Former sex slaves let audience relive trafficking horrors

( dpa ) - It just takes seven shipping containers to make an absolute nightmare come to life: in "The Journey," a harrowing art installation accompanying a United Nations forum on human trafficking Elena, a young woman trafficked as a sex slave from Moldova, lets a shocked audience have a glimpse into her personal nightmare.

"There was never less than 40 men a day. Not one day off," Elena's installation, co-conceived by British actress Emma Thompson, tells the visitor, who chokes upon entering a small dingy room, with a squeaky bed, a box of condoms and a cry for help smeared on a mirror with lipstick.

The 1,200-odd delegates attending the UN forum in Vienna may warn about the 2.5 million people being constantly trafficked and abused worldwide, a problem growing more acute with globalization. But the true horrors still have to sink in for many.

"Many countries are still in complete and utter denial," Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN crime office UNODC told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

This is especially so when those victims are women from poor countries, trafficked, brutalized and forced to work as sex slaves. UN experts agreed that with victims being "just prostitutes," even among lawmakers there was the view that worse things could happen to a girl.

"Many people frankly don't give a toss about young girls being raped," Thompson, a dedicated anti-trafficking activist, said. "And in some parts of the world, rape is just a fact of life."

As in every market, demand plays an important role. Macho-men were adding to the sex slaves' plight, Costa pointed out. "Macho-men could keep up their zipper and not go after exotic sex," Costa said.

Johns, men buying sex, needed to be made aware of the crime they were part of, Mark Lagon, head of the US State Department anti- trafficking office said.

"Also, we have to make clear that pimps are exploiters and not hip or to be admired," he said.

Those women, found in small-ads, in brothels or on the streets remained physically and mentally scarred for the rest of their lives, if they ever managed to escape. Few victims do speak up, out of fear, both of their captors and the authorities in a country where they often do not speak the language.

Authorities are often ill-trained to deal with the victims. Elena, who was forced to work in a British brothel, was arrested by immigration authorities.

"They arrested me. Not only me, one hundred and something girls. No-one asked, are you okay? I thought, why don't you ask what's going on," she said in The Journey.

Helen Bambar, human rights activist and founder of a foundation of the same name, urged better victim protection and improved asylum laws for trafficking victims. Too often, former slaves were victimized a second time by the authorities, or even run the risk of being re-trafficked or killed.

Most women never married or had a family, Bambar said. Elena, who is looked after by the foundation, is one of the few victims escaping her nightmare.

By sharing her nightmare, Elena, like activists Emma Thompson, Helen Bambar or Latino pop star Ricky Martin, hope to convince more lawmakers, police or members of the public, not to ignore those victims sidelined by society.

"I come from a small place with eight houses", Elena said. "I was innocent. I trusted everyone."

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