In 1990, when she was seven, Natalia's mother died of cancer. Natalia was convinced that her mother's illness was her father's fault for beating her so much, and that she should have protected her mother somehow. But her father was doing nothing unusual: there's a popular saying in Moldova, "A woman without beating is like a house without sweeping".
Natalia was left alone with her four brothers and her father, who worked the fields. Her father used to beat her and tell her she was a burden to everyone in the family, that there was no point in sending her to school. Her brothers weren't any nicer. Natalia started looking for ways to earn some money to get by.
I never understood why they didn't care for me, why they treated me so bad all the time.
When she was fourteen, Natalia was hired to work at a neighbour's house. She cleaned, took care of the animals and cut firewood. Three years later, she asked the neighbour for help to continue her education. Natalia started taking classes to become a teacher of gym and martial arts, until she ran out of money and had to go back to work.
At home again, she gave her father and brothers almost all the money she made in an attempt to win them back, but they beat her anyway. When she was feeling very lonely, Natalia would walk to the cemetery and tell her mother her troubles. In time, she decided to move to Chisinau, the capital city, where she found a job in the central market. But her brothers went looking for her and dragged her back home, because someone had to take care of the house.
When she turned 19, Natalia agreed to marry a young man from a nearby town. She was not in love with him, but she thought this was the only way to start a new life. In the beginning, they were happy. They were living in a room in Chisinau and each had a job; they laughed and had fun. Then he grew jealous of her, complaining about every penny she spent. They began to argue, and he started beating her. When a doctor told her she was pregnant, she feared for her husband's reaction. At first, he seemed pleased, but then said that if she had to stop working he would be forced to support the three of them. He blamed her for not taking precautions, and beat her up again.
One day, her husband suggested moving to Italy, to build up their future. Natalia accepted the idea; like everyone else, she had heard stories of successful migrants. Her husband introduced her to a friend who would get them papers and lend them money. The friend was a pleasant forty-year-old, smart and sophisticated. Now, when everything is over, she calls him Mr. X.
You had never heard about human trafficking?
I didn't watch TV, I didn't read the papers. I heard something, but I never believed it. Anyway, one thinks that those things always happen to other people.
Her husband convinced her to travel ahead first and he would follow soon after. She was to work as a maid for Mr. X's sister.
I was really looking forward to going. I thought I could give my child a better life.
That afternoon, Natalia got into Mr. X's car. She soon fell asleep. When she woke up, it was dark and she was in a wasteland by a river. In the car were two other girls who told her they were in Romania. Mr. X. told them to get out of the car and walk for a while. Natalia asked him why; he told her to shut up and do it. Natalia started crying; she knew something terrible was going to happen.
They walked in the shadows, in the middle of nowhere, until they found a car with three men inside. Natalia saw how the men gave Mr. X a great deal of cash. She tried to get away but the men grabbed her, beat her up and kicked her to the ground. As she was lying there, Natalia told Mr. X said she was going to go back to Moldova and he was going to be sorry. Mr. X laughed and said she was never going back, because someone close to her had made sure that this would never happen.
It took me some time to realize that my husband had sold me for three thousand dollars. My husband! I can't imagine a worse betrayal.
Lying on the ground, Natalia screamed. Her new owners handcuffed her and pulled out a syringe to drug her for the trip ahead. Natalia tried to stop them, yelling that she was pregnant, but it was no use.
"Trafficked girls who manage to escape their captors should be provided a safe place to stay, heal and recover as they prepare to rejoin the real world."
She spent the journey dreaming and hallucinating, as well as being threatened and beaten. She was raped and awoke naked and injured in the back of a jeep. She was terrified.
Later, she and six other girls were forced to walk for hours across the mountains. One tried to escape and was killed. One of the guards broke Natalia's arm. The men beat her up until they got tired of it. She ended up in a house in the outskirts of a town, where a man told her that he had bought her and she would have to work hard for him. By way of welcome, two thugs tied her up and raped her.
I was locked in my room by day. At night, they took me out, gave me alcohol and forced me to do whatever the customers wanted.
One night she felt sick and told her boss she was pregnant. The man told her not to worry. A so-called doctor aborted her pregnancy. Natalia spent three days crying.
Weeks later, she managed to escape and took shelter in a convent. But soon the nuns asked her to leave, because they were afraid of what could happen. Back on the streets, her boss found her immediately, but he was tired of her and sold her cheap. Her new boss told her that if she was a good girl and paid him back her price, in a few months he would let her go. Every night, Natalia had to dance and "satisfy the clients".
They were animals, people with no soul. Sick, perverse and violent.
Natalia wipes away a tear and looks at it as if it were the enemy. Her small hands twist a piece of plastic angrily.
Several weeks went by, and a regular client offered to help her escape. Natalia found refuge in the client's house, only to find that all he wanted was the brothel services for free. Natalia fled again. She was running across a field when she heard a car. It was the brothel's thugs. They grabbed her and tried to shove her in the car. She screamed that she would rather die than go back there, and managed to run. They chased her with the car, ran her over, and left her for dead in the road.
What would you do if you found the people who kidnapped you?
Natalia laughs. For the first time in this long conversation, she's really laughing.
I'd run them over with a car.
After three days in a coma, Natalia woke up in a hospital. Doctors told her she might never walk again. She underwent several operations and six months of convalescence; she also learned she had Hepatitis B. Natalia feared that she could never get back to Moldova.
Then a lawyer appeared and offered to help and pay for her ticket. Natalia suspected he might have been sent by her boss to make sure she was not going to turn him in to the authorities. Or maybe not; Natalia never knew.
Nobody was waiting for her when she arrived at the Chisinau airport. She went to her home town, but her father and her brothers didn't want to talk to her. They said that they considered her dead; they said that she was ungrateful because she had left and never sent any money home. Natalia did not tell them what had happened to her. She just left for an aunt's house in another town.
Her aunt let her stay and lick her wounds. Natalia was worried because she couldn't help her in the house and she didn't want people to feel sorry for her. Still on crutches, one day she left for Chisinau, looking for a job and a life of her own. She left an audio tape at her aunt's, telling her story. She wanted her to know but was ashamed to tell her face-to-face.
In Chisinau, Natalia slept in the park until she found a job in a kindergarten. The director let her sleep there as long as nobody noticed. She never left the school; she worked during the day, and hid at night. Later, a cousin told her about the hot line to La Strada, an NGO fighting against human trafficking. Natalia called, and found a shelter run by the International Organization for Migration. That's where she is now, trying to recover from her physical and psychological trauma.
When Natalia talks, she looks down; her voice is low and she speaks in a monotone; she is always about to cry. Every word is a search, a stammer, a tremble.
Why are you talking to us?
Well, first, I wanted to hide my story, because when people know, instead of treating you like a victim, they think you're guilty. But I have to talk; if I don't, I'm going to spend my life thinking about those months. Talking about it is the only way to leave it behind and help others, so that this doesn't happen to other girls like me.
What do you expect from the future now?
Natalia is silent; she thinks and tries to smile.
"What a tough question," she says