Hundreds of Albanian girls are sold into squalor and shame in Macedonia

June 09, 1994|By Louise Branson | Louise Branson,Special to The Sun

ARNAQI, Macedonia -- In the seedy Kafe Bar Berlin, Essmerelda Seferi throws back her head and croons in a husky Edith Piaf voice. Hard-drinking men leer across the smoke-filled room.

To Essmerelda, this hell in a dirt-track town is the end of her young life. When she was 14, she was sold to a man who took her virginity, sold her to others and then discarded her. That was two years ago.

She longs to return home to Albania and her parents. "In my dreams at night, I see how my mother cries," she says, her own eyes brimming with tears. "But I know my family, I know our traditions. They would never take me back."

Her teeth are going bad. Her skin is aged beyond her years. But a hard and worldly veneer barely disguise her vulnerability. The Kafe Bar Berlin has an edge over the countless other bars she has worked, in "because here they don't abuse me."

Young Essmerelda is just one of perhaps thousands of young girls being lured from their native Albania and sold across the border in Macedonia, the tiny former Yugoslav republic bordering northern Greece, which declared independence three years ago. They become prostitutes, brides for elderly men or menial workers.

Police in Macedonia turn a blind eye. They refused to be interviewed but acknowledged in a statement that 593 Albanian girls were married to Macedonians who paid cash for them last year.

The police statement noted that it is a custom in Albanian-populated western Macedonia for men to purchase their brides. It said poor Albanian Macedonians cannot afford to pay local prices of about $7,000. So they are purchasing brides "considerably cheaper" from impoverished Albania next door, where the going price ranges from $400 to $1,200.

According to police, no figures are available for the number of Albanian girls engaged in prostitution or who are kept as mistresses by rich Macedonian citizens. Macedonian journalists say their numbers run into the thousands.

A majority of the girls are tricked into leaving their homes by Albanian gangsters. Once over the border and in the hands of their buyers, they are deprived of legal and human rights. They are trapped. As illegal residents, they cannot seek legal protection. Old traditions of rural Albania make it virtually impossible to flee back home: A girl who has lost her virginity is an outcast.

Essmerelda's fate is typical. She said a woman teacher and the teacher's male friend asked her to join them for a visit to Macedonia.

It promised to be a glittering adventure for the pretty, spirited schoolgirl. Until three years ago, Albania had been in Stalinist isolation for almost half a century. Like most other Albanians, Essmerelda had lived a sheltered, isolated life in conditions of poverty. Her parents had been declared "enemies of the people," spent time in prison and were exiled to forbidding, mountainous Mirdita, the Albanian "Siberia."

The jaunt to Macedonia went wrong soon after they arrived at their destination, the southern village of Celopeka. As Essmerelda tells the story, she was told to wait in a bar while the teacher and her friend went off. She said she didn't mind. She had been given Coca-Cola for the first time in her life. "It was a real thrill," she said.

Essmerelda was joined by two young men and a waitress. Soon, she felt dizzy and began to hallucinate.

"I woke up the next day. I was not in this village any more. When I got up, the sheets were all bloodied. I was 14," she said. Her new "owner," who she knows only by the name of "Ayat" took her on trips to Turkey and Bulgaria as his mistress, occasionally sharing her with other men. She believes her parents were told she had been married.

The Albanian government has recently passed a law banning the sale of women, but it has reportedly had little effect. In the large Albanian minority in Macedonia into which the women are sold, there is a conspiracy of silence. Last month, however, two concerned journalists working for Albanian-language state radio in Macedonia decided to break the taboo and make it the subject of their popular Friday phone-in show, "Open Studio." The switchboard was jammed with calls.

Most calls, according to talk show host Lutvi Turkeshi, were from women who had been sold. Several said they had come willingly to Macedonia, on promises they were to be married to rich young men. Instead, they found themselves brides of elderly or disabled men. Some had made an uneasy peace.

"I am a teacher," one told Mr. Turkeshi. "I was promised a man my age. I came and was deceived. I am married to an old man, though I have everything I didn't have in Albania. A big house. But I've been deceived."

The show got a very different response from male callers who were angry and rude, asking journalists why it was necessary to raise these issues. Albanian intellectuals say the sale of women is run by a tightly organized underworld ring, and many men have no objection to it.

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