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Sunday, August 18, 2019
Feb 7 2018 - “A client called at night and ordered a girl. I was sleeping when suddenly I was told to go to the client. He was already drunk and aggressive. I was scared to stay with him. He made me drink and I had to obey. You feel neither pain nor shame when you are drunk. Everything goes easier. I woke up in the morning and got ready to leave when he told me to stay. He told that he had paid for the whole day and I must work it off. The door was closed. He hid the door keys and my phone. He claimed that he had paid for my services and could do with me whatever he wanted… He fell asleep soon again. I didn’t find the keys. I thought I could exit through the window. It was the third floor and there was a fire escape ladder nearby. I decided to climb over the balcony to the ladder. And fell down… Everything happened very quickly. I felt no pain… I remember that I tried to stand up but couldn’t and saw my bones sticking out of my arms. I passed out. I came round in the ambulance. Later – only in the intensive care unit. There I told my name and where I came from. Doctors called my relatives. Later my family moved me back to Belarus. It was super expensive.”
Ira is a victim of trafficking in human beings. She survived sexual slavery.
It is hard to believe that slavery still exists in the modern world. Today this phenomenon is referred to as “Trafficking in Human Beings” and “traffickers” are subject to criminal liability for the recruitment, detention and exploitation of victims of trafficking. Victims are often psychologically and/or physically injured for the rest of their lives. Hardly ever do they tell their stories to others because most likely they will be criticized and blamed for what has happened to them.
Ira agreed to tell her story for other girls to be aware of a hidden danger. She tells that no matter how difficult one’s situation in life is, one should always doubt and check what one is offered. There is always a right and opportunity to refuse and leave. The important thing is to stay in touch with relatives before making a decision to accept an offer, and even after, if the decision is already made.
Ira is a person in a wheelchair. She has a daughter, work, a dacha where she likes to go in summer, and plans for the future.
We were a little bit nervous before meeting with Ira because we knew that her life was not easy. We expected to see a young depressed woman and didn’t know what questions we should ask and what to avoid.
When we met Ira, we saw a young woman with a strong will, because only such a person can pluck up all her courage and tell us her story, which she thinks about every day. We saw a brave woman who overcame pain and lives a normal life, works, raises a daughter. Ira is from a small town in the Vitebsk region. She says that she’s never had warm family relationships: her mother spent a lot of time at work due to her high and responsible position. Ira didn’t have close relationships with her sister either, because of a big age difference.
“Neither my mother nor my sister was a close friend to me. It seemed to me that my mother didn’t care a lot about us. She got married for the third time; her husband was a few years younger. But she always performed her mother’s responsibilities to ‘dress and feed’ us, and we never struggled to make ends meet,” Ira recalls.
Life with Ira’s mother and her new husband went wrong from the very beginning. Ira was a teenager when he moved to their place. The mother was jealous of him. On any occasion he tried either to pinch Ira or to hug her or to pat her hips. He constantly provoked her.
Ira ran away from home many times. But she was too young and didn’t have an opportunity to earn money to live on her own. Ira got married very early. Her husband seemed to be a like-minded person, a perfect candidate for her. Soon she gave birth to a daughter and in the beginning everything was quite fine. But years passed and relations became worse. Ira’s young husband didn’t want to work. The family lacked money and didn’t have proper accommodation to live in. They were all the time moving from her mother’s-in-law place to the rented flat and back.
“We were too young and fed up with the daily routine,” Ira explains.
Ira left her husband and returned to her mother’s place, taking the child with her. But it didn’t make her life easier. Ira’s stepfather turned his spouse against her own daughter, and got irritated if Ira’s mother helped her with the child. As a result, Ira’s mother stopped supporting her although she could. Neither husband nor mother supported and helped Ira.
Since the town was tiny and Ira didn’t have a high level of education, it was difficult to find a job. She got a job in a small company but then the company faced economic problems and Ira ended up with nothing. She was desperate about her life when her neighbor introduced her to a female friend from Saint Petersburg who earned her living by providing escort services.
“She wasn’t ashamed to talk about it openly. She assured me that it was always possible to choose a client and turn him down if you didn’t like him. She also emphasized that being an escort was not always about sex; it could be accompanying a client to a restaurant. The friend pointed out that it was possible to come back home any time and bring gifts for a child, for example. ‘This work means you always have money.’ She advised me that I try and said: ‘Look at the poverty around, you will be able to earn one salary at a time. In case you don’t like it you are always free to come back.’”
