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Sunday 24 September 2017

A woman trafficked into the sex trade in Ireland tells her story

Anna* was kidnapped, tortured and trafficked into the sex trade in Ireland. She speaks to Shane Phelan about her horrific ordeal and how she managed to escape from the pimps and rebuild her life

VICTIM: Anna*, pictured last week in Belfast, has survived her ordeal and is now rebuilding her life. She has formed a relationship with an Irish man, and has returned to her studies. She is hoping to pursue a degree and plans to help people like her who have been trafficked.
VICTIM: Anna*, pictured last week in Belfast, has survived her ordeal and is now rebuilding her life. She has formed a relationship with an Irish man, and has returned to her studies. She is hoping to pursue a degree and plans to help people like her who have been trafficked.
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Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

NAKED, bruised and in severe pain inside, Anna curled up into the foetal position as the cold water from the shower rained down on her head.

She had just been brutally raped by a large Albanian man in a strange place she had never even heard of before.

A heavyset woman was now standing over her, cursing and laughing maniacally as she whipped her with a television cable.

Anna would realise later that the cold water was to reduce the swelling. She would need to be presentable if her body was to be sold to her next client.

But first her new owners wanted to break her spirit as she had put up quite a fight.

This horrific scene took place in an apartment in Galway city and Anna was enduring her first day as a victim of sex trafficking.

Just six hours earlier the 20-year-old had been walking down a street 800km away in north London.

Originally from Romania, Anna had moved there in 2010 to study nursing. She picked up part-time work as a cleaner and a waitress to help pay for her studies.

It was around lunchtime on March 11, 2011, and she decided to nip home to get something to eat before heading back to college.

She had only moved into a new house a few weeks earlier. She had felt at home there. Each of the rooms was rented individually but there were other Eastern European girls in the house and the landlord was also Romanian.

As she neared home, a man came up behind her, grabbed her by the neck and pushed her into the back seat of a car.

A woman in the front seat snatched her bag, with her phone and wallet inside, while the man held her and slapped her. "Don't say a fucking word. If you say anything I am going to kill your family. I know who you are," he said.

She recognised both of them. They shared a room in the house, but she had never spoken to them before. Another man she didn't recognise was driving the car.

Anna told the Sunday Independent: "They started to drive. They told me where my mother lived and where my father lived and that they would kill them. I was scared."

The car went straight to Luton Airport where one of the men accompanied her to the check-in desk. Tickets were produced for a flight to Galway.

Bewildered by what was happening, Anna tried to get away, saying she needed to use the toilet. But he wouldn't leave her side.

She looked around frantically for security staff, but could see none.

As they boarded the plane the man handed Anna's ID to the flight attendant.

"She didn't think there was anything odd about that, me not handing it to her myself. I only wished she had noticed and started asking questions."

There were only a handful of people on the flight. Anna's captor sat a few seats away, his eyes fixed on her so she wouldn't try to speak to anyone.

"I was hoping that Galway had a big airport and that I could try to run to a bus or a taxi," she said.

Instead she was met by two Romanian pimps, one of whom is currently facing serious charges on the Continent.

Anna would later learn that these men had "bought" her for €20,000.

She had been identified by one of their associates as the perfect candidate to be trafficked. She was slim, slightly built and attractive. Crucially, she also had no family living in London and it would be easy to smuggle her out without anyone creating much fuss over her disappearance.

The men brought her to an apartment in Salthill where she would meet the brothel madam who more than anyone else would make her life hell over the following months.

"I told them: 'I am very hungry and I need to get out of here.' I was starting to cry. But they beat me and they said: 'You know what you have to do for food.'"

The madam began ripping her clothes.

"She put a knife through them. She left me on the floor, left me naked in front of the men.

"They were laughing. They said: 'You can't get out of here. We are watching you. Don't worry. In five minutes your boyfriend is going to come. You have to f**k him in order to get food for yourself. You have to f**k many other people to get food.'"

Minutes later the Albanian man arrived at the door and the madam went to greet him.

"I didn't see her ask for money, but she came back with €200 and threw them [the pimps] the money. She grabbed me by the hand and by the hair and said: 'Move.' That guy was already naked in the room."

Anna fought, but was held down by the madam and punched in the back by the Albanian as she struggled.

"What happened next you can imagine. I couldn't walk after that."

After the madam beat her in the shower, she was left alone in the living room. "I cried myself out until I could not cry any more."

