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Article 1 September 2008 edition.

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by Jessica Kuzmier

copyright 2008       Imagine being so poor that you are willing to do anything for money. Imagine being in a circumstance so dire, that if a person comes handing you money, you are willing to sell them your friend or relative as a commodity for barter. Your friend or relative is most likely a female, and from there, the work that your friend or relative is most likely to engage in is something that you may have protected her from as she was growing up. But it can't be helped; you are just too poor to refuse the money. It isn't much of a choice, but you have accepted one for your own personal survival. Maybe your safety or that of your family is threatened if you don't choose to barter this way, the people making the offer being from the not-so-nice part of town. So you make choices that may have seemed unthinkable only several years ago, when life was planned out for you, there were little choices, but at least life was stable then. It isn't now. Living on the streets of Moldova, post Soviet Union, it's not an easy way to go.

     So goes the trade of human trafficking, in places all over the world including Moldova, where numerous people are sold in circumstances such as these to live the life as a prostitute (as well as other slavelike work) in some unknown place. Direct barter is not always used. Sometimes, it's trickery. The women or girls themselves are approached, told that they can get a good job overseas somewhere, maybe as a nanny, a bartender, or some kind of vendor. Except, that's not what happens, and somehow a girl finds herself on a foreign street in a trade she never bartered for. Sometimes, it's just pure kidnapping: grab a girl off the streets, and now you have a commodity. Maybe the kidnapper is a person without conscience, grabbing a business opportunity at any cost, or in this case no cost or investment. Maybe the kidnapper is in his own dire straits, involved in something bigger than himself, perhaps tricked into some gang much like the females tricked into "nanny" jobs. No matter: the job is done, the girl is kidnapped, and a sale is made. All in a day's work in the underground world of human trafficking.

     The recent incursion of Russia into Georgian territory has reopened a chapter in geopolitics that it seems much of the media had considered closed. That is regarding the fate of the numerous countries which had been engulfed under the confines of the Soviet Union until its collapse, or soon before it. Places like Latvia, the Ukraine, and Tajikistan are places that fit this bill, as are places like Estonia, Lithuania and Kazakhstan. Places that normally don't make the news. Places like Georgia, which is so obscure sounding it sounds as though it was a ripoff from the American state with the same name. Places like the tiny country of Moldova.

     Moldova is a nearly unheard of country in the scale of geopolitics. This anonymity is something British comedian Tony Hawks capitalizes on in his travelogue, "Playing the Moldovans at Tennis". Hawks, a traveler who has written narratives based on drunken bets he makes in pubs (hence his previous book, Round Ireland with a Fridge), makes a bet that with a friend that he can play the entire Moldovan soccer team at tennis and win. Leaving merry capitalist England for the land of Moldova, he finds a country not barren of people but one barren of hope. Even a positive, cheery person such as Hawks finds reason to despair in this place, finding that it takes a great deal to break through the overriding sense of pessimism that pervades nearly all of the people he meets. In this atmosphere, where money is so scarce that the local doctors are many times still paid in poultry, a barter economy is what prevails. Except it is one trying to survive in a massive, post-industrial and technological world.

     Though Hawks himself does not encounter the trafficking market, this hopelessness is a sentiment of place desperate enough to barter not only in chickens but in humans as well, according to the interviews given by Amnesty International, E. Benjamin Skinner, and U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report (June 2008). According to the State Department's Report, more than one percent of 750,000 Moldovans working abroad are trafficking victims. Presumably, this is if anything a lowball figure. Traffickers, the providers, and the victims are very unlikely to admit that they are involved in this practice. Jail could result for the former two, an obvious obstacle to honesty. Unfortunately for the last group, the fear of retribution, a sense of having no other options after being broken, and pure shame are likely to keep a victim silent.

     The history of Moldova, like many of the republics in the Baltic, has had a complicated narrative. Settled by Slavs, Romans, and Russians, once part of the Tartar Kingdom, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the country of Romania, and eventually annexed under the military wings of the Soviet Union, Moldova seems to have become a battleground in its own definition of who it is. The people who are considered Moldovans are really what most would be considered ethnic Romanians. The native language, and predominant of the people is Romanian, which makes the idea of "Moldova" more of a geographical stronghold rather than a cultural concept. Of course, one could say the same of the United States or Australia, who speak English rather than American or Australian, although there are probably many British who would beg to differ. The lack of native language in such tight corners, though, seems from an outside perspective representative of its tug of war identity under powers vying for its lifeblood. For in addition to Romanian, Russian is a common language as well. Something like a certain language in a certain place is enough to send tanks in, as we have seen with the tanks that have run through Georgia.

