Into the heart of darkness
Journalist Ruth Hopkins travelled across Europe on the trail of the sex traffickers. Last month she published a book about her experiences.
'The thing is, Dutch women don't want to work under these circumstances. They've lost their anonymity. So I've solved this problem by buying women.'

For Ruth Hopkins, that statement made by the owner of a brothel -- high on dope -- marked the starting-point of a five-year journey into the clandestine world of the international business of trafficking and brokering women for sex.

The 32-year-old freelance investigative journalist has been rushed off her feet by the media following the publication of her book on the subject -- the outcome of five years' research.

"Ik laat je nooit meer gaan" (I'll never let you go again) candidly tells the story of the trafficker -- and also a woman, a young girl, and two police officers -- all of whom became entangled in the trade.

At the time, Hopkins was studying journalism and international law at Amsterdam University, and was working as a trainee reporter for a small regional paper in the town of Nieuwegein, near Utrecht.

'By accident, I interviewed a trafficker. In 2000, prostitution had just been legalized. I wanted to talk to the women [in a brothel] and to a brothel owner to ask them what they thought of the new laws,' she explains.

'I talked to the owner for about three hours. It took some time for it to dawn on me. "What did he just say? He bought women? Jesus, how can you buy people?"

'This was suburbia, where people were interested in their gardens, yet there was this guy living right next to them buying and selling women for the sex industry.

'It brought on a whole cascade of questions.

'I followed the trafficker for about five years, visiting him while he was in prison and when he was on weekend leave. His partner had been assassinated and had been found in the back of a car all chopped up. He told me that he was on the hit list as well.'

The Nieuwegein brothel was called 'Flair' -- and that was one thing that Hopkins needed plenty of as she followed an international trail that took her to Albania, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine.

'I researched the case of a Roma girl from Bulgaria who was sold by her own family for marriage to a family in Amsterdam. The family then sold her on to a couple living in Utrecht for prostitution.

'She escaped from her pimps and was classified as an unwanted alien and kicked out of the country. She was sent back [to Bulgaria] without any kind of help. She was just 14. She told Customs and this guy sent her on to a crisis centre. She turned out to be pregnant.

'There was no provision for victims of trafficking who couldn't go back to their parents and who had a little kid of their own. She was placed in one orphanage; her baby daughter in another.

Hopkins came across many similarly harrowing tales in her travels.

'Of course it is a very dark story and there's a lot of misery,' she says. 'But, at the same time, there is also a lot of beauty. These women are survivors. They survive and that's quite a beautiful thing.'

'Being a woman has helped. It is easy for the women to identify with me.

'I've heard of other [male] journalists who have become a bit screwed in the head with the feelings that they had for these women.

'I have had the opposite problem -- pimps and traffickers who have tried to chat me up -- which can get a bit heated. These were some of the scarier moments,' says Hopkins.

Hopkins also got to know two inspectors -- zedencontroleur-- from the Beursstraat police station.

'Hans and Ron would check the ID cards and papers of the prostitutes. I went with them on their rounds in the Wallen.

'One girl said that she had reported physical abuse by her former 'lover-boy ' -- meaning her pimp. "I did that two weeks ago, can you tell me what the score is?" she asked the officer. I left the room and the police officer turned to me said: "What can I tell her? What can I say to her? We did nothing."

'What I learnt was that there are good cops and bad cops. These were the good cops who just wanted to do their job. The bad cops were the management -- their leaders.

'Politicians don't really care. They are so-called morally outraged, but it is not being translated into any concrete measures.

'We are one of the few countries in the world that has a national human trafficking Rapporteur. It all looks very good, but in reality what you see is that they are considered [to be] illegal immigrants.'

'Under the current system, the women who come here are usually kicked out immediately or -- even worse -- are kicked out after they have testified against the traffickers and risked their lives. All of them are sent back into poverty.'

'It is a conflict between moral and populist politics.'

Exhausted from a relentless round of media appearances, Hopkins stifles a yawn.

'Excuse me,' she says apologetically. 'I was on a radio talk show last night from twelve 'til one. I got home at two, and had to be somewhere else at 7.30 this morning.'

'What do you hope for from your book?' I ask.

'That it sells well,' she says, laughing. 'And of course I hope it will change things. I hope there will be a public discussion about it, not in the old traditional way of the poor victimised woman and the ruthless criminal, but in a more analytical and truthful way, and also that politicians will perceive their own hypocrisy.'

'It's probably a bit na?ve to hope that,' she adds, with a wry smile.

A version of this story was first published in 'Amsterdam Weekly' in November 2005.

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"Of course it is a very dark story and there's a lot of misery, but, at the same time, there is also a lot of beauty. These women are survivors. They survive and that's quite a beautiful thing."
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