Belfast sex slave: 'If I asked for food I was beaten, if I tried to sleep I was raped'
Kidnapped in London and sold into the sex slave industry in Ireland, Anna had a brutal existence until she was moved to Belfast and escaped her captors. As she publishes a book about her ordeal, Anna tells Stephanie Bell about her experiences and how she helped change the way sex trafficking is dealt with in law in Northern Ireland.
It is hard to imagine a more horrific story than that told by a young Romanian-born woman who was kidnapped in London and forced to be a sex slave right here in Northern Ireland. Known simply as Anna — because, seven years on, she still lives in fear — today she bravely talks about her ordeal which she has shared in a new book.
Called Slave, the book by Northern Ireland author and journalist Jason Johnson gives a shocking insight into the modern day sex slave trade and the ease with which the people controlling it were able to operate.
Anna’s story is disturbing and deplorable on many levels but ultimately inspiring as, despite the trauma she suffered, she has gone on to help change the law on sex slavery in Northern Ireland, making it more difficult for this evil trade to continue.
She not only escaped her vile captors but turned the tables on them, helping police bring a successful prosecution.
Anna was 21 years old in 2011 when she was snatched off the street in London.
She was taken to Ireland and sold into the sex slave trade to a Romanian-run brothel near Salthill in Galway for €30,000.
Along with the other girls there, she was advertised on Escort Ireland, the perfectly legal website which turned a profit of €6,026,465 in 2015.
Over the next nine months her life became a living hell as she was kept prisoner, tortured and forced to have sex with thousands of men.
Her captives starved her and deprived her of sleep, and she was constantly covered in bruises from daily beatings and rape. She was eventually moved to Belfast where she made her escape.
Today, seven years on from her ordeal, she is still very much haunted by what she endured and fear lingers, which is why she keeps her new location and identity secret.
She has discovered painting as a way of coping and has surrounded herself with trustworthy friends as she tries to rebuild her life.
She hopes to establish a charity for victims of the sex slave trade and has collaborated on her book to help raise awareness and also to reassure victims that they, too, can start over.
Speaking in fluent English but with a distinct Eastern European accent, Anna recalls: “They were the toughest months of my life. I was kept locked up. If I asked for food I was beaten, if I tried to sleep I was beaten and raped.
“They beat you where people could not see, on the head because you have hair and on your body, but never on the face.
“Nobody cared about the bruises on your body.
“These people had all the skills to be violent.
“They beat you to break you and make you do things for them.
“I don’t think a person could be deprived of so much. I don’t know how I got through it.
“I just had to breathe and keep everything inside and develop a plan to get out of there.”
Anna had enjoyed a good quality of life at home in Romania where she went to college and was brought up to believe in studying and working hard to succeed in life.
She had started studying nursing and psychology when she decided to move to London at the age of 20 to continue her studies and to find opportunities in England.
She had been there a year and was happy, settled and life seemed full of promise when, out of the blue, she was kidnapped while walking down the street.
“I think every young person wants to get out and see what life has to offer and that’s how I felt moving to London,” she says.
“I was working and studying and was a self-sufficient person.
“I had made new friends and I had good references.
“I was ambitious. I had big plans to become a doctor or work in counselling. I loved reading and would read a lot and I was into my studies. My family is German and at the heart of a German family is the ethos that you have to work hard and learn well and be happy, and my granny would always have said that is how you become a good person.”
In her book, Anna explains in detail how she was snatched by Romanians who she believed lived in the same building as her in London.
She believes she was vulnerable because she had no family in the city to raise the alarm.
She was taken directly to the airport and, in the book, deals with how her captors were able to walk her through security without anyone checking their details. A detailed account of the horrific months that followed makes for difficult reading.
Writing in the book about the time she spent imprisoned in a brothel in Galway, Anna gives a harrowing insight into the despair she felt.
“The pimps in Galway knew my reviews were leading to more and more people coming to see me, that I was the girl of the moment, or at least one of them, in the city. All of that meant I was sellable, that I had a good value, and that was why the pimps were interested.
“Do you know that some of the girls who passed through there hated me because of that? That’s how strange this world is. It was popular to rape me, to use me all day and night like a battery hen for sex, and they thought I was having a more successful life than them ...
“These things would get thought often when I sat in that one place on the sofa, staring at the top right-hand corner of the window at the little piece of glass, the little patch that showed if it was night or day or somewhere in the middle.
“I would sit on that seat and think I might soon be killed by someone, or be killed by my own hand. I would think how my body would never be presented to any official and that my mother, my friends back in Romania, would never know what had become of Anna ...”
