Of the estimated 30 million people trapped in slavery around the world, only about 140,000 of them come from Europe. While that might make some Europeans feel a little better about the continent they're dwelling on (bankrupt and increasingly irrelevant), it shouldn't. Because a) that makes them more of a narcissist than will.i.am in a hall of mirrors, and b) that slavery statistic is constantly rising.
And it's been rising even faster since 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU, opening more borders and creating opportunities for more nasty people to exploit anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. Also, thankfully—for anyone twisted enough to root for Europe to up its human trafficking game—Bulgaria currently boasts the EU's highest annual amount of trafficking victims. So that should help push the numbers up a little more.
In November 2012, 43-year-old Bulgarian Jemal Borovinov and 14 others were taken from their home country and soon found themselves trapped in a human trafficking ring operating in southern Italy. Fortunately, Jemal and his wife managed to escape their captors a few months into their bout of enforced slavery and make it back to Bulgaria. I met Jemal in a petrol station in his hometown of Razgrad to find out exactly what happened to him.
VICE: Hi Jemal. So how did you get yourself into this situation in the first place?
Jemal Borovinov: I was misled. My sister and her husband were working in Germany, picking strawberries and raspberries. A woman called my sister and told her they were recruiting people to work in Italy, paying €30 a day to pick tangerines and oranges. She said you just had to pay €150 euros for travel and another €100 commission to the person who recruits you. My sister and my wife persuaded my brother-in-law and me to take the job. There is a saying: “Never listen to a woman.” I listened to mine once and look at what happened.
I'm not sure that's a saying. When did you leave Bulgaria?
The four of us left on November 1, 2012 from the Central Bus Station in Razgrad. Ten others, who were all from different parts of the country, joined us in Sofia. We waited for an hour and half, and then two buses turned up. The driver took our money. We stopped at a gas station just before getting on the ferry to Greece, and a few guys came along, chatted to the bus driver, and gave him a stack of fake IDs, passports, and driving licenses. He gave them the money and they disappeared.
Did they give you fake IDs?
The driver asked if we had IDs on us and offered to give us fake ones if we didn't. He gave me the stack of fake documents, and I saw they didn’t have an official stamp on them. I asked him what they were for, and he said, “Don’t worry, they are for some guys that Interpol is looking for.” I said to him, “I hope our job isn't as fake as the documents.”
When did you start getting suspicious?
I realized we were trapped when we got on the ferry and they asked for more money. I started arguing with my wife and my sister. Where were these fraudsters taking us? I was sure they were going to screw us up, and there was no way we could escape by this point.
The only picture that Jemal managed to take of the house they were kept in.
Where did you get off the ferry?
In Brindisi, which is in the Apulia region of southern Italy. Then they took us to Nova Siri in the Basilicata region, drove us to the mountains and shoved us all in one house. There was nothing around us except for apricot trees. We were isolated and forgotten from God. There was no food, no water—the place was horrific. The only place we could get water from was four kilometers away. Thankfully, we had some food and tins with us. That’s how we survived.
Were there any other houses?
There was another house a kilometer away where they also tortured people. They would drug the women and convince them to become prostitutes. They made them stand on the motorway near bars that were run by Bulgarian and Italian gangsters. We men were forced to deal drugs. I wanted to kill each and every one of our captors because the situation was a matter of freedom or death. I found out that the Italian men who owned the bars also owned the houses but under Bulgarian names. Apparently this had been going on for 12 years.
Who was actually holding you captive?
Well, the houses were constantly guarded by Bulgarians, who were the cousins of the main guys. The main guys were Turkish gypsies, but they said that they were Pomaks [a Slavic Muslim population native to areas of Bulgaria] and used fake Muslim names. I'm a Pomak myself, and when I spoke to them I noticed their accents, which were completely off, so that gave them away.
What did they make you do other than sell drugs?
I had to drive a bus that they'd stolen. They changed the Italian plates to Bulgarian ones. A bunch of them would come around every night at around 2 AM, usually high, and beat us up before ordering us to steal gas from Italian gas stations. We never picked any strawberries. They also took our phones, money, and IDs away, but luckily I had a second phone that we hid in our dirty socks.
One of the minibuses that Jemal managed to photograph with his hidden phone.
Were you able to communicate with any of the other people being held captive?
Not really, no. Although there was one old sod with us who told us that he'd owed them money, so they went to his house and kidnapped him, his son, and his daughter-in-law. He told me that there had been a lot more people there before, but that they'd managed to escape.
How did you eventually escape?
It was difficult. We managed to get in touch with Ramadan Atalay—a minister from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party—with our hidden phone. I had also called Todor Dimitrov from Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) [the party in power at the time], who I know personally, and he told me, “Don’t bother me with stupid shit like that, I'm at elections in America.”
That's not very helpful. So did someone come and pick you up?
No, five of us snuck out during the night when the armed guards were dozing off. The old guy helped us do that and I'm so thankful to him. Without him we wouldn’t have succeeded. So we ran through the fields for about four kilometers until we reached the road, but no one wanted to pick us up, and it turned out that they had caught and tortured my brother-in-law, who told them everything, so they blocked my phone, and I couldn't call anyone. My wife and I were crying like babies. That's when I thought, This is the end; we are going to die. And then my wife remembered that she had €20 hidden in her bra, so we managed to get out of there.
The road leading to the house where Jemal was held captive.
Are you going after them now you're free?
Yeah, I'm suing them. I get threats over the phone and they try to stop me, but they can’t scare me after all I've been through. I also sent an official complaint against them to the main police body that deals with organized crime. I hope some of the other survivors will join us. Police warned me not to speak to any journalists, but I spoke to a lawyer, an ex-head of police, and he told me, “Don’t listen to them – it's better to get your story heard, otherwise a lot of other poor people will also get trapped.” I wouldn't wish the torture I went through on my worst enemy.
How are the rest of your family?
My wife is in a hospital in Varna. She got diabetes because of all the stress she went through and now needs to be under constant surveillance. My daughter is in second grade and had an anxiety attack when she found out we were trapped. The kid spent ten days in a hospital, and she still stutters to this day. My sister and my brother-in-law are still being held by the fraudsters in Italy.
So what now?
I am never, ever leaving Bulgaria again. I'm going to continue my garlic business and I'm thinking of hiring fields and harvesting strawberries. I'm going to pay my rent for the next five years so I know I'm safe. I know I'll be in the shit for a while, but I'll earn my money back.
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