Tricked Into

Like everyone else, I used to divide the prostitutes smuggled into Israel from the former Soviet republics into two categories — the good ones who were tricked into it, and the bad ones who knew what they were getting into.

I think differently now. After meeting one of the "bad" ones for a story I’m doing, I see them all, both the knowing and unknowing, as victims, as innocents.

When I first suggested a story about the Israeli flesh trade to a foreign editor, and explained to him the two different kinds of women we were talking about, he said he wasn’t interested in "willing" prostitutes, only in regular women lured from their homes with promises of legitimate work and then forced into sexual slavery.

So I called the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which helps foreign prostitutes, and asked if they could get me an interview with someone who thought she was coming here to clean houses or something, and soon I went to Tel Aviv to meet "Natasha."

In jeans, T-shirt and sandals, she looked like any pretty 20-year-old Israeli girl, except more demure — hair tied back in a bun, little gold studs in her ears and no make-up. Nearly two years earlier she’d escaped from one of the "health clubs" near the old Central Bus Station, then went to the police and later testified against her pimp.

With her innocent face and soft voice, Natasha had a little-girl quality, but as she told her story through a translator she showed herself to be very mistrustful and cynical, understandably enough.

She first came in contact with pimps when she was 18, living in a town in Moldova with her father and stepmother. She’d studied to be a technician, but ran out of money, while her drunken, unemployed father had none and her stepmother refused to help.

"A girl I knew told me there was this man and woman who could get me work in Israel, and in six months I could make enough money to get an apartment and a car, so I went over there to see them."

I asked: When she met the man and woman, did they tell her the work was prostitution?

"They told me it was prostitution, but they didn’t tell me the conditions," she said.

At this point I wanted to go, both because Natasha wasn’t right for the story and because I didn’t want to cause her unnecessary stress — she’d been very reluctant to go through with the interview for fear that I would reveal her identity or whereabouts, which could get her killed. But I didn’t want to insult her so I continued, figuring I would at least get some background material.

She told how she and several other women were forced to hide underground in the Sinai Desert, waiting for their Bedouin smugglers to give the all-clear for the trek to the all-but-open Israeli border.

"We climbed down a ladder into a hole … like Saddam Hussein. We had buckets for toilets. It was hot, there were flies. We stayed there for three days."

After they made the three-hour walk to the border and were driven to Tel Aviv, Natasha was taken to a pimp who had her undress so he could "inspect the merchandise," and he asked her about herself. "The pimps prefer it if the women have children back home, so they’ll be more motivated to work," explained Uri Sadeh, a Hotline attorney.

The sale concluded, Natasha’s pimp told her she now owed him the $8,000 he’d paid for her, and she would work it off in his brothel near the bus station.

Giving sex to about 10 clients a day, she got to keep about $5 for each trick, while the house kept the other $30. Out of her average $50 daily wage she paid the brothel $16 for rent, about $12 for food and cigarettes and $4 for condoms.

"Sometimes the clients hit me. Sometimes one of the bosses would hit me if I said I didn’t want to do it with a client because he was drunk or he smelled," she said.

Natasha slept in the brothel. Whatever she wanted to buy was brought in to her — she wasn’t allowed to go out on her own and the whorehouse goon guarded the locked door.

She was on call 19 hours a day from 10 a.m.-5 a.m., seven days a week, and when she was on her period she used a diaphragm.

During the interview, I asked if her father had agreed for her to go to Israel.

"I didn’t tell him I was going," said said. "I didn’t say goodbye to him. Why should I?"

And her mother?

"My mother left when I was 1."

Is she in touch with her father since she left?

"I called him once, and he said he didn’t want to know about me. He said, ‘Why should I care, I don’t need you.’ He’s got a new wife now. We haven’t talked since then. He doesn’t know where I am," she said.

After four months in the brothel, a client who became Natasha’s boyfriend helped her escape. Her testimony later put her pimp away for 13 years. "Hooray, happy ending, right?" she said sarcastically.

She’s been hiding now for two years, scraping by with a menial job, alone with her history. Her plans? "To study, to work. To live like a normal human being."

Given her upbringing, did Natasha "choose" to become a prostitute? Does any girl who grows up desolate — without love, money, prospects or self-esteem — really "choose" that destiny?

