The Lost Girls of Piteºti


                                                                                                 by Anthony DeStefano



“ The Lost Girls of Pitesti” will build upon my years of experience in writing about immigrant smuggling and organized crime. Having  reported about the phenomenon for over a decade, I have built up reliable resources and contacts.  Officials at the local and federal level in the United States, from vice cops to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, have provided me with information about sex trafficking.  I am intimately familiar with the history and many of the issues connected with the vast subject of sex migration.

 My work has also expanded my international contacts, particularly in Romania, the focus of the story behind “The Lost Girls of Pitesti.”  By spending time with Iana Matei and the women she is helping, I have been able to develop crucial access and trust, vital in the telling of this story. Through my travels, I have also been able to develop sources in various American and European governments and political establishments which will help in researching this story.


There is not any comparable book project on the shelves or in the planning stages.   Is there a market for “The Lost Girls of Pitesti” ?  I believe there is because of the mounting interest among government and law enforcement officials and all men and women who care about human and women’s rights.  In fact, by the Fall of 2002, a large scale law enforcement operation in Eastern Europe is scheduled to get underway to intercept young women at various borders and send them to either home or into the care of international organizations and small programs like Matei’s.  The ground work for all of this interest in the United States was laid In October 2000, when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.  A couple of months later a special United Nations conference in Palermo, Sicily, announced the adoption of a new treaty aimed at fighting “transnational organized crime,” including the trafficking of women.  In May, 2001, FBI Director Louis Freeh traveled to Romania to head a conference on sex trafficking and Matei’s program was acknowledged by officials. In addition, various non-governmental bodies became energized and major media, including the ABC news program “20-20,” have featured the trafficking issue.  The subject has also been a major focus of academic programs at American universities. In short, the issue of sex trafficking has become a major policy concern in this country.

But what I believe  will be the major attraction of  “The Lost Girls of Pitesti”  will be the simple stories of the individual women who make up  the Romanian program run by Iana Matei.  These are young women who, except for the accident of birth in Eastern Europe, are very much like teenaged girls in the United States.  They are trying desperately to have lives of decent, everyday obscurity.  Though there backgrounds are simple, they are at the center of powerful currents in troubled part of the world, a place where they have made some terrible choices and have no room for any more. How they struggle for dignity and development with Matei’s help is what makes this a unique story worth telling.





It was a sweltering summer day in the Balkans and I needed a drink.  The luxuriously appointed Sofitel hotel in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, was a showcase of gleaming metal, glass and plush rooms. It also had a warmly lit bar where I ordered a Coke to quench my thirst and cool off from the heat of a baking sun that had brought this poor country a drought.  In its post-Communist era,  Romania was lurching into capitalism and doing poorly economically, the weather only compounding its troubles.

I had taken only a few sips when I had to answer my ringing cellular phone.   I heard a woman’s voice. Speaking in English layered with the musical accent of a native Romanian speaker, Iana Matei said that she had learned through some friends that I was looking to find her.

It was true I answered and it was about sex.

Well, sex was at the bottom of it.  I was in town, I explained, to research the migration of women for the sex businesses for a series of newspaper articles. Anyone who had written about immigration over the years knew that hundreds of thousands of women were migrating around the world to work in the sex industries.  Either as prostitutes, nude dancers, masseuses, legions of young women had taken up some of the only jobs they could find. Romania had become a major source of young, pretty and impressionable girls who, in their eagerness to earn a living, were being smuggled around to Europe’s sex establishments.  With an average wage of $100 a month, many Romanians were struggling to get by and the situation was particularly dire for the tens of thousands of young women who were at the bottom of the economic barrel in a country that was moving in fits and starts into capitalism without much success.  Add to that the thousands of abandoned and orphaned girls who were found all over the country and there was an ample supply of fresh female faces for the flesh markets.

 The Romanians  were part of a larger global smuggling scene which experts estimate was moving over 700,000 women in the sexual commerce each year.  In 2001, worldwide the estimates ran  as high as 2 million women and girls, some as young as ten years old. Before I  left New York, a report prepared for the Central Intelligence Agency stated that up to 50,000 young women were being sent to the United States to work in brothels.

Iana Matei knew of those reports. She knew these figures.  She lived each day in intimate contact with the consequences of the sex trafficking through a program she ran in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, about 70 miles from where I sat sipping my soft drink.  “Reaching Out,” as Matei’s program was known, was a safe haven which provided trafficked women with a refuge as they attempted to escape from the men who peddled their flesh abroad and start new lives. Such programs were fairly common in the United States and Western Europe. But in Romania at the time, Matei had  the only such facility in the country,  a surprising fact since Romanian women  made up such a large percentage of Europe’s trafficking victims.

