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Powerful Photos Document Survivors of Sex Trafficking in Romania and Moldova

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Tunde, 24-years-old, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Tunde was living with a street gang when she was trafficked by her boyfriend. The gang was regularly assaulted by police.

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“We were a very large gang. We would live here. It was me, my sister, her boyfriend, my boyfriend, a whole bunch of us. […] The hardest thing is to end up in a hole like this, where you can’t even put your clothes away neatly. It’s always dirty here.”

– Tunde, about one of the several places she lived in while on the streets. During that time, she was trafficked by her boyfriend.

A highway runs through forestland in Moldova. It is often lined with buckets, where one can pull over his or her vehicle and order a car wash. The car wash, however, is code for buying sex. Girls hide behind tree trunks and wait to be signaled – once it is safe to appear, they escort their clients into the woods for sex.

When photographer Annie Ling stepped out of her car on this very highway to photograph the odd line of buckets, she was suddenly surrounded by a few men from the area. They spoke indecipherable Romanian, and soon, a few more joined them in conversation. Little did Ling know, the men were discussing her “worth” in Moldovan leu. Back in the car, Ling’s social worker friend noticed the group and began to head towards them. A few words were calmly exchanged while Ling tried to get through a roll of film. After one last look at the women peaking out of the woods, Ling and her friend headed back to the car.

For her work Awhereness, Annie Ling, a Taipei-born photographer from New York, spent two months traveling through parts of Romania and Moldova to meet with the survivors of sex trafficking and listen to their stories. Using a medium format camera, Ling tries to eschew sensational images and instead approaches her subjects with a sense of quiet, acting as a listener. Through her project, she focuses on where trafficking happens and how people overcome this chapter in their life. Ling’s work traces the effect of such spaces on these women and how it shapes them.

Awhereness will be on view as part of Take Ten, a group exhibition at ICP, from January 17 – March 15, 2015.

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As a victim of police brutality, Tunde and her gang of homeless kids were routinely taken to a forest outside the city, tied to trees, beaten and left to fend for themselves. Revisiting this forest near the end of winter, Tunde found wildflowers scattered and peeking through the dead leaves, and she began to pick them up one by one. For nearly an hour, she quietly went about gathering a bouquet, gently pacing the ground and reflecting.

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“I came here to earn money… And here, you never know who you’ll get or who you’ll come across. Because you don’t know [the client], you go [with him] only for the money… it was a horror. So I would get horrified as soon as I saw the car pull up. Or they would come take you by force. It was really bad.”

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Tunde’s trafficker, the father of her children, is currently in jail for unrelated crimes. Today, she is happily married to a different man, but two of her children were taken from her by social services. Tunde, her husband, and a third child live in poverty, and they are struggling to make ends meet each month. Her biggest wish is to own a little house with a garden for her family.

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“Having been left without a father at a young age, I had to get a job to bring some money home. Being the oldest, I got a job at a grocery store first, and then I started to look for work in bars. I don’t know… that’s how I stumbled upon a bar, as a bartender-waitress.”

– Ligia, 34-years-old, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

The bar where Ligia worked for a year about a decade ago was the site of some horrific instances of human trafficking. Ligia’s boss was prosecuted, and he and many others served time in jail (at the time of this photograph, he was a free man). The case made headlines in Cluj-Napoca.

Ligia spent a few months in treatment in this room at the local mental hospital for a mental breakdown that resulted from her work at the bar.

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“You have to have the will to know what you’re fighting for in life. [You have to know] whether you want to overcome this phase or whether you want to stay the same.”

– Ligia, 34-years-old, in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, at the mental ward where she was hospitalized twice as a result of witnessing horrific instances of women being battered and trafficked.

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“One day, a girl named Calia and her man– his name was Piti– came and he raped me here… Since I was small, they grabbed me with their hands. And they brought me here, supposedly to sleep. And here they…they drugged me with the bag and aurolac (glue). I didn’t know how to sniff it, and I got dizzy, and I was overcome by sleep.”

