It's a dangerous life for those who try to help the young girls who are victims of human trafficking in the Balkans. This includes Mara Radovanovic who oversees a woman's shelter in Bosnia.
Schoolgirls are the new target for forced prostitution in Bosnia
Even 12-year-old girls from good families can end up forced into prostitution in Bosnia. First the pimps spy on a girl and figure out who in her family she loves the most. Then they tell her they're going to kill that very person if she refuses to work as a prostitute for them. That's according to Mara Radovanovic of the women's organization LARA in Bosnia, which is now supported by the international organization CARE. Radovanovic has established a network to fight human trafficking and set up a women's shelter in a secret location where she cares for victims.
Other girls are drugged and then gang raped in motels. The perpetrators film everything and then threaten to put the video on the Internet. The fear of public humiliation silences the girls. Radovanovic told Deutsche Welle that even supposed "leaders" of Bosnian society are involved in these crimes.
Some of the men involved are in positions of power
That was the case of one Roma girl in her shelter, who comes from a village near the eastern town of Srebrenica. "She was abused by teachers and the local police," Radovanovic said. "Even the Bosnian security minister was involved."
The girl testified against the minister in the shelter, which has directly felt the results. "In the past we got funding from the security ministry, but since then the support has stopped," Radovanovic said. She said she didn't expect any more funds as long as that particular politician is in power.
He had claimed to have met with the girl to give her a scholarship for school. Because the girl has a photographic memory, she was able to describe all the details of the minister's car to the police, thus proving that she really had been lured into his car, and not for educational purposes.
A new trend
Going after local Bosnian girls is the new trend for organized crime in the region, according to Radovanovic. Up until 2005, most of the victims were foreign girls and women who were lured from across Eastern Europe by alleged job offers in the West.
Instead of ending up working as a babysitter or waitress in Germany, however, they were then carried off to the Balkans and forced to work as prostitutes. Awareness efforts from a few brave activists have now brought this issue into the public consciousness. Today Bosnian border guards and police officers are better trained to identify these trafficking victims, which also reduces the number of foreign victims in the country.
A risky fight
Victims of forced prostitution and human trafficking can only be help, Radovanovic said, if the state intervenes.
"The most important thing is to force our government to provide the resources for the rehabilitation of these victims," she said. "School scholarships for example. Because otherwise they can't be helped in the long term."
The mafia has those trying to help in their sights
The Bosnian government has one response: There's no money available. But Radovanovic will keep fighting for the victims, she said, even though she's besieged by threats from the Bosnian mafia and it's almost impossible to protect them.
Radovanovic's organization may have the support of European police forces and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but she says silence is often what keeps her and her colleagues safe.
"The most important thing is the following: We know that the criminals are out there that would be very quick to kill someone," she said. "So even if we have evidence against someone, we keep this knowledge to ourselves. Knowledge is the best way for us to protect ourselves - anything else would mean certain death."
Author: Alexandra Scherle / hf
Editor: Chuck Penfold