Though the cellular connection was not the best, I listened intently, scribbling notes, as Matei told me what she faced.  With a budget of $15,000 a year, a cluttered and shoddy apartment with three rooms and only a few social workers to help her, Matei was the rescuer of lost lives.

“Most of the girls come from dysfunctional families or are orphans,” Matei explained, “people don’t realize that they are children.”

 Matei said she was trying to give the young women who ranged in ages from 16 to 21, some structure and discipline to their lives through jobs and classes in subjects like computer skills and language. Apart from family problems, many of the girls suffered from a naiveté that made them easy pickings for the traffickers. Romanian women, their countenances a mix of the best of Italian, Turkish, Hungarian and Dacian beauty, were desired as sex objects from the Dardanelles to the Danube.

“They don’t know what they are getting into,” she explained, with a touch of  amazement  in her voice. “One girl from an orphanage thought prostitution was working in a bar and taking off her clothes.”

Matei invited me to see for myself what was going on. But, I had no time. My flight was leaving the next day and I had only the night to remain in Bucharest. Perhaps another time, I said.  We swapped telephone numbers and email addresses and promised to remain in touch although I was resigned to the fact that I would not be returning to this economically troubled Balkan nation any time soon.

 Quite unexpectedly, I had to return to Romania in January 2001 for a business trip.  It was during the coldest part of the continental winter and the country’s mountains could be hostile. But I knew the visit to the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps where Matei and her young charges lived was one that I had to make.

Matei, a long haired blonde with a pixie nose and  blue eyes that fixed you in a direct gaze, picked me up at the Continental Hotel after midnight after a hectic day of social events for me in Bucharest. As a light, wispy snow fell on the highway north of the capital,  we made our way to her home.  She regaled me during the hour’s ride with stories of her days with the women, the frustrations of working with Romanian police who viewed them with scorn and the general intransigence of the government bureaucracy which was only just beginning to grapple with the hard fact that women had become the nation’s most popular export.

Matei, who had emigrated to Australia after the fall of communism, had come back to Romania in 1999 to try and do something for the thousands of tiny orphans warehoused around the country. One night police called her because they had arrested a group of young teenaged girls. The women smelled, the cops said, so they asked Matei to help them with the “stinking whores.” 

“They did not stink,” Matei told me. However, the girls, whose average age was about 15, were cold, tired and hungry. The cops wouldn’t even try to get them food and they could only wash with water from a cold tap.  Since Matei had access to clothing and other necessities in her work with orphans, the police allowed her to take charge of the young women.  It was from that first, sobering experience that led Matei to establish the one and only refuge for trafficked women in the country. At that time she had only planned to stay a year in Romania. When I met her she was beginning her third year.

As we drove north that night a yellow glow in the distance hovered on the horizon like a beacon. As we got closer, I could tell that the light—first one, then many-- was from burning gases of an oil refinery. The smell of petrochemicals soon became evident and as we drew nearer the flames punctured the black night, like some strange, surreal gateway.  Welcome to the real Romania, I thought.


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My trip to see the women of Pitesti capped what was many months of work that I and some colleagues at Newsday had been doing for what came to be known as the sex smuggling project. It culminated in a five part series published in March 2001 about the worldwide migration of women to work in the sex business—either voluntarily as some appear to be doing, or else as naive, vulnerable, tricked and coerced victims of the sex traffickers.

I wrote a number of the stories for the project. But for me, the most meaningful tale was that of the Pitesti girls, a few orphans barely out their teens and never having even celebrated a birthday, who put flesh and blood on the trafficking stories which often become litanies of abuse and criminal conduct. But in my visit to that small Romanian city,  a gritty oil refining and industrial town, I sat through a solid day of conversations with the young women, getting a sense of who they were, where they had been and what they hoped to do. They questioned me about life in the U.S:  from Jennifer Lopez to where fresh fruit grew and why there are so many guns in New York City. They wanted to know how many celebrities I had interviewed and why my wife and I had not had children (“You can adopt us!”  one  said) and what I thought was important for them to learn in school. Their questions were those of anyone who longed for a chance to grow up and be ordinary, delightfully ordinary, people with a job, a home and someone to love.

