16 November 2012
Trafficking: The ordeal of a Moscow 'shop slave'
Two weeks ago anti-people-trafficking activists found 11 people who were apparently being kept as slaves in a mini market in Moscow.
It was one of the worst examples yet to come to light of how badly migrant workers from places like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are sometimes treated in Russia.
One woman said she had been imprisoned in the shop for 10 years, and had even had one of her children taken away.
In the charity safe house in central Moscow where some of the rescued slaves were living, a six-year-old boy wearing headphones was singing along to a children's video on a desktop computer. Until two weeks ago Bakhyr had never seen a computer - or a video. He had spent his entire life within a few yards of the basement mini market, where his mother was reportedly being held as a slave.
Leyla Asherova, from Uzbekistan, was brought to Moscow 10 years ago aged just 16 to work as a shop assistant in the grey concrete suburbs to the east of the city centre. She believed, of course, that she would be paid. But she never was.
"When I arrived on the very first day they took away my passport," she said.
"Then I noticed the owner beating one of the girls, very badly. She pulled her hair and she kicked her really hard. That was when I realised that I was in a wrong place."
She said the hours working in the mini market were long, the food was meagre and she lived in constant fear of violence.
"The shop owner beat me a lot," she explained. "Once she beat me non-stop for two hours. I still have bruises on my legs, on my body and on my face. She even hit me when I was pregnant."
Leyla Asherova is now pregnant again and had two children born in captivity. As well as her six-year-old son Bakhyr, there was a girl - Diana - who would have been five years old now. But the shop owner took her away. Later she told her that Diana had died falling from a balcony. Ms Asherova does not even know if that is true.
"When she told me my daughter was dead, I felt completely numb," she said. "I didn't have any panic or any emotions, I just thought I needed to do something to make sure that she doesn't go unpunished."
Ms Asherova told me that the father of her children was a member of the shop owner's family. She did not use the word rape - but she said he had regularly beaten her.
She was freed when a group campaigning against people-trafficking stormed into the mini market. Several people were sleeping in the back of the shop. They said most of them had never been allowed past the front door.
There were two other children as well as Ms Asherova's son. One five-year-old boy had been locked up in a flat for his whole life. He had never seen daylight.
I found him the next day in a different safe house. Baurzhan Kasimov looked half the size he should have been, and had twisted and swollen limbs from rickets - due to a vitamin deficiency caused by a lack of sunshine. He could barely walk.
I asked Ms Asherova why they had not just begged someone to call the police but she said that she used to see the local officers being bribed by the shop owner.
"Whenever the girls ran away from there, they would be caught and horribly beaten up," she explained.
"Even when they asked the police for help, they didn't get any. The policemen would simply bring them back to the owner. They would arrive and say, 'We've got your girls. Take them back.' So we couldn't trust the police. We were scared to run away because we thought we'd be found and beaten."
We went with Ms Asherova last week when she tried to report her enslavement to the Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI.
But they just called the local police station and the same officers she had allegedly seen collecting bribes tried to arrest her for illegal immigration. After a long argument activists successfully freed her once more. The investigation into her alleged imprisonment for 10 years has been closed.