Marika was hit by a blast of hot, dry air as she emerged from the aircraft at Cairo’s international airport. The tall, green-eyed, nineteen-year-old blonde looked around, bewildered. Exhausted and nervous, she shuffled into the customs line. An olive-faced officer thumbed through her passport, shot a cursory glance in her direction and stamped an entry visa onto a blank page. When she emerged into the jammed arrival area with her one piece of luggage in hand, she was met by a burly Russian. He grunted her name. She nodded and he grabed her firmly by the arm, escorting her briskly to a tan, dust-covered, four-wheeled-drive jeep.
Crammed in the back seat were three other women-two from Moldova and one from Russia-all in their late teens. The girls were silent. They looked pensive and frightened. The driver shoved Marika into the front passanger side and wedged his beefy gut behind the wheel. “We have no time to waste”, he bellowed in Russian. “I have to get to the rendezvous point in two hours”. With a furious lurch, the vehicle lunged forward. The ride was bumpy and deadly quiet. As the jeep barreled deep into the hard-baked, scorching desert, Marika closed her eyes and silently prayed. Weeks earlier, a garish, rotund woman at a recruitment agency in her hometown of Kharikiv, Ukraine, had spoken excitedly of the job she had arranged for Marika-a stint as a waitress in Tel Aviv. At first, Marika had been apprehensive. She had heard of young women being lured away by jobs that didn’t exist only to be forced into prostitution. The recruiter, though, was adamant,swearing up and down-going so far as to invoke the names of Jesus, Joseph and Mary-that this offer was on the up-and-up.
Marika was the perfect dupe. She was desperate for work. Her mother was sick and her father was an unempliyed, miserable drunk. Her two younger sisters were wasting away. The job offer was her only chance to make things better. It was a risk; she felted in every fiber of her body. But it was one she knew she just had to take. The unsettling twist in the job offer was the unusual travel arrangement-a serpentine route that bore the earmarks of an espionage novel. She would be flown from Kiev to Viena. There she would switch planes to Cyprus, where she would board another plane for Cairo. Once in Egypt, she was be driven overland to Tel Aviv. Marika voiced her suspicions but the recruiter was persuasive, telling her it had to do with saving huge amounts of money on airfares. Now, after she’d spent two days traveling, Marika’s dream of a new job was fading by the mile.
The jeep ground to a stop outside a sun-baked village. The driver leaped out and approached two armed Bedouin men. They exchanged a few words. He handed them an envelope and ordered the women out of the vehicle. For the first time that day Marika spoke up. “I said iwanted to go back home”, she recalled. ”The russian pig hit me across the face very hard and told me to shut up. My mouth was bleeding and i began to weep.” The driver got back into the jeep and drove off in a cloud of dust, leaving Marika and the other women in the custody of the Bedouin guides. The men were eerie figures, wrapped in tawny robes and scarves with rifles slung over their shoulders and long, curved daggers dangling from their waists. The girls watched in wonder as the men mounted their camels. They barked out an order in Arabic and waved menacingly at the women to follow. The tiny caravan set out across the Sinai Desert, the women scurrying behind the camels on foot.
“It was so hot and we were so very thirsty, but the arab men taking us across the desert did not care. They kept shouting at us. I have no ideea what they were saying. They just yelled,” Marika recounted. They walked for almost two days, stopping twice for meals of pita bread, dried figs and dates and a cup of water, and once to sleep on canvas tarps under the stars. “I felt what it must have been like for the slaves in time of the Bible”, Marika said.”With every step, I thought I was being punished by God for my past sins”.
Late in the second afternoon, the caravan reached an area marked by rusting coils of barbed wire stretchig across the barren landscape. The bedouins dismounted. Jutting up from the sand was a jagged post. They tied their camels to the stump and motioned the women to pick their way over the wire fence. While Marika didnt know it at the time, they had just reached the Egyptian-Israeli frontier. From there, the tiny band continued on foot. An hour later, the guides suddenly turned to the women and ordered them to drop to the ground. In the distance, Marika could hear the grinding sound of a truck. It was an Israeli army patrol. The bedouins signaled for them to lie very still. Several tense minutes passed, and the vehicle faded into the distance. Alone once again, the girls scrambled to their feet and, under the watchful eyes of the bedouins, the trek continued. That night, totally spent and dehydrated, the women collapsed under the open sky near the outskirts of a village. One of the guides continued alone, returning a short while later in a white pickup truck with two Israeli men. The driver spoke fluent Russian and gruffly ordered the women into the back. They were taken to a deserted house and hustled into a bare room. The door was shut and locked behind them. Despite their lonh, arduous journey, they werent offered any food ar water, nor were they allowed to wash or talk. They slept on the dirt floor.
The next afternoon, two thuggish men showed up and ordered the girls to disrobe. “We were told to take off our clothes so they could look at us. It was so humiliating”, Marika said. “We were so frightened. We did as we were told. One of the men took me and the russian woman. Her name was Lydia. He drove us to Tel Aviv, to an apartment near the sea. Inside were three other women. Two were Ukrainian, the other from Moldova. The door had many locks and a very big man named Avi sat at the desk in the hallway. He was out guard. We were instructed to take a shower, and when we were drying the man came in and told us to put on this cheap lingerie. You could see through it.”
The women were herded into the living room, where their owner announced that he had purchased them for $10,000 each and they would be his property until each paid off a $20,000 debt. He told them they would have to start working off the debt that very evening by servicing clients. He also warned the women that any refusal to do their job would be dealt with swiftly and painfully. To make his point, the owner shot a meaningful glance in Avi’s direction. The hairy behemoth guarding the door grinned menacingly at the frightened women.
“That night i felt for the first time what it was to be a whore. I had to service eight men. I felt so terrible and ashamed. I showered after every encounter but i could not wash away the filth in me. Over the next four months, I dont know how many hundreds of Israeli men i was forced to have sex with. Young men, old men, fat, disgusting men. Soldiers, husbands and religious men. It did not matter if i was sick or if i was on my period. I had to work or i would be punished.”
During that time Marika tried desperately to find a way to escape, but the windows in the cramped two-bedroom apartment were nailed shut and thick-necked Avi was always on guard.
“I pleaded with several clients to help me-the ones who lookes sympathetic. I asked to use their cell phone to call my mother, just to tell her i was alive. They all refused, even the religious ones. All they did was complain to Avi if i did not perform to their satisfaction. For that i received a slap in the face, a fine added to the money i owed for the trip to Israel and nothing to eat for a day. So often i thought of killing myself, and then I thought of my poor mother and my sisters. I prayed every day that today i will be rescued. But the days just passed and passed.”
While servicing the steady stream of clients, Marika found one thing particuraliry puzzling. Most didn’t distinguish between the girls’ ethnic backgrounds. It didn’t matter whether they were from Russia, Romania, Moldova or Ukraine. In the eyes of the men they were all Russian. Even stranger was the way the men addressed them. “They called us Natasha. They never asked our real name. To them we were all Natashas. We were their sexual fantasy. These fools would walk into the parlor and with a stupid grin on their faces called out “Natasha!” like we were some kind of Russian doll. And we were expected to smile and rush over to them”.
Marika remembered the first time she was called by that name. “This fat, sweaty pig is reaching his climax and he begins to murmur, “Oh Natasha, Natasha!”. At first I thought it strange being called by another name. But very soon i came to accept it as my escape. When i was alone in my thoughts and my dreams, I was Marika-free from this prison. But when I went with a man, I became this other woman-this prostitute called Natasha who was cold and dead inside me. Natasha was my nightmare. Marika was my salvation. I never told any of these men my real name”
And they never asked.