Cristina grew up on the streets of Timisoara, the Romanian city that brought the 1989 Revolution and the end of communism.

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“She [visited me at the restaurant where I worked] in the [shopping] complex, and for a whole month she was on me and kept telling me, ‘come with me and work with me at a restaurant. You will bus tables, and so on.’ And I told her I didn’t want to go. What if you’re lying to me and will take me somewhere else?”

– Cristina, 22-years-old, Timisoara, Romania

When Cristina was 17-years-old, she was talked into going to Germany by a woman who visited her at the restaurant with her husband. The bussing job turned out to be prostitution. She was sold to a VIP brothel for 1800 euros and locked up for about 5 months. Her price was 150 euros/hour, but the money was not hers to keep. With another woman from the brothel, she managed to escape and catch a bus back to Romania.

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“My parents have left me; it’s been almost 6 years now, and I don’t know, I feel lonely, upset. It’s like I don’t have any solace. My sister died. I have no comfort. Only constant upsets. But God will help me get over all this too.”

Crina, at “Phantom House,” an abandoned building near a local college campus in Timisoara where she sought shelter as a homeless teen and was gang raped.

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“It’s hard to find love. To find love and for someone to love you is harder. I’ve been through many things, and I’ve loved but been betrayed.”

Crina was raped and battered here at the Phantom House where she sought shelter with her sister.

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As a result of beatings and drug abuse in Ukraine by her husband’s family, Zalushka is severely disabled. Her speech is slurred and difficult, and her movement is severely impaired. She now lives in an after-care center for trafficked women in Balti, Moldova.

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Zalushka, 34-years-old, is the center’s longest-standing inhabitant, having far overstayed the customary three to six months timeframe allowed for most women seeking refuge. The deteriorating state of her physical health and lack of familial support [made her an exception].

Zalushka was forced to beg on the streets of Ukraine by her husband’s family, who kept a close watch on her and beat her to ensure her obedience.

“I stole a wallet with money in it in order to be locked up so that I could get away from this situation.”

– Zalushka, on how she was able to escape from Ukraine.

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Andrea scavenges for edible plants in the fields outside of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.

Two years before, burdened with an unemployed, abusive husband and three young children, Andrea decided to go work abroad. She learned of a job in a store in Turkey and traveled there with another woman. Once in Turkey, the two were locked up in an apartment and their paperwork was destroyed. They were forced into prostitution for two months. They were released in a raid when the neighbors called the police after a lot of screaming, and eventually they found their way back to Moldova.

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Upon leaving Turkey, Andrea returned to her abusive husband in Moldova, determined not to tell anyone about being locked up and trafficked in an apartment for two months. For fear of rumors spreading, she told everyone that she had been locked in a basement and forced to wash floors without pay. Eventually, she shared the real story with her sister, who brought her to an after-care center.

Andrea currently lives on the outskirts of Chisinau in a complex of makeshift homes.

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Natasha, in poor mental condition, emerged from her mother’s house howling, dancing, and curtsying. Her mother is resigned and allows the village men to come into the house at night and use Natasha as they please, taking advantage of her reputation as a prostitute.

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Natasha, 26-years-old and suffering from mental illness, resides in this rancid and dirty, pitch-dark bedroom in her mother’s house on the outskirts of Chisinau, Moldova.

She left for Moscow to work in a restaurant prior to this, but she ended up being trafficked on the streets instead. One day, an unidentified driver ran his car into her and a group of street girls. She suffered physical injuries, and her poor mental condition worsened. According to her file in an after-care center, where she came and went, “men (from her home village in Moldova) started coming over to her room, taking her away and abusing her.”

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Suffering from schizophrenia, Natasha will often visit a nearby bar to seek a cigarette or an ice-cream from men in exchange for sex. Because she feels dirty, she would also trade in wet towelettes. Sometimes, Natasha will disappear for days, but her family does not question where and how she is. This bar that she frequents is down the street from her mother’s house in a village outside Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.

  • Skeptic7

    Glad someone is taking the time to Document this.

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