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UK/Lithuania: I've run out of tears

Publish Date: 09 May 2005

Source: Telegraph UK
By Nigel Bunyan
(Filed: 09/05/2005)

I've run out of tears, says girl sold around Britain as a sex slave at the age of 15

She is 16 now and sitting on the sofa that, at night, becomes a put-up bed for her and her elder sister.

Behind, set against the floral wallpaper and clutter of cheap ornaments, are the pictures of Roman Catholic saints so treasured by her grandmother.

It is eight months since the once-confident teenager escaped from the gang of people-traffickers who sold her into slavery.

The scars on her wrists have begun to fade, but still she is reluctant to hold her visitors' gaze. Whenever she does, her deep brown eyes carry a sadness that no child should have to bear. There are no tears, though. "I have run out of tears," she says.

She can only talk about her ordeal while her 76-year-old grandmother is away from the tiny fourth-floor flat. She knows nothing of the girl's suffering, nor of what the teenager perceives as shame.

Elena is just one of thousands of eastern European girls smuggled into the West every year - most of them sold as sex slaves.

Last year, in Britain, she was passed from one pimp to the next, initially for £4,000, eventually for £1,500, her value as a human trophy diminishing as her childhood was stripped away.

Those who bought her felt free to rape her whenever she was not working. Some did so repeatedly. One threatened to kill her. Towards the end, she tried to commit suicide.

She escaped after breaking down in a Sheffield nightclub. A group of English girls distracted her Albanian minders long enough to allow her to run, barefoot and sobbing, to a nearby police station.

That night she had been due to be passed on to her eighth owner in three months. Eventually, it is thought, she was likely to have been sold on to traffickers in Germany.

Elena's nightmare began with a call to a friend's mobile phone in her home town of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The two girls had been sitting chatting when the phone rang. A girl offered them work in Britain. It would be fun, she said, and well paid.

It did not matter that they were only 15. They would probably be selling ice-cream, maybe in London, maybe at a seaside resort. Their flights would be paid for.

Naively, Elena and her friend, Sonja, agreed to a meeting near their apartment block. They came away an hour later feeling both reassured and excited.

Sonja backed out of the trip but Elena persuaded her parents to sign the document allowing her to leave Lithuania unaccompanied.

Kastas, the 17-year-old Lithuanian sent to chaperone her, was good company on the plane when they left two days later. Once they had passed through Customs at Heathrow he asked her for her passport. She handed it over.

They were soon joined by two other members of the gang, Shaban Maka and Ilir Barjami, and Maka's Lithuanian girlfriend, Lina Yunel.

The party drove into central London. Elena remembers that the journey took about 45 minutes and ended with them pulling up outside a bar.

Once inside the teenager began to feel nervous. Men were looking at her, appraising her. Lina kept saying that everything would be all right.

A dark, thick-set man called Bledi was taking the most interest in her. Elena spent the night with her minders, trying to suppress the dawning realisation that something was not quite right.

The next morning she was driven to Wood Green Tube station. Bledi turned up and joined them in the car. Elena saw him hand over two bulging envelopes. Kastas began counting the money. Once satisfied, he handed over the girl's passport.

Bledi turned to Elena and spoke to her for the first time. "You're my girl now," he said.

Terrified, Elena was dragged to his car and driven away to his flat. By nightfall he had raped her.

"He told me to get undressed," she recalls, clutching the teddy bear brought from England by her interpreter. "I didn't want to. He forced me. He didn't actually hit me, but he started taking my clothes off.

"He said he had paid a lot of money for me. He pushed me on to the bed. He was brutal. He raped me one time. I pleaded with him but he didn't care. He was too strong for me to fight off.

"Afterwards I tried to think of other things. But all I could think of was what he had done. I wanted to die.''

The next day Bledi drove her to Birmingham. A Lithuanian girl met them in a bar and Elena was ordered to go with her to a house in Yardley.

"She was called Reda. At first I felt relieved that she was from my own country.

"But the house she took me to was where girls work with men. I was given some clothes and told to get changed. She told me that clients would come and I was to go with them upstairs.

"I wanted to run but I couldn't. I was in a foreign country. Where would I go? Who would believe me?

"After I'd changed I sat in the lounge. I had to work with four men that night. I didn't look at them, I tried to block them out.'' She was paid £40 each time. Half went to the manager, the other half she was told to keep for Bledi.

The gangster picked her up at around 11pm. "He told me, 'This will be your work'. He raped me that night. He did that most nights after I'd finished work."

Elena was next sold to Xhevahir Pisha. He handed over £3,000. Pisha spent a week trying to groom her: buying her clothes, taking her for meals. But he never let her out of his sight, and all the time she knew what was coming next.

At the end of the week he set her to work in a sauna in Leicester. She lasted five hours and a single "trick" before deciding to run away. Within days Maka had sold her on again. She was hawked to four different owners in London. The most brutal of all was John, a man who raped her repeatedly.

When she appealed to Lina for help, the woman merely shouted at her. "She was sneering,'' said Elena. "She said, 'Oh, you're a princess now, are you? Do you need a prince for yourself as well?'

"I said I couldn't possibly be with him. She said if I wouldn't go back to him I would be sold to Germany. I told her 'I don't care'. I went to the bathroom and started to cut my wrists with a razor. Maka stopped me and dragged me away. Another man, Max, punched me in the face, shouting 'Are you trying to scare us?' ''

The last man to own Elena was Barjami, whom Maka introduced as "a good friend of mine, who will not harm you''. But then came the warning: "If you run away from him, I'll kill you.''

Elena had no reason to doubt him, since Maka had already boasted of committing two murders in Britain.

Barjami, who paid £1,500 for the girl, made her his prisoner, raping her up to three times a day at his flat in Park Hill, Sheffield. By Sept 11, he had decided to sell her on. That night he took her to the Kingdom club to parade her in front of his friends. They had been in the club for four hours when Elena asked to go to the toilet. Barjami followed, waiting outside.

"I was crying because I wanted to run away,'' she recalls. "Some English girls approached me and asked 'What's happened?'

"Somehow I was able to explain and ask them for help. Three of them went out to distract him, the girl who remained took my hand. She took me through the crowd of people who were dancing.

"I saw the exit and ran out of the building and down the street. I ran till I was out of breath and couldn't run anymore. I stopped next to a car where a man was getting out. I asked him for the police station. He showed me the way.''

Maka, 24, Barjami, 25, and Pisha, 21, all Albanian asylum seekers, have since been jailed for 18, 15 and seven years respectively at Sheffield Crown Court.

Two of their accomplices are facing trial in Lithuania, while police in Britain are still trying to track down Bledi.

The three behind bars were the first in Britain to be charged under a law designed to halt the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. Elena gave evidence against all of them, turning down the offer of doing so from behind a screen.

Today, in her flat in Vilnius, Elena is still frightened that they, or their gangster friends, will exact revenge upon her.

She is back at school now, but an outsider, unsettled, unmotivated, struggling to concentrate on what she sees as the irrelevance of education to a girl like her.

Eight months on from her escape she is still blocking out the pain, unable to confront the full horror of her ordeal. She has confided in no one but her sister.

"I try to forget,'' she says. "But sometimes I have nightmares about it.''

She has had no boyfriend since returning to Lithuania.

Will she ever be able to trust another man? "Maybe,'' she says, but the word, spoken in English, is laden with doubt.

And what of one day having children? "Maybe. But I want it to be a boy. Never a girl.''

Copyright © 2005 Telegraph Group Limited