This quickly became Anna's life. Soon she was seeing up to 20 men a day and was never allowed leave the apartment.

"The blinds were always drawn. I knew when it was day time because I could hear the cars in the morning."

There were five Nokia phones on the table in the apartment's living room taking calls from punters around the clock.

"I started to fight over everything. They would hit me every time I said something. Knock me in the head, punch me. When I fell asleep they would wake me by throwing water at me. They wanted to break me."

Clients were paying between €70 and €500 to see Anna, depending on what service they wanted. The money was usually handed to the madam or one of the pimps.

"They don't care about the women. They care about their own satisfaction and pleasure – and that's all."

After two months Anna and two other girls were taken to another brothel run by the pimps in a high-end apartment building in Belfast city centre.

But after five days it was shut down after a raid by police. None of the women was arrested.

Anna said some of the customers during those five days were police officers.

Afterwards, she was returned to Galway. "I was so low and I tried to kill myself. But they found me and tortured me as punishment."

Anna soon became aware that the other trafficked girls in the brothel were watching her. They were given drugs in return.

As time went on Anna became more co-operative. "I tried to trick them and it worked."

They began allowing her to take calls from customers on the phone. She started to record their numbers. She also began memorising every detail she could about her captors.

Then in the middle of the Galway Races, gardai raided the apartment they were using.

Anna and three other women were arrested and charged with running a brothel. However, the pimps evaded arrest.

She wanted to tell the gardai everything, but didn't get the opportunity. In the end she felt she had no option but to plead guilty and she received a small fine.

"It was bloody hilarious because the pimps were out on the street waiting for us to be released."

From there they were moved for a month to a house on the Western Road in Cork city. After that it was a hotel in Limerick.

Dublin was the next stop, with rooms being rented at hotels near the airport.

"The rooms were picked so they could see the customers arrive and take the money from them at the door. Everything was organised."

In Dublin, Anna says her clients included business people, barristers and politicians.

"These people were proud of themselves. They would talk to me and tell me what they did for a living.

"I remember the politicians. I don't think I will say who they are. It is too risky for my life.

"I remember one who stood up in the bed. He had a big belly and was not very attractive."

By this point, Anna "wasn't crying any more".

"I became immune to all the pain and suffering. I just didn't care."

After Dublin, it was back to Belfast again and finally Anna saw the opportunity she had been looking for to escape.

A rival drug gang became embroiled in a turf war with her pimps.

One of the gang paid Stg£2,000 so he could have Anna to his flat, but instead of demanding sex from her, he pumped her for information about the pimps' operation.

"They wanted to know how much money I was making for [the pimps]. They were trying to recruit me for their friend's other business. But I said: 'No.'

"They offered me help and said to call to the flat any time."

Then on November 12, 2011, Anna ran.

The madam had been drinking and taking drugs and the pimps had gone out for the night.

"I just looked at her and I thought there is a time in your life when enough is enough.

"I told her if she dared to touch me one more time I was going to kill her. She threatened to kill me and my family, but I didn't care. I just left.

"I just ran. I went to the drug dealers. In less than five minutes I made a deal with them.

"They [the pimps] knew the people I knew were more dangerous than them.

"Two weeks later they threatened the pimps in their car until they were run out of here. It collapsed everything, all of their business here. It was a war between drug dealers and pimps."

After eight months of hell, Anna was finally free. But she didn't immediately go to the police, as she didn't trust them.

She finally made a statement the following April and provided the PSNI with information on the gang and a database of over 3,000 customer phone numbers.

Detectives had already been investigating the gang at that stage and as part of an international police operation one of the pimps was later arrested in Romania.

He is currently facing trafficking charges in another country. The madam who ran the brothels was also taken into custody and is facing serious charges.

Anna is now rebuilding her life. She has formed a relationship with an Irish man, and has returned to her studies. She is hoping to pursue a degree and plans to help people like her who have been trafficked.

But she admits the mental and physical scars may never heal. She is constantly looking over her shoulder due to the death threats she has received. She is plagued with eye, teeth and back problems as a result of the beatings she endured.

Anna has another constant reminder she carries with her – a certificate from the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency, which confirms that she is the victim of human trafficking.

Her one wish now is that legislators bring in laws criminalising people who pay for sex.

These are the people who are creating the demand for trafficking, she says, and until they can face punishment the cycle of human trafficking will continue.

*Anna's name has been changed to protect her identity

Sunday Independent

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