Arts

Anna: The story of the sex slave who helped change the law in Northern Ireland

The disturbing reality of sex trafficking in modern Ireland is revealed in a new book that tells how a young woman was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and raped multiple times by paying 'customers' on both sides of the border. Author and journalist Jason Johnson spoke to Joanne Sweeney

Journalist and writer Jason Johnson has told the story of former trafficked sex worker Anna in the book Slave
Joanne Sweeney

AS SHE returned home from work as a cleaner in London one day seven years ago, the then 21-year-old Anna's life suddenly took an almost unimaginably horrific turn: bundled into a car by two men and a woman and taken to Luton airport, she was forcibly brought to the west of Ireland, where she sold into the sex industry for €30,000.

For the following nine months Anna (not her real name) was made to have sex with hundreds of men, on both sides of the border, before she finally managed to flee her captors in Belfast.

The story of her captivity, her escape and how she worked with police to bring her kidnappers to justice is now told in a new book. Written by Belfast journalist and author Jason Johnson, Slave tells of Anna's ordeal and of how her bravery and persistence led to changes in how the police and the justice system deal with sex trafficking in Northern Ireland.

Although an experienced journalist who has interviewed people in many tragic situations, Johnson says Anna's story is one which will stay with him forever.

"I have never heard so much cruelty on a single individual before and it was just constant. Even the moments of kindness she was given in captivity were part of the cruelty process," says Johnson.

"There was this passive-aggressive thing of reward and punishment and she was controlled by hunger. In fact, all the trafficked girls are controlled by hunger, as much as they were by the constant beatings. They were also controlled by temperature as they were rarely allowed to wear clothes and kept in cold places."

Early in the book, Anna describes the violent contrast between her life before and after her abduction. Little did she know, as she worked in London, that she was just "four weeks from being beaten and raped and beaten and raped and raped and raped again".

"I was four weeks from becoming someone's property, someone who would value me at €30,000 and put me up for sale. This was all about to begin in Ireland, a country I am not sure I could have shown you on a map," she says.

Anna had been studying at university in Bucharest to become a nurse, and then a psychologist, before she came to the UK to study. A former beauty queen, her life in Romania was marred by coming from a broken home where her father was violent to her mother. Her mother’s new husband was also violent and resented Anna’s presence in their home.

The only real parental love she knew as a child was from her maternal grandmother, who was a singer under the communist regime.

Using, where possible, Anna's own words and delivery, Slave takes the reader through Anna's abduction and being taken to a brothel in Galway, from where she and other girls were then moved around Ireland, eventually ending up in Belfast where they were advertised online.

She estimated that she made back the €30,000 that was paid for her within her first 13 days, the money men paid to have sex with her all going directly to her pimps. Given that her captors sold her body for either 30 or 50 minutes at a time, this suggests she was raped around 15 times a day.

From hours of recorded interviews, Johnston recounts in Slave how Anna referred to the men who paid to have sex with her, as "a**holes" as, to her, they were not worthy of the title of men.

She says it did not seem to matter to these men how skinny and malnourished she looked, how many cuts and bruises she had from the daily beatings she endured, or how unkempt she looked. The more she fought and insulted her 'customers', the more they demanded to be with her, leading her pimps to refer to her as "the money-maker".

Johnson says that nine months into her ordeal, Anna found the strength to appear more pliable to the female pimp and her partner, in order to gain some small freedoms. She was then helped after she befriended two Belfast men (unidentified in the book) who, although initially interested in getting involved in the sex trade business, eventually took her under their wing.

"Anna made a conscious plan to get out and was really quite clever about it, in that she pretended to have some kind of Stockholm syndrome and became more pliable and helpful until she came to answer the phone to these two men who were interested in the business,” Johnson says.

“When she went out to meet the two men, they were totally horrified at what had happened to her. They got to know her over a period of time and told her that if she ever needed help or support that they would help offer her protection."

Following her escape and the subsequent police investigation, Johnson, a reporter for The Sun in Northern Ireland and the author of several thrillers, met Anna in 2016 as the prosecution of her case was nearing completion in court.

However, he says the book very nearly didn't come about, due to Anna’s fear and not wanting to relive what had happened to her.

"It really took Anna a long time to think whether she wanted to do this or go through with the whole process of the court case and working with the PSNI. She had spent months and months giving evidence and it had really taken its toll on her.

"But she wanted her story to get out to give some hope to other women who were in her situation and to make people aware of what was happening to their community, in towns the length and breadth of the country.

"We would talk over long sessions lasting two to three hours and then I would leave her for a week or so. But she told me that every time I left her, her world just collapsed around her and she needed to build herself up again to go through it again to pour her heart out. I knew that I had to tell this woman's incredible story. "

The shocking story is also being made into a new TV drama, which is due to start filming soon in Galway and Belfast and expected to be broadcast later this year.

:: Slave by Anna with Jason Johnson is published by Ebury and is out now (£7.99).

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