“They are just girls, girls like our daughters,”  Catherine Smith, a San Diego woman who ran a foundation which provided Matei with funding would later tell me.  Peering into their young faces  I took some photographs that showed how magical the  moment was for them. These were, after all, women who were so rarely photographed  that they kept pictures of themselves with their pimps and customers.  A few posed together, embracing each other with protective arms. Their gazes were tranquil and trusting.  I saw not the sexually provocative “whores” as police called them, but a group of vulnerable youngsters who each had a story to tell. Hence, the idea for this project,  tentatively entitled “The Lost Girls of Pitesti,” was born.

The issue of sexual trafficking—some call it sex smuggling—has become one of the most important and pressing law enforcement and human rights issues of our time. Estimates of the money generated by people smuggling is now up to $ 7 billion worldwide. Immigrants, the vast majority driven by the need to migrate to countries in the West which are doing well economically, are on the move day and night.  Nations, particularly in Europe, had become so alarmed by the problem of human trafficking that they banded together in late 2000 to sign a special international agreement aimed at stopping such activity.  In the United States around the same time, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law a measure aimed at increasing the penalties against sex traffickers.

 But, as any honest journalist will admit, the stories we do on this subject tend toward similar themes.  There is also a fundamental issue that must be continually grappled with: free will. Some advocates believe sex workers (i.e prostitutes) are all victims and that a woman does not freely chose such work but is rather a victim of oppression by dominating males.  Others maintain that sex work is like any other job and is often the best way for some women to make a living and pull themselves up economically.  The argument about the voluntary nature of sex work is one that is the most challenging in reporting  and at least some U.S. officials believe a lot of the immigrant women involved are voluntary prostitutes.  Still, most of the stories we write about sex trafficking have become litanies of suffering which cast the smugglers in the worst possible light and bring out sympathy for the victims—not that they don’t deserve it.

 But in looking into sex trafficking or sex migration and finding the women of Matei’s shelter, it struck me that a newer, fresher approach would be to follow the girls over a period of time.  It would mean not only telling the stories of how and why they became trafficked women but also how they succeeded or failed at changing their lives at the Pitesti shelter. It would also follow the narrative thread of Matei’s story, which had become something of a heroe’s journey, as she stumbled into the problems of Europe’s trafficked women and created a beacon in their world.

“The  Lost Girls of Pitesti” will be what sociologists call a longitudinal look at the women of the Pitesti program, following them through the experience of trying to change their lives, relate their sufferings and joys as they struggle through adolescents and into adulthood in a culture that is itself still trying to define itself after decades of isolation.  In a sense, this is a story  about girls who have experienced what Mary Piper said in “Reviving Ophelia” (paraphrasing Simone de Beauvior)  is the realization that men have the power and that their  only source of power is from being submissive, adored objects.  As such, this is a story that has a thematic universality for girls and women all over.  At my suggestion, some of the girls have begun keeping diaries, as has Matei.  Building upon the trip I made in January 2001, I would return to spend more time with them, fleshing out their stories, coming to some conclusions about the effectiveness of these types of rescue programs.  I will also look at some common themes in the girls’ stories, mainly how they struggle to develop in a world where the rules have changed dramatically and adults have for the most part not been of much help.

Naturally, the book will also be a biographical account of Iana Matei’s incredible journey, tracing her story from her days as a child of the Romanian revolution in 1989 to leading the vanguard of people who at the grassroots are trying to give Eastern Europe’s women a sense of hope and options. An implacable woman who never takes  “no” for an answer, Matei has become a major resource for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the Balkans as the United States attempts to help the region deal with numerous law enforcement problems ranging from sex and drug trafficking to weapons smuggling and Internet fraud.  She has also been running her own campaign against identified sex traffickers, prodding Romanian police to use her intelligence about the crime scene to conduct successful investigations.

The results of Matei’s patient efforts began to pay off significantly in early 2002 when intelligence leads provided by two of the young women she was helping led to the arrest of a notorious smuggling suspect known by the name of “Agron.”  Working as what in the Balkans is known as an “impresario,” Agron was suspected by Macedonian national police of recruiting and placing women from around Eastern Europe in brothels. Because of her close working relationship with the FBI liaison to Romania and his counterpart in the Macedonia government, Matei was able to provide information—acquired by her girls-- to the intelligence agencies which led to Agron’s arrest. One of the young woman,  Camelia (the names of the young women in the program have been changed for this proposal), not only provided information but agreed to travel to Macedonia in May 2002  to testify as a prosecution witness at Agron’s trial, leading to his conviction.

