Monday, November 07, 2005

i was sold for GBP2,000, but i'm one of the lucky ones - i'm free now

November 4, 2005 12:00am
Source: Evening Standard

NATASHA'S manicured hand shakes with trepidation as she lights up a cigarette. "This is hard for me," she says, softly, her almond eyes glistening.

"Until now, I have told no one; not even my mother."

Indeed, the damage to Natasha is not obvious to the eye, for what you see, sitting in a Highgate cafe, is a beautiful Russian teenager, with an unblemished complexion and a shapely figure.

You would never guess that, until recently, when she was liberated by a police raid on a London brothel, Natasha was a sex slave, locked up against her will at 17 and forced into prostitution by people-traffickers.

Billed on an internet site by her pimp as "London's youngest prostitute", she was forced to fulfil the sexual fantasies of middleclass men at numerous upmarket massage parlours in the West End, Hendon and Sudbury.

This week, as yet another major trafficking gang, believed to be responsible for bringing at least 600 illegal immigrants to the UK, is jailed, Natasha's story is a disturbing account of the horrors these women face.

She describes how she was sold for GBP6,000, passed from Moscow to Frankfurt to Brussels and finally to London.

And how she faced down her pimp in a London court, and won her freedom.

Natasha's story begins more than a year ago in the Samara region of central Russia, where she lived with her father, a factory worker, and her mother, a teacher. "I was a typical rebellious teenager with a dream to see the world before I settled down to college," she says. "When my friend Tania saw an advert in a newspaper - 'work abroad for good money' - we jumped at it."

Natasha and Tania were directed to a local travel agent, where a persuasive woman, Vera, told them that they could find "excellent work" in Spain as waitresses. "We gratefully asked Vera how much we had to pay her for getting us the job," recalls Natasha. "She said, 'Don't worry, you can pay me when you start working.' "We had walked into a trap that led straight to the underworld. We just didn't know it."

Natasha packed a few things and left without telling her parents. "If I had told my mother I was going abroad, she would never have let me go, so I wrote a note saying I was going to work in Moscow." Natasha and Tania were indeed headed for Moscow, but only to obtain visas for Europe.

They were met by a man called Sergei who took them to an empty flat. After two weeks, Natasha's visas arrived and Sergei said she must leave. Tania, he lied, would follow on.

Natasha was put on a two-day coach to Frankfurt, where a man called Georgy collected her. Speeding down the motorway, Natasha began to see signs for Belgium.

"I thought we were going to Barcelona," she inquired. "They don't want you in Spain," Georgy said.

"But someone wants to see you in Brussels.

You are going to work as a prostitute."

"I wanted to open the door and jump out," recalls Natasha. "I said: 'You have made a terrible mistake, I am not that type of girl.' The thought of sleeping with men for money horrified her.

Arriving in Brussels, Georgy forcibly handed Natasha over to John, an Albanian whom he introduced as her pimp, and who paid Georgy GBP2,000 in Euros, for "delivering her".

"That night," says Natasha, "John broke me in. He raped me." But the nightmare had only just begun.

The next day, John dressed her in high heels, red miniskirt and black stockings and drove her to Avenue Louise, which was to be her "office" for the next two months. She would charge e100 an hour and have sex with men in cars or cheap hotel rooms, with John always nearby, circling in his car or hovering in the background.

"At first, escape was always on my mind," she says, "but it was impossible.

John never let me out of his sight and would lock me in the flat. After a while I just stopped thinking about it."

Natasha would never have come to London if it had not been for a terrible beating by one of her clients. "I became hysterical and told John I refused to work on the street any more. He could see his investment in me might not work out, so he said, 'I'll make calls, maybe I can sell you and you can work in another country in a flat.'" A few days later, a Kosovan, Niki Dimitrov, 29, arrived, paid John GBP4,000, and introduced himself to Natasha as "your new pimp". Dimitrov, who had escaped deportation from the UK by claiming he'd been tortured in the Balkan conflict, drove Natasha to England and to his flat in Archway, north London, where he took pornographic photographs of her.

He posted them on the internet under the tagline: "London's youngest prostitute".

The next morning, after forcing Natasha to have sex with him, Dimitrov dressed her in a nurse's outfit and drove her to a flat in Bayswater. There he introduced her to two Lithuanian girls who served other pimps. Dimitrov instructed Natasha to charge GBP150 an hour for straight sex, with prices rising the more degrading the request.

"If ever I refused a client, Niki would beat me up," she says. "Once he punched me in the face so badly that I was unable to work for 10 days. I tried to talk to the other girls to see if they were slaves like me, but they were too terrified to discuss their situation."

After a few months, Natasha was moved to Paradise, a massage parlour in Station Road, Hendon, and then onto another in Harrow Road, Sudbury, north-west London, run by Dimitrov's friend, and where she was expected to have sex with up to five punters a day.

"I was constantly thinking about running away, but Niki told me: 'If you try, I will hunt you down and kill you. And then I will kill your mother.'

"To survive, I totally switched off," she says. "It was like I wasn't there.

But I never gave up hope. I believed that one day - when I had paid off the GBP4,000 Niki had paid for me - I would get my life back.

"At night Niki locked me in his flat and forced me to cook, clean and have sex with him. I was not even allowed to go out to the shops on my own."

Natasha's hell only came to an end a month before her 18th birthday because of a police raid on the Sudbury brothel. The Met's Clubs & Vice unit arrested Dimitrov. Natasha was re-housed in a one-bedroom flat. But, to put Dimitrov away, she had to find the courage to give evidence against him at Southwark Crown Court.

"I was terrified to make eye contact," she says, recalling the trial last December. In the face of Natasha's account, Dimitrov confessed to living on prostitution, was jailed for six years and placed on the sex offenders' register for life. It was a landmark case, with Dimitrov the first person to be prosecuted under section 49 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for controlling a child prostitute.

MEANWHILE, Natasha - given indefinite leave to remain in the UK - has been painstakingly rebuilding her life. She has enrolled at London University where, by day, she is studying English and photography, and by night she works as a supermarket cashier.

At weekends, she goes out to clubs and discos with her large group of student friends - none of whom know anything about her tragic past. Recently, she says, she took "a big step" - she now has a boyfriend from college but she has yet to tell him the truth and still finds it hard to trust men. She counts herself "extremely lucky" that the police rescued her when they did.

"I am young, I am resilient, I will recover," she says softly.

She loves nothing more than to wander through London, down by the Thames, a free person. "It's unreal to think I was a slave in captivity here not so long ago. A slave! In London!" She shakes her head. "Even if I told people, they would hardly believe it."

And suddenly she looks fragile.

Natasha has been through so much you can easily forget she is a vulnerable teenager in a strange land. She still misses her mother terribly and says she has been unable to visit her because her British immigration travel documents stop her returning to Russia.

"I have plans to meet my mum in Europe," she says, excitedly. "I can't wait.

When I phoned my mother to tell her I was in London studying English, she said, 'Wow!' But I could never tell my mother the truth. I can hardly admit it to myself."

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