"They didn't see us as humans"

Frontline's "Sex Slaves" is a shocking look at the fastest-growing form of organized crime in eastern Europe.

Published February 7, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

The notion of being sold into sexual slavery is little more than a punch line here in the States, but it's a real problem in eastern Europe, where sex trafficking is considered the fastest-growing form of organized crime. Frontline's "Sex Slaves" (9 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, on PBS; check local listings) highlights the horrific stories of women in Odessa, Ukraine, who are sent to Turkey for what they think are jobs "working in a shop" as one woman puts it, only to be forced into prostitution. For days they're inaugurated into their new lives by the men who own them: humiliated, intimidated and raped. Later, they're sent to clubs or apartment buildings where they meet with clients, and they're threatened with death if they say no. Despite highly publicized raids, the film's producers suggest that those responsible for these atrocities are rarely prosecuted. Victims report that they escaped and told the Turkish police, who send them back to their brothels without help.

In "Sex Slaves," producer/director Ric Esther Bienstock plus co-producers Felix Golubev and Simcha Jacobovici unravel the disturbing story of Katia, a 21-year-old woman who left her husband behind in Odessa to shop in Turkey with an acquaintance of theirs. That acquaintance sold Katia into sexual slavery for $1,000. Her husband, Viorel, tells the filmmakers his terrifying story: "He said, 'I've sold your wife.' I immediately realized that I shouldn't jump on him, otherwise he'd disappear, like he wouldn't give me his telephone number, and I'd never find him or my wife."

The sex trafficker who sold Katia into slavery, Vlad, soon found out that Katia had been resold to a notoriously violent pimp. Feeling guilty over this, he decided to help Viorel find her. Amazingly enough, Vlad also agreed to speak with the filmmakers directly.

"Everything depends on the psychological state of the girl," Vlad says. "If she has a weak psyche, she usually breaks down and accepts that she'll have to work as a prostitute. If she can't be persuaded, she'll be physically forced to do it."

Viorel ends up trying to track down Katia's captors while the film crew tags along. Heartbroken but determined to find his wife even if it means risking his own life, he tells the filmmakers, "I'll do anything to get her out of there. Whatever it takes, I don't care. I'd sell my fucking organs."

Viorel's dramatic story affords a glimpse of the devastating effects of the sex trade on young women desperate for work abroad. While some of the women are aware of what they're getting into, many others are kept in the dark, and they wake up in the middle of an unthinkable nightmare. Tania, 23, who was sold into slavery in Turkey, tells the filmmakers through tears, "They didn't see us as human beings, but just as whores, just as flesh that they could use. That's all."

Despite the repugnant nature of these crimes, officials in Turkey are reportedly fairly indifferent to the suffering going on under their noses. Somehow any whiff of prostitution makes them hesitant to help, or they're quick to assume that these women chose to become sex workers. When you see the despair in the eyes of the women who are lucky enough to escape, though, it's clear that they don't return home the same people they were when they left. Even at a distance, it feels like some piece of their souls is stolen from them along the way.

"Sex Slaves" will make you question how any human being could be so heartless as to torture vulnerable young women, often ruining their lives and changing them irrevocably. Survivor Tania says that, in the beginning, she had hopes that someone would have a heart and help her out.

"Before this, I hadn't encountered much evil in my life," she says, her eyes welling up with tears. "I couldn't believe places like that actually exist in this world. I thought that I'd find at least one kind person "

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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