The book will contain five sections and will begin with an introductory vignette of Matei in the dead of night at Bucharest’s airport. She was meeting  a group of women arriving on a special flight from Bosnia that had been arranged by the humanitarian International Organization for Migration. The girls were Romanian, with a few from the Ukraine and Moldova, another poor Eastern European country. This airport rendezvous was one of many Matei had made over the preceding months and would introduce her and the particular sex trafficking problem that had come to plague the Balkans. Once a nation splintered by sectarian warfare, Bosnia had settled into an uneasy truce policed by a United Nations force. It had also become a prime area for sex work, attracting desperate Balkan women  with little or no economic prospects in their homelands. Chain smoking and tired, Matei debriefed the women  late into the night and parceled them off, either to their families or her shelter. Driving across town, Matei caught some sleep on an office couch before driving the hour to the home she shared with Stefan, her  thirteen year-old son.

After the introduction, the first  section of the book will deal with Matei’s odyssey as a refugee in 1990 from Romania to Australia.  Her native country had gone through a revolution in 1989 which had overthrown years of despotism at the hands of Nicolae Ceausescue but while there was a flurry of intellectual freedom,  the country remained mired in economic problems that exist to this day, forcing many of the young to leave, particularly the women whose main commodity seemed to be their sexuality.  The 1989 revolution, which Matei played a role in, really caused a host of problems which led to the desperate straits of  Romania’s young and ultimately to Matei’s later calling.

Though she had been trained in historic art restoration, there was little call for that in an Australian society bereft of the Fourteenth Century monasteries she had rehabilitated in her native land. Panicky and with a son to support (she and her husband were divorced), Matei took a career test and did well enough to rate training as a psychologist.  Her new career established, Matei decided to visit her homeland in 1998 in an effort to help the still large population of orphans institutionalized in depressing, state-run facilities.  It was during that year in Pitesti, her old home town, that Matei came across the group of young prostitutes who had been rounded up by the police. She  found herself drawn inexorably to the plight of Europe’s sex workers and trafficked women.

This first section of the book will also provide a context for the global sex trade, one in which hundreds of thousands of women participate in order to survive economically. There are a lot of estimates thrown around about the numbers of women involved—either through coercion or voluntarily—in the sex businesses.  But it is clear that the crumbling of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent growth of unfettered capitalism in former Communist nations created a large population of women in Europe who turned to sex work in order to make a living.  For while capitalism flourished, it also brought about severe economic dislocation for women.  Often these women migrated, either legally or with the help of smugglers, to find work.

The next section of the book will introduce some of the women Matei has been helping at her Pitesti center, women ranging in ages from fifteen to twenty four, who found themselves shipped to neighboring Bosnia, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia to work in strip clubs, bars and brothels. While their individual stories are unique, their experiences as sex workers are emblematic of what tens of thousands of European women are going through.  For that reason, this section will connect with the more global sex trafficking picture, placing Europe in perspective. But, it is the individual women who are important here and I will pick four or five to follow through their time at the Pitesti safe house.

The women I chose will be those that I think encapsulate the most compelling elements to the sex trafficking story.  There is sixteen year-old Laura , a petite Romanian girl with straight, long black hair, who lived with a sister who did not join Matei’s program in an orphanage until she met a young man who befriended her. Convinced by the young man that she could make money working in Italy as a nanny, Laura agreed to cross the border into Serbia.  It was there that the story changed for the worse—fairly typical it seems—when Laura discovered she was not going to Italy at all but instead to Bosnia to work in a bar.  With no passport, naive in the ways of the world and in a strange country, Laura stayed at the bar and she said was forced to go with clients for sex.  She kept a photo scrap book of her experience in which she penned the names of the girls she worked with and kept pictures of herself with customers.  One shot shows Laura on a staircase going into an apartment building in Bosnia, her customer not much older than she, protectively draping his arm around her. Upstairs she  was forced to have sex with five men.

Aurora is a slender blonde eighteen year-old with pale skin and blue eyes—not a classic Romanian look. When I met her she was crying. At first, I thought I had screwed up my feeble attempt to utter a greeting in Romanian and had inadvertently insulted her.  But no, it seems Aurora was upset because she couldn’t get up the nerve to speak in English despite the fact that she was taking classes in the language. Known to the other women as “Madonna” because of her fair hair and the fact that she liked to sing, Aurora seemed to be the most outwardly emotional.  She also seemed the most intuitive and shrewdest, capable of telling her friends when she thought they were deceiving themselves into thinking they could return to sex work without enduring the same suffering they had experienced earlier.

