Like everyone else, I used to divide the prostitutes smuggled into Israel from the former Soviet republics into two categories -- the good ones who were tricked into it, and the bad ones who knew what they were getting into.
I think differently now. After meeting one of the "bad" ones for a story I'm doing, I see them all, both the knowing and unknowing, as victims, as innocents.
When I first suggested a story about the Israeli flesh trade to a foreign editor, and explained to him the two different kinds of women we were talking about, he said he wasn't interested in "willing" prostitutes, only in regular women lured from their homes with promises of legitimate work and then forced into sexual slavery.
So I called the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which helps foreign prostitutes, and asked if they could get me an interview with someone who thought she was coming here to clean houses or something, and soon I went to Tel Aviv to meet "Natasha."
In jeans, T-shirt and sandals, she looked like any pretty 20-year-old Israeli girl, except more demure -- hair tied back in a bun, little gold studs in her ears and no make-up. Nearly two years earlier she'd escaped from one of the "health clubs" near the old Central Bus Station, then went to the police and later testified against her pimp.
With her innocent face and soft voice, Natasha had a little-girl quality, but as she told her story through a translator she showed herself to be very mistrustful and cynical, understandably enough.
She first came in contact with pimps when she was 18, living in a town in Moldova with her father and stepmother. She'd studied to be a technician, but ran out of money, while her drunken, unemployed father had none and her stepmother refused to help.
"A girl I knew told me there was this man and woman who could get me work in Israel, and in six months I could make enough money to get an apartment and a car, so I went over there to see them."
I asked: When she met the man and woman, did they tell her the work was prostitution?
"They told me it was prostitution, but they didn't tell me the conditions," she said.
At this point I wanted to go, both because Natasha wasn't right for the story and because I didn't want to cause her unnecessary stress -- she'd been very reluctant to go through with the interview for fear that I would reveal her identity or whereabouts, which could get her killed. But I didn't want to insult her so I continued, figuring I would at least get some background material.
She told how she and several other women were forced to hide underground in the Sinai Desert, waiting for their Bedouin smugglers to give the all-clear for the trek to the all-but-open Israeli border.
"We climbed down a ladder into a hole ... like Saddam Hussein. We had buckets for toilets. It was hot, there were flies. We stayed there for three days."
After they made the three-hour walk to the border and were driven to Tel Aviv, Natasha was taken to a pimp who had her undress so he could "inspect the merchandise," and he asked her about herself. "The pimps prefer it if the women have children back home, so they'll be more motivated to work," explained Uri Sadeh, a Hotline attorney.
The sale concluded, Natasha's pimp told her she now owed him the $8,000 he'd paid for her, and she would work it off in his brothel near the bus station.
Giving sex to about 10 clients a day, she got to keep about $5 for each trick, while the house kept the other $30. Out of her average $50 daily wage she paid the brothel $16 for rent, about $12 for food and cigarettes and $4 for condoms.
"Sometimes the clients hit me. Sometimes one of the bosses would hit me if I said I didn't want to do it with a client because he was drunk or he smelled," she said.
Natasha slept in the brothel. Whatever she wanted to buy was brought in to her -- she wasn't allowed to go out on her own and the whorehouse goon guarded the locked door.
She was on call 19 hours a day from 10 a.m.-5 a.m., seven days a week, and when she was on her period she used a diaphragm.
During the interview, I asked if her father had agreed for her to go to Israel.
"I didn't tell him I was going," said said. "I didn't say goodbye to him. Why should I?"
And her mother?
"My mother left when I was 1."
Is she in touch with her father since she left?
"I called him once, and he said he didn't want to know about me. He said, 'Why should I care, I don't need you.' He's got a new wife now. We haven't talked since then. He doesn't know where I am," she said.
After four months in the brothel, a client who became Natasha's boyfriend helped her escape. Her testimony later put her pimp away for 13 years. "Hooray, happy ending, right?" she said sarcastically.
She's been hiding now for two years, scraping by with a menial job, alone with her history. Her plans? "To study, to work. To live like a normal human being."
Given her upbringing, did Natasha "choose" to become a prostitute? Does any girl who grows up desolate -- without love, money, prospects or self-esteem -- really "choose" that destiny?
On "Fight Human Trafficking Day" in the Knesset on Aug. 16, activists said about 3,000 female sex slaves are smuggled into Israel each year. They all started out as poor, bereft young girls. They all were tricked into it.
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