On "Fight Human Trafficking Day" in the Knesset on Aug. 16, activists said about 3,000 female sex slaves are smuggled into Israel each year. They all started out as poor, bereft young girls. They all were tricked into it.

Israeli Vice

The young Lithuanian woman in the prison libraryhas the narrow chest, hunched shoulders and wary eyes of someone whohas known poverty and is not sure where the next blow is coming from.She talks to reporters to convince herself that she was not aprostitute, not one by choice anyway.

Her first name, which is all she will tell, isGiedre. She is 19, with lank, sandy hair, pale freckles on palecheeks, stone-washed blue jeans and a black boucle zip-up jacket.Giedre is one of 39 illegal immigrants from the old Soviet Unionawaiting deportation in Neve Tirtza women’s prison near Ben-GurionAirport. Almost all of them, according to the governor, Betty Lahat,worked in Israeli brothels.

The prisoners are the tip of a multimillion-dollarracket, which recruits hundreds of women a year in Eastern Europe forwhat the Israel Women’s Network brands “a modern slave trade.”Criminologists estimate that about 2,000 women from Russia, Lithuaniaand Ukraine are currently working in Israel’s sex industry. Manyarrive by sea, on tourist visas or cruise ships from Cyprus. Some aregenuine tourists who are kidnapped by local gangsters.

The women are bought and sold by pimps andtraffickers for prices up to $20,000. Some were promised jobs asnannies, waitresses or dancers. One woman, arrested last month inHaifa, confessed that she was a doctor who couldn’t make a living inher profession back home.

Giedre, who has a Jewish father and a Christianmother, says that she came to Israel to stay with an aunt. After afamily quarrel, she moved into a cheap hotel in Herzliya, near TelAviv. One night she returned from a disco to find her room ransacked,her bag, passport and money gone.

When she went downstairs to report the theft, shewas lured outside by a Russian girl who had befriended her. Two burlymen grabbed her and bundled her into a windowless van. She was keptfor three days in a locked room of a two-story house withoutfood.

“On the third night, I was desperate,” she says.”I tried to break out. I shouted for help. But it was no use. Twomen, who spoke Russian with a Georgian accent, carted me off to amassage parlor. When I refused to work there, they beat me up. Theyraped me, punched my body, slapped my face. Finally, I agreed to workfor them.”

Giedre was put in a room with another girl. Shehad sex with six clients a day, half an hour each. The two girlsslept and worked in the same room. There were five other girls in thebrothel. Some told Giedre that they had 15 to 20 men a day, for whichthey were paid $1,000 a month.

The Lithuanian teen-ager worked for a week butdidn’t wait for a paycheck. Before dawn one day, she climbed out ofan upstairs laundry room and fled barefoot down a rope of sheets.After finding her way back to her aunt’s, she was arrested foroverstaying her visa. When she can produce the money for a ticket,she will be put on the next plane out.

Another prisoner, who calls herself Russita,admits that she was a prostitute in Lithuania. Mafia agents broughther to Israel on forged papers with tales of rich pickings. One agenttook her passport on arrival. One pimp sold her to another, who madeher strip so that he could see what he was buying.

“When I asked what I’d be paid,” she says, “hetold me I’d have to pay back his investment first, then I would get$100 a month. Before then, I was sold on to a third pimp, who put mein a massage parlor, where I received up to 30 men a day. They paidhim 150 shekels [about $42] each.”

Russita was arrested during a police raid.Prostitution is not a crime in Israel, but she will be expelledbecause she has no papers. Like most of the Neve Tirtza girls, shearrived at the prison without money. The Lithuanian Consulate willprobably pay for her ticket home.

According to a 30-page report published at thebeginning of this year by the campaigning Israel Women’s Network,most pimps are Israeli citizens, either native-born or Russianimmigrants. Police raid brothels from time to time, but the networkfound that pimps were prosecuted only in the most extreme cases. Eventhen, they usually receive light sentences. “The pimps go free,” saysEfraim Ehrlich, head of the Tel Aviv vice squad. “The women go toprison.”

And, like Giedre, Russita and many Natashas, theywait to go home with nothing to show for their trip to the PromisedLand.