Anda is also a blonde but built differently then Aurora, more muscular. Her face, with a prominent nose, seems Italian and her eyes are dark and often heavy with mascara.  Anda had a seductive look, though her complexion was marred by blemishes. Her relationship with her family was dysfunctional, her father reportedly abusive. Her sexually active life led, according to Matei, to a series of illnesses though, mercifully, AIDS was not one of them. While alluring, Anda was impulsive and liked to hang out in bars, which was how she fell in with some local pimps.

Elena, another eighteen year-old, has long straight dark hair that cascades over her shoulders, framing a thin, pretty face.  Elena is incredibly shy around newcomers. Upon first meeting me she averted her eyes any time I looked in her direction. Though quiet, Elena seemed very perceptive, her shyness being a shield behind which she retreated as she sized up a person. Her story was somewhat atypical of all of the women since she came from a relatively stable home but had a falling out with her stepfather. Though Elena had traveled to Albania, her pimp,said Matei, liked her looks so much that  he kept her as a trophy girlfriend.  However, things were not idyllic as the pimp loaned her out to his friends, she said.

Camelia, like Elena, is slender and with a fine-boned face framed by long brown hair. She has a rebellious streak and comes from a family of seven siblings where an alcoholic mother ruled the roost and once gained notoriety by abandoning one of her infants in a public bathroom.  Living in a small Romanian village,  Camelia found life intolerable with her mother and at the age of 12 left home, living off money she was able to make dancing topless in bars and whatever sexual favors she could get paid for. At one point Camelia was able to travel as an illegal immigrant without a passport to Greece where she was able to wrangle a forged Moldovan passport. Once in Moldova,  Camelia connected with the International Organization for Migration, a major global refugee group, and was referred to Matei’s program. It took her eight months before she could talk to Matei about her experiences in the sex industry and tried to flee from the Reaching Out hostel three times, once during a hair brained scheme to go to Japan to work as a stripper.

After the women are introduced, the book will look more closely at Matei’s program, tracing the experiences of the women as they go to school, learn English and try to build their friendships. The Reaching Out program has essentially built a fictitious family, with responsibilities divided up, disputes arising and having to be settled.   Matei serves as the “mother,” assisted by four social workers from the local government agencies.

The next section of the book will follow Matei as she tries to work with Romanian and U.S. government officials in an effort to expand the nascent effort to pursue and prosecute the sex traffickers. It is a daunting task since the attitude of Romanian police has traditionally been that the women have brought on their problems themselves.  Others view them as naïve and stupid. Still, through the years 2000 to 2002, Matei doggedly continued her efforts, traveling to Washington, D.C. to brief the FBI and top State Department officials.  She also persuaded a number of Romanian government ministers to increase their efforts, particularly since U.S. officials such as Ambassador James Rosapepe viewed her program as a model for anti-trafficking efforts in the Balkans.   A main part of this section will show how Matei was able to help Romanian police in the city of Turnu-Severin to break up a trafficking ring commanded by an older man and woman.  In court, Matei served as a deputized citizen and gave testimony; she even questioned the suspects, eliciting enough damaging admissions that the defendants were held in jail.

The final section of the book will deal with the progress of the women involved, showing how they have succeeded, failed or remained to clarify their lives.   Laura got a job at a garment factory but was frustrated after she lost it, feeling worthless and unsure of herself.  Anda seemed to reject all she had learned in Matei’s program. Enticed by another renegade from the program,  Anda left and decided to go with some pimps to the Czech Republic to make money. Aurora tried unsuccessfully to convince Anda to stay away from the sex business and remain in Romania.  Matei once cited an 87 percent success rate. But two of the ten women I met in the Winter of 2001 returned to their old ways. Matei conceded it was proof that the quick money of the sex industry was a powerful draw, even to women who knew what was at stake.

 Still, Aurora stuck with her English courses and went back for more school. After a frustrating time at a factory job—her boss fired her because the men were constantly distracted by her good looks-- Elena reconciled with her mother and returned home to continue schooling.  Camelia, who initially had so much trouble talking about what happened to her, was convinced by Matei in May 2002 to testify against the pimp Agron in a Macedonian courtroom.  It was the key  step which validated Camelia’s self esteem and moved her forward. She is now studying social work.  This final section will end with Matei again at the Bucharest airport, meeting a new load of women who have been rescued from their pimps and sex traffickers. The supply of women seems never ending.

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