Twenty-one-year-old Katia (see update on her story below) left home on what she believed would be a trip to buy goods in Turkey, but instead she was sold into sexual slavery for $1,000 by the man who agreed to take her there. "He didn't look like a person who would do something like that," said Katia's husband, Viorel. "He sold my wife for $1,000 because she'd given birth before, … so as merchandise she was only worth $1,000. Girls who haven't had children are more expensive."
In "Sex Slaves," FRONTLINE follows Viorel on an extraordinary journey deep into the world of sex trafficking to try to find his wife, Katia, who was four months' pregnant when she left home, and then free her from the violent pimp who now "owns" her. Along the way, the production team takes a rare, hidden-camera look at the various traffickers, pimps and middlemen who illegally buy and sell hundreds of thousands of women each year. Lured by traffickers who prey on their dreams of employment abroad, many of the women are then kidnapped and "exported" to Europe, the Middle East, the United States and elsewhere. During this process, they may be sold to pimps, locked in brothels, drugged, terrorized and raped repeatedly. In Eastern Europe, since the fall of communism, sex trafficking has become the fastest growing form of organized crime, with Moldova and Ukraine widely seen as major suppliers of women into the global sex trade.
"How much will a girl cost?" co-producer Felix Golubev asks a trafficker in Moldova while posing undercover as an interested buyer from North America.
"Five hundred to 600 dollars—that's what I get," replies the trafficker. "The final price is higher, but I have to share with the middleman and the guy who transports them." When Golubev asks how he can be sure the girls won't run away, the trafficker tells him, "Once they arrive, be sure to take their passports away."
Early in his search, Viorel receives help from an unlikely ally—Vlad (last name withheld), the man who initially sold Katia—and FRONTLINE manages to track Vlad down for an interview.
"Why did I phone [Viorel]?" Vlad asks himself. "To say that I felt guilty might sound absurd after what I did. However, strange as it may seem, guilt played its part." Vlad helps Viorel contact Apo, the pimp who now has Katia. He also provides rare insight into the world of the traffickers. "Debt bondage represents the money that a girl is told she has to work off," Vlad tells FRONTLINE. "That amount is easily inflated if the pimp wants. That way, the debt never goes away, and she continues to work … without ever receiving a penny."
As Viorel searches for Katia, we learn what she might be enduring from other trafficked women. "They took me to a villa and locked me in," says Tania, 23, about her six months in captivity in Turkey. "We worked for as long as we had clients. They didn't see us as human beings, but just as flesh that they could use." Twenty-eight-year-old Oksana was sold 13 times over an eight-month period before finally being allowed to return to her native Ukraine. "There were 22 girls in a three-bedroom apartment, and each girl got beaten up at least once a day. One girl ran away and went to the police for help, but she was taken back to her pimp. Policemen … used our services."
As Katia's story is brought to an extraordinary conclusion, "Sex Slaves" exposes the government indifference that allows the global sex trade to continue virtually unchecked and what needs to be done. "The prosecution rate is abysmal in most of these countries," says Ric Esther Bienstock, producer and director of the program. "The official line is `We're doing as much as we can; we have a counter-trafficking unit; we're trying to prosecute.' … We know that there is a level of corruption; we know that there is bribery. But without the political will to address this, traffickers will continue to operate with impunity. That's why we set out to investigate this story."
Update, Feb. 2011: FRONTLINE asked producer Ric Esther Bienstock how the characters in this report are doing now, five years after the original broadcast of "Sex Slaves." She writes:
- Tania is doing extremely well. Every time the documentary has been broadcast, we have received funds from viewers who wish to help her and other characters in the film. These funds have helped Tania pull her life back together. She was able to buy a small house in a village where she could find work. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, so this was crucial for her to be able to earn a living while living with her daughter. She currently works as a sales clerk in a local store. Her daughter is thriving. She no longer has to travel an hour to get to school. Her new school is a mere 10 minute walk from home. Tania is trying to learn English now. Tania never earned her high school diploma, and she has decided to go back and finish high school. She has survived her ordeal and has made a new life for herself.
- Katia moved to Odessa and found a job in a bar. Her son still lives with her mother in Tiraspol. She could not stay in Tiraspol because she could not find work. She and her husband Viorel split up. She was successfully treated for cervical cancer but still suffers from some health issues which she attributes to her experiences in Turkey. She has not really emotionally recovered from her ordeal.
- Oksana found a job as a cleaner in a local clinic. Unfortunately her daughter has severe diabetes and she is having trouble keeping it under control. Her sister returned from Turkey after working there as a domestic for several years and subsequently got a divorce. Her mother passed away this past December which has been very difficult for the family as she was the pillar that held the family together. Oksana is now the sole breadwinner of the family and she is the only one taking care of her daughter and a sister with special needs. But she is psychologically strong and has put her experience in Turkey behind her.
- "Olga," the trafficker, was never arrested. She still lives in Moldova.
If you are interested in helping any of the victims of sex trafficking who appeared in this report, a trust account has been opened by the Canadian production company responsible for the film. The company has been collecting donations and wiring them directly to the victims who appear in the documentary. Contact the producers of the film at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.