     Human slavery and trafficking is one of those things that just doesn't seem like it happens anymore, like it's one of those urban legends that people bandy about to make white people afraid of traveling to non-European countries with their daughters because of white slavery and sex trade. Or maybe, it's in one of those places that aren't really stable yet, where the media make enough noise to report the devastation but not quite enough to affect permanent change, like Darfur. Perhaps this is politically incorrect to say, but to many in industrialized nations, it's just easier to think of this kind of thing happening in places that are non-European, that are non-industrialized. Not in a place that has achieved freedom and is European in culture, like Moldova.

     But it does happen, and it is going on in this place. Once the shackles of Communism fell, many of the economic safety valves of a collective economy fell, and to fill the vacuum, the Western novelty of television replaced it. Lured by the idea of a better life beyond the borders of Moldova, women went outside the country looking for a better life, and were perfect fodder for those traffickers who promised to provide it. A better life was not what waited for them, but once the traffickers were in place, the seemingly entrenched economy of sending women overseas for sex was created.

     Unfortunately, it seems that although Moldova is aware of the problem, it seems that their antitrafficking efforts are yielding few results. The heavy hand of bribes and corruption in law enforcement may have some reason for this. In addition, the beleaguered nature of the country leaves few resources to combat such a problem. As long as people are thinking there are riches to be made in the West, at the expense of what they know is trafficking, it seems like this problem will continue.

     Dana Popa, a Romanian journalist, traveled to Moldova to speak with trafficked women who returned to their native country to recover after their experiences. The International Organization of Migration runs a rehabilitative shelter for trafficked in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. Here, Popa talked with several women and documented what happened to them. Good jobs had been promised overseas, and the reality was much different. Here, in this shelter, this intergovernmental organization is trying to help women recreate lives that had been shattered. A big problem is that the country itself is nearly as badly shattered as the women who are being rescued. The poorest country in Europe, this post-Soviet country has no idea what to do next. At this point, it lacks the incentive to try to push for itself, not to mention there is no capital for it to get off the ground economically. Its rich soil is a boon for agriculture, so its wine industry is the only major commodity that is available for profit. Except this is in a country that never exploited the word profit, and the only people who are doing well are the mafia who always had an edge on that word. And so the dark side of bartering continues.

     Kevin Bales, author of "Ending Slavery", tells us that education of local communities is one way of staving off some of this dark industry. If the people of the community all stand together, knowing the reality of what happens to their people when they are shipped overseas, there is power in numbers. In other words, if an entire community stands up to a mob, then the mob's power is diminished. One person may be intimidated by a thug to sell a friend, or one woman alone may feel enticed by the promise of a good job, but if a community chooses to refute this evil it will have less power.

     The thing is that a community needs to be able to do this, and have a reason to want to stand up for his neighbors. Tony Hawks encountered an informal economy in Moldova, where his host family provided medical services for food. If a community can bond with each other in this informal way, then it is quite possible they can find bonds enough to withstand injustice. The quality of hope needs to be exported to this place rather than the dream of money and Western goods. Perhaps then, the desperation, greed, and naivete that feeds this industry will lessen.

     Every person has a right to eat, but every person also has the right to determine his or her own life and not be the victim of someone whose desperation is so strong he turns to exploitation. When a person has decided that she has no choice but to be abused, this is a disaster. When a community or country feels this way, it is a crisis that threatens to blast through international borders. As we have seen with the recent Georgian crisis in South Ossetia, it doesn't take all that much. A country of desperation needs hope. This hope perhaps, will lead to inspiration and freedom to determine one's own path. It is a human right which of which everyone is entitled to pursue.


"Not Natasha", by Dana Popa. Amnesty International Magazine, New York, Summer 2008

Bales, Kevin: Ending Slavery. Berkeley: University of California Press, c 2007.

Lerner Publications Company: Moldova. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, c 1993

Hawks, Tony: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, c 2000

Skinner, E. Benjamin: A Crime So Monstrous. New York: Free Press, c 2008.

Free the Slaves: www.freetheslaves.net

International Organization for Migration: Moldova, www.iom.md

U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2008: gvnet.com/humantrafficking/Moldova.htm

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