Priest Reunites Ex-Prostitutes With Their Families

In Moldova, the Children Hope -- and Wait

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BENDER, Moldova, FEB. 11, 2001 (Zenit.org).- A priest who rescues women from prostitution mafias in Italy traveled to Moldova last week with a group of abused women, to reunite them with their children.



Not all the little ones were able to see their mothers again. Some of their mothers still walk the streets of Rome, Paris and London at all hours of the night.

"What would you like me to bring you from Italy?" Father Cesare Lodeserto asked a group of children excited by his arrival. The Italian priest was in a state-run home for abandoned children, in this small, poor country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania.

"A ball!" said Rosa, who had a pink ribbon in her hair.

"A toy," cried blond, 6-year-old Igor.

"My mother!" implored little Bakthiar. His mother Elena is in Italy.

Elena has been one of the lucky ones. She had been sold into prostitution in Hungary, Romania and Albania, before being rescued by the Regina Pacis center of the Italian Diocese of Lecce. The center gives shelter to illegal immigrants, some of whom had been smuggled across the Adriatic Sea by traders in fast motorboats.

The first time Elena was sold, the price was $150; the last time, $2,000. The Albanian who bought her had hoped to invest in the "white slavery" markets of Italian cities. However, the police detained Elena and entrusted her to Father Lodeserto.

"For weeks she didn´t want to speak," the priest recalled. "Eventually, I convinced her. Elena accused those who reduced her to sexual slavery, and they have been arrested. They were Albanians -- wanted and arrested for murder."

Now, after agreeing to accuse her abusers, Elena has been given a permission to stay in Italy and earn her living in a dignified way. She is working as a seamstress. "However, time and documents are needed before she is able to be reunited with her son," Father Lodeserto observed.

Because of his work, the priest´s life has been threatened. As recently as Feb. 4 he was briefly kidnapped at gunpoint by Albanian mafiosi, who warned him to stay out of the way.

Father Lodeserto is working to keep other young Moldavian women like Elena from being tricked with promises of employment in the West and then entrapped in a vicious circle of sexual slavery and indebtedness to their "owners."

Some of the children of women like Elena have been left behind in the orphanage here in Bender. The 53 children who turned out for Father Lodeserto´s visit were well behaved and quiet.

Vera Valerievna Gurutzura, the director of the orphanage, complained: "Last year the state gave us a total of $1,500" to support the children and 38 employees. She herself, who has two degrees and 30 years of service, has a low salary, which is paid late. In January she was paid her November salary.

Among the children, Father Lodeserto met the daughter of another young woman he has helped in the Apulia area of Italy.

He called the child by her name, Madina, and the little one smiled. The priest asked her if she would like to speak to her mother on his mobile phone. The child´s face was radiant. "Da, da," she said, nodding her head of blond hair.

The children are somber, but break into a smile the minute someone looks at them.

"They are waiting for someone to adopt them," the director said. "A couple came two months ago; they promised Sasha they would return, but never did. Sasha is still waiting." Sasha is 9.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of abandoned children has increased by 20%, the director explained. The opening of borders has depopulated Moldova (also known formerly as Moldavia) and thrown this country of 4.4 million people into even greater misery.

Father Lodeserto also traveled to the village of Marija´s parents, whose daughter was also rescued from the mafias.

Her parents worked in farming, they had four children, and were not bad off. Then the Russians took away the tractors, machines, everything. Now they live off what they get by raising one pig. They had a cow but had to sell it. For a time, their electricity was cut off.

Marija´s parents invited the priest to their one-room home, and asked him to sit on the sofa before a samovar, which was not lit. The house was colder than the outdoors.

They began to tell their story: At age 16, Marija was the only one earning something. She worked in the pigpens of the wealthy man of the village, the former local Communist chief.

Suddenly, they lost all track of her, recalled her mother. The latter, about 30, seemed much older.

Father Lodeserto gave them a photograph of their rescued daughter, who has a proper job and even sends a dollar or two home occasionally.

With the money, the family has bought blankets and paid the electricity bill. Her mother said: "Even the neighbors are saying to us: Marija was lucky, we have been lucky."