Karim the tour guide
"Welcome to Sherwood!" proclaims our guide, standing in the pocket-sized park outside Prague's main railway station. "Robin Hood used to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Here, you will find beggars, junkies, prostitutes and homeless people – but no Robin Hoods. Here, everybody steals off everybody."
So begins one of Europe's less family-friendly walking tours. Provided by homeless organisation Pragulic, these tours aren't your typical jaunts around Charles Bridge and the castle. They're an altogether darker affair, shepherding tourists around seedier, lesser-known crevices of the Czech capital. Each of the nine employed guides is either homeless or has spent a large proportion of their lives on the streets, and their tours explore the triumvirate of homelessness, drugs and prostitution – with a bit of police corruption and the occasional Mafia killing thrown in along the way.
Our guide – the most popular of the lot, according to Pragulic – is Karim. A former male prostitute and heroin addict, he has spent 25 of his 40 years living – and working – on Prague's streets.
Dressed in a leather duster that sweeps theatrically around every corner, his eyes are caked in thick eyeliner and he wears a jumble of pendants and trinkets around his neck. His hands – an inky mess of tattoos and elaborate gothic rings – don't stop moving throughout the tour, drawing attention to every crack den, brothel or homeless hotspot he refers to.
"In that staircase up there, people do drugs, have sex and sleep," he tells us. "In the 80s and 90s, Main Station was a thriving place for male prostitution. There was a balcony in the station where people used to have sex, and others just used the park. Nowadays, the park is more of a living room for homeless people."
A quick glance around confirms this; an assortment of beggars, vagrants and drug-users are territorially occupying the benches, or passed out on the grass around them. The exact number of homeless people in Prague is difficult to pinpoint, but estimates are around 3,500 – made up of all ages and intellects, from young kids to university-educated adults. Karim guides us past the ones dozing in the park and dives down a side street that passes the National Museum, before we eventually settle in Wenceslas Square – host to mass marches during the 1989 Velvet Revolution and a fortress for many of Prague's pimps.
"This is the only place where the pimps still run things," says Karim. "All of the other prostitutes work on their own, or use taxi drivers who bring them the clients. Here is where the foreign girls operate – Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and Romanians. Each of them has their own pimp who hangs around nearby, offering drugs and paying the cops a kind of provision so they can work here.
"There are three categories of Czech police," Karim continues. "The municipal cops pretend they don't see you, and sometimes give you cigarettes or talk with you. The state police often beat up the dealers, then start asking why they're doing it. And the third form are called hybrids – cops somewhere between the state police and the municipal police. If you're selling drugs, begging or doing prostitution, they will automatically ask you for money, and quite a lot, too. If you pay the cops, they acknowledge your work, and then they let you get on with it."
Looking back towards the museum end of the square, Karim gestures towards the imposing stone figure of Wenceslas – that good Czech king – who looks out at the heated dealings between cops and criminals below. It's not really this cooperation that's shocking – especially considering the former's reputation for happily pocketing koruna if the offer arises – but the way the square is so neatly divided into good cop and bad cop territories.
"From the statue to the railway, dealers, beggars, prostitutes and pickpockets are allowed to be there because they pay the police," Karim explains. "In the lower half of Wenceslas Square, the cops don't want money; they're always changing and you can't pay them off. So the upper half profits from prostitution and the lower half fights against it. A lot of the cops in the upper half are also clients – they buy drugs and pay prostitutes for sex."
As we walk down Wenceslas Square we pass half a dozen girls, soliciting without a smidge of subtlety. There are a group of West African pimps and dealers lurking a few yards away, hassling tourists to buy drugs. This nighttime scene is a far cry from the innocuous, sausage-munching scene of a few hours previous. Pausing to tell a story from 1968 about how a famous transvestite beat up some Russian soldiers with her handbag ("They were so mentally shocked by it, they ended up in a mental hospital"), Karim informs us that times in the industry have changed.
"During communism, the price you got for being a prostitute was very, very good. There are different mafias now, and beggars, pushers and prostitutes have to pay them a high share – and then they're protected by these mafias. In Prague, there aren't just African mafias, but Arabic and Bulgarian ones, too. They have their own zones and their fixed spots. If girls from one spot trespass on another one's spot, there could be serious repercussions."
In a street called Perlovka – a place where Karim used to solicit male clients for sex – he points to a ominous-looking passage to the right. "In that passage, there is a pub which used to belong to the Bulgarian Mafia. They were real psychopaths. Four months after the Velvet Revolution, one of the cooks stole money and goods from them. The Bulgarians found him, they had a fight and, in the morning, a colleague found the guy cut into pieces, in different cooking pans."
Karim tells us that this Bulgarian mafia was also responsible for the death of his second pimp, Sasha. During his 18-year tenure as a prostitute, Karim had two pimps – one nicknamed the Rat ("He made porn in his living room"), who died of a drug overdose, and Sasha, a thin, grey man who's probably a lot worse to work for than your boss. Relaxing with a beer in the plush Cafe Louvre – Prague's premier brothel in communist times, and the final stop on our tour – Karim tells us a story about Sasha and the pool hall attached to the cafe.
"Sasha used to force us to drug our clients and then got us to steal from them," he begins. "But one prostitute ended up really bad, because after being drugged and stolen from, the client came back to the brothel, grabbed a pool cue and ripped the prostitute up the arse with it."
The pimps controlled everything, Karim tells us, and if you tried to escape them they would hunt you down and, in some cases, even kill you. The only real get-out clause was a horrific one – contracting HIV, a fate that would eventually be met by our guide. The man responsible knowingly infected Karim because he "couldn't cope with himself and wanted to spread the disease so as not to be alone".
It's a sad outcome for a man who has already led such a difficult life. Spending 25 years in the grip of pimps, heroin and methamphetamine – and having to sleep in graveyards, squats, caves and on pavements – he's much happier now. Living permanently in a shelter, and with a steady boyfriend of seven years, he laughs off the offers from 18-year-old guys who say, "Teach me how to become a prostitute", and spends his time giving tours and painting instead.
As we finish off our beers in Cafe Louvre, he hands out some of his pictures to flick through and says, "All I ever wanted was to be independent." He's finally found his freedom, and that's refreshing to hear. But the tour has made us only too aware that there are thousands of others in Prague who haven't.
For more information on the tours visit www.pragulic.cz.
Special thanks to interpreter, Kristýna Chvojková.
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