“I was puzzled. At first, I couldn’t bear any talk about it. What if people know what I do for a living? Later I made up my mind. I asked my sister to take care of my daughter. Nobody knew where I was going because I wasn’t used to sharing my plans and, frankly speaking, not many were eager to know about them.”
As Ira had no money, the neighbor’s friend paid for her tickets and joined her. Upon arrival she explained the working schedule and how to meet with clients. She didn’t work herself. Ira shared a two-room apartment with a few more girls.
“What was my job like? It was far from what I had been promised. It was difficult to admit that you were deceived. Everything was not the way I’d expected.”
“The clients were totally different, several clients per day. It was impossible to refuse a client otherwise you could be fined. There was always a lot of alcohol. You had to drink because if you were drunk it was possible to stay out of work. A lot of wealthy clients sought only a heart-to-heart conversation…”
Ira pauses. These memories are hard to recall and unpleasant to share with someone else.
“How did you leave?” we ask.
“A client called at night and ordered a girl. I was sleeping when suddenly I was told to go to the client. He was already drunk and aggressive. I was scared to stay with him. He made me drink and I had to obey. You feel neither pain nor shame when you are drunk. Everything goes easier. I woke up in the morning and got ready to leave when he told me to stay. He told that he had paid for the whole day and I must work it off. The door was closed. He hid the door keys and my phone. He claimed that he had paid for my services and could do with me whatever he wanted… He fell asleep soon again. I didn’t find the keys. I thought I could exit through the window. It was the third floor and there was a fire escape ladder nearby. I decided to climb over the balcony to the ladder. And fell down… Everything happened very quickly. I felt no pain… I remember that I tried to stand up but couldn’t and saw my bones sticking out of my arms. I passed out. I came round in the ambulance. Later – only in the intensive care unit. There I told my name and where I came from. Doctors called my relatives. Later my family moved me back to Belarus. It was super expensive.”
It took Ira two years to finally recover and feel the desire to live. She wanted to see and talk neither to her relatives nor her daughter.
“When asked about my life I had to lie. There was a lot of gossiping but relatives didn’t bother me. They understood my condition. Only acquaintances could ask me questions. For sure, I avoided answering, made something up. I have only one person to talk to about it,” Ira says.
We continued with our interview:
What helped you start a new life?
“Probably, it was my daughter. I picked myself up and changes happened. I don’t remember what I started with. I learnt how to get out of bed and sit into the wheelchair myself. To put on clothes myself. It took me an hour to get dressed in the morning. I ordered a Balkan crossbar. I learnt to be independent. Every day I discovered something new. Slowly did I realize that I didn’t have to ask for help any more. I remember my daughter’s surprise when I put her on my knees and brought her to the bathroom to brush her teeth. Now I even mop up the floors myself. My daughter sees me as a typical Mom.”
How did you find a job?
“At one of the events for the disabled people I met a lot of people like me. They advised me that I could work remotely on the Internet. I took a risk and it was a success. After having started as an assistant on the probation period I got a job with a fixed contract. Now I know everything about my job and even train new specialists.
What advice would you give to the people reading your story?
Ira keeps silent. It seems she is going to burst into tears. After a deep breath, we see a strong Ira again.
“I think about it every day. I shouldn’t have taken the offer to go. It was very hard. Having made such a silly decision, I ruined my life.
“Every person changes every day. And it’s natural. Changes influence the way how we see life. What seems acceptable now may become unbearable later and one will have to live with this for the rest of his life.”
“It’s also necessary to take care of your loved ones. Wonder what happens with them and what their lives look like. Don’t stay indifferent. If you have an opportunity to influence a person in a positive way – don’t miss it, help and guide a person.
“Such a foolish decision negatively affects your life. Yes, it may be a short-term solution, but later… you will regret it. It may seem that now and then your decision may help to solve current financial problems. But you can’t make an agreement with your conscience. Moreover, in the society we live in, you won’t avoid judgements…
“It seems to me that people may have some prejudices towards me or they may not, but I don’t care about it.”
Ira, is there any hope that you’ll walk again?
“I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to walk again. I’ve gotten used to myself. I’m independent.”
What are your next goals in life?
“There is always room for improvement. I don’t have any ambitious plans. My daughter is the centre of my life. I would like to become a real friend to her and support her as much as I can. I wish I could have an education. Perhaps, it wouldn’t open up new prospects but nevertheless… I like my job. I like being busy. At work, time flies. Now I know all the details of my work. And I would like to improve my professional skills. Perhaps I’ll decide to continue my education.”
Ira received psychological and reintegration assistance within the counter-trafficking programme implemented by the IOM office in Belarus and financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
Olga Borzenkova is a Public Information Assistant at IOM Belarus.
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