out brightly to take away the shivers that had troubled her sleep.
During the course of the morning, the owner of the bakery strolled outside her shop and noticed that Nadia had not left. Based on their brief encounter, she realized that Nadia did not understand Italian. Taking a look at her ragged appearance, the woman guessed that Nadia had recently washed ashore from Albania.
“Regina Pacis?” the woman asked.
Nadia shrugged her arms to indicate that she did not understand.
“Regina Pacis?” the woman repeated, saying the words slowly this time. “Padre Cesare?”
Once again, Nadia gave her a puzzled look. The woman smiled and gestured for Nadia to wait on the sidewalk. She went inside and made a call to the shelter.
Nadia did not know it at the time, but her torturous trek had reached its end. Years later—long after she had married a man from the village and Stefan had joined her in San Foca—she would walk by that bakery wall and smile. It was there, at that spot, when the sun had come out brightly to take her shivers away.
This story is from ‘Not for Sale’ by David Batstone, HarperSanFrancisco
Copyright © 2006 HarperCollins Publishers, All rights reserved