Despite such moments of obvious anguish Anna, however, was always able to muster the resolve to turn her mind once more to the possibility of escape. She never gave up hope of breaking free from her captors and her chance came when her tormentors moved her to Belfast where, ironically, she became friends with a well-known criminal who turned out to be her saviour.
During her time here, she was moved to different houses and flats all over the city.
One day she was brought to a property in the Cathedral Quarter where she was heartbroken to see five men there instead of one.
They made her strip, saw her body covered in bruises and asked that she put her clothes back on.
One of the men — referred to in her book as Andy — had been a well-known Belfast drug dealer and criminal who had set up the date with Anna because he wanted to find out information with a view to setting up his own brothel. But even this hardened criminal was shocked by both her physical and mental state, and offered to help her if she ever needed it.
When she got her chance she ran and made her way to Andy, the only person she knew in Ireland, and he gave her shelter.
Broken and terrified, she hid for some months before finally finding the courage to go to the police.
A fight ensued between Andy’s gang and Anna’s former pimps, and the latter moved to Sweden temporarily where they continued to traffic women.
While staying with Andy, Anna met Tom, a journalist working in Belfast who put her in contact with the PSNI’s Human Trafficking team, who began working with the Metropolitan Police in London, with Europol and EuroJust, the Romanian police and, later, the Swedish police, where Anna’s main pimps were now plying their trade.
The lead pimps were later arrested and jailed in Sweden and then extradited to Northern Ireland where they were jailed again.
Anna’s information was vital to their arrest and the freeing of their slaves.
Disappointingly, their sentences were short and they served less than eight months in jail. They are believed to be living openly in Belfast.
Not only did Anna bravely work with police to secure their convictions and save other girls but she went on to help shape new policy on human trafficking in Northern Ireland.
She says: “When I escaped there was no help for me. There was no medical help and I didn’t even have papers to travel so I couldn’t go anywhere. I was basically homeless and didn’t know where to turn.
“When I went to the police even they didn’t know how to help me and they were traumatised by my story.”
The PSNI put her in touch with a charity that dealt specifically with sexual abuse, but Anna says: ‘They seemed confused about my case and I told them they didn’t seem to understand what sex trafficking was. They said they had never dealt with such a thing before. I left that charity too feeling that I had traumatised them.”
In 2012 an anti-human trafficking bill was put forward at Stormont which aimed to make life harder for sex traffickers — this sparked hope for Anna and she was determined to help. She says: “I heard on the radio news about new sex trafficking policy and I felt that the politicians were making decisions and they hadn’t been trafficked and didn’t know what it was like. I felt that I had to talk to these people.”
Along with her new journalist friend Tom, Anna met with Lord Maurice Morrow, who had proposed the bill and, later, with then First Minister Peter Robinson.
During the latter encounter, Mr Robinson told her that he had high hopes the bill would bring in changes that would make a real difference.
Anna writes: “I told him I believed there was a lot of money in this business, that sex traffickers were making fortunes from selling women’s bodies to men. And I said, knowing the business as I did, there would be a fight.
“He said, ‘But there is always a fight when you are doing something new’.”
Anna worked hard to get the human message across as, before then, the issue was “not being taken seriously because it was not visible”, she says. Internally, the proposed law was being referred to as ‘Anna’s Law’.
In 2014 Northern Ireland voted in support of a law change, the strongest anti-trafficking laws at that point making it illegal to buy sex.
Speaking as Anna’s book goes on sale, Lord Morrow said: Anna is a woman of immense fortitude. Her story broke my heart, absolutely stunned me. What is going on in this country, across the UK, in terms of human trafficking is horrifying. Anna proved to be an inspiration to me as I sought to bring the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act through the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
While she also played a big part in securing the conviction of the couple who took her and tortured her, she can’t help feeling disappointed that both men are now out walking the streets having served just a few months in prison.
She says: “I honestly would not wish it on anyone. They got such little sentences but at least they were shut down.
“It was a hard, hard journey and it’s been hard for everyone, my family and my friends. My mother didn’t know what had happened to me and I’ve fought very hard to get people to understand it.
“I am now trying to learn to take things easy and learn to keep myself surrounded by good people.
“I’ve started to cry now. I couldn’t cry before but now that I have good people who understand what I’ve been through, it is helping me.
“I still have an element of fear but I’ve started to paint and that helps, and listening to music, anything to take my mind off it.
“I am studying marketing online and volunteering with some charities.
“I hope the book will first and foremost raise awareness and bring to the attention of people that this could happen to anyone in the modern day. It is not a story that happened 100 years ago but just a few years ago.
“I also want justice for people and there are millions of people all over the world it is happening to and I want them to know that there is a way out.”
Slave, by Anna with Jason Johnson, is published by , £7.99