Human Trafficking (Part I)

Pleas of a Desperate Sex-Slave

Mafia Boss: Yuri 'the Russian' Ulianitski. Enslaving trafficked women was no big deal for him. But if you thought his death in hail of bullets was going to slow down the traffickers, then you must be dreaming.

In Brief

  • A ‘talent scout’ approached Yulia Trofimenko in a tiny Russian village and offered her an opportunity to work as an exotic dancer in a Cape Town strip club
  • Like many other trafficked women across the world, Yulia soon herself trapped working as a prostitute in a club owned by the slain gangster Yuri ‘the Russian’ Ulianistski
  • Yulia’s statement heard at the Western Cape High Court sheds light into the appalling work conditions perpetrated by abusive and well-connected club owners and managers
  • The Department of Home Affairs has been working to stamp out the vice, with a tailor-made 640-strong inspectorate now operating to enforce the immigration law 

WARNING! This report contains strong language that could offend sensitive readers. But – if her story is not told – we’ll go on unwittingly enjoying the sight of those bright banners that planes or choppers drag across our city skylines to promote strip-clubs like Mavericks

Lured to Cape Town with promises of a job as an exotic dancer, a young Russian woman finds herself forced into prostitution. Yulia Trofimenko’s story echoes that of many other young women who have found themselves in similar terrible predicaments. Curbing the abuse demands unreserved support for the no-nonsense approach being adopted by Department of Home Affairs officials, led by the Director General and the two immediate ministers. But the ‘owners’ of such women have been pulling out all the stops to go on with their nefarious activities.

Yulia Trofimenko landed at Cape Town International Airport from Russia on 28 September 2007, on a tourist visa. She hadn’t come to take a boat ride to Robben Island, a cable-car up Table Mountain or a bus to Cape Point and the winelands. Nor was she a backpacker, coming to experience life in the mother city. Tucked in her suitcase was an engagement contract. No, not for marriage. Yulia did not come as a Russian bride. That might have been a happier story.

Born in the summer of 1987 in humble surroundings in the port city of Vladivostok, Yulia was sent to live with her grandmother in the village of Shmakafka after her parents divorced when she was just a toddler. Some five hours from Vladivostok, Shmakafka is a village so insignificant it doesn’t appear on any Internet platform.

At the age of fourteen, Yulia returned to her city of birth to stay with her mum, of whom by then she had only the vaguest of memories. Two years later she began attending college to study business management. During the third year of her studies she opted to return to Shmakafka for her practical training – perhaps one could call it community service.

Like every youngster, she had dreams, and hers were of a new world and a different life. Had Jeffery Archer’s 1979 novel, Kane and Abel, been a prescribed book at the business school, she might easily have identified with its character, Wladek Koskiewicz – except she didn’t know how to change her status to become a female Abel. The New World remained a dream. She must have felt she was destined to be a village girl all her life.

Then, in May 2005, came a glimmer of hope. Yulia met an old friend who was accompanied by a “talent agent”, Svetlana Finashina. Svetlana asked whether Yulia would consider travelling to Cape Town to work for a year at an “exotic dance club” – in Cape Town, didn’t she know, where the famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, had given his speech when released from prison?

But Yulia hadn’t heard of Mandela, nor did she know anything of “exotic dancing”. But whatever might get her away from the village and closer to her dream of a better life was welcomed. She was told that she would have to dance “topless”, and that the money would be very good. No business studies degrees were needed, just some few photographs of herself. She liked the idea – she was not shy of her body – and, after all, it would be in a far-far-away-land. Svetlana had the pictures taken and, about three weeks later, she heard that her “application” had been successful.

Yulia’s extraordinary story was detailed in documents handed to the Western Cape high court, back in 2011, in a matter between Mavericks strip-club and the Department of Home Affairs. In her affidavit she described how working at a strip- club was nothing like the talent scout/agent, Svetlana Finashina, had made it sound. Had Yulia known anything at all of what she would end up doing, she’d have chosen to go on with her life in Shmakafka instead. By then, however, it was too late: she was already a statistic in the annals of human trafficking.

Yulia’s affidavit can best be understood if read in parallel with the Immigration Act No 13 of 2002 (as amended in 2004) andChapter Two of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

“It is,” she swore, “in the interest of the Government of the Republic South Africa to understand the facts of my ‘journey’ since first landing in South Africa just over three years ago. I now believe with all my heart that by deposing to this affidavit I will assist the Department of Home Affairs in uncovering certain facts about my immigration status and the manner in which I believe I obtained it and hope that a full prosecution will arise from this affidavit.”

Yulia’s preparations for the trip, she went on to say, had started on what turned out to be a bad note. In order to qualify for a visa, applicants need return tickets and enough money to convince the consular officers of the country to be visited that they would be able to support themself. The village student was of course unable to do this – but Svetlana knew the ropes, and had arranged for a bank account to be opened for Yulia and $1,000 to be deposited therein. The naïve Yulia did not think anything of it at the time.

Russia, as far as the South African authorities are concerned, is deemed a high-risk country in respect of illegal immigrants, and tourist visas for Russian citizens are restricted to twenty-five days. A visitor cannot apply to Home Affairs here for any sort of new permit, including extensions to a tourist visa, without a special waiver from the Minister. Yulia was of course aware that she would be working, despite having only a visitors’ visa. Assured by Svetlana that this would not be a problem, she was prepared to take the chance.

Yulia then flew to Cape Town via London, in the company of another stripper called Angelika, who had been in the “exotic dancing” profession in Japan. A woman called Irina met the two women at the airport. Yulia figured out some while later that Irina was Svetlana’s Cape Town counterpart – and the wife of Yuri ‘The Russian Ulianitski – then one of Cape Town’s most-feared underworld figures.

[The infamous 39 year-old Yuri ‘the Russian’, who owned The Castle strip club, died in May 2007 in a hail of bullets which also caused the demise of his four-year old daughter. uSpiked]

Irina took the two unsuspecting young women to a house at 147 Arum Street, Table View, which was to become their South African home. Later that day, Yuri appeared with Irina at the house and introduced himself. He asked the women to sign paperwork “for work permit application purposes,” after which he gave them R400 for food.

The House of Slaves: 147 Arun Street

That evening, still exhausted from a long flight, they were looking forward to the prospect of a good sleep to recuperate. But a man who introduced himself as Yuri’s driver, Emmanuel, arrived with instructions that the two tired young women were required at The Castle. (Emmanuel means ”God is with us” in Hebrew but any irony here was undoubtedly lost on Yulia and Angelika.) On arrival at the club they were disquieted by what they saw, but there was to be no escape. In her statement, Yulia describes The Castle as dilapidated: “It was dirty, the furniture was old, soiled and seemed completely out of place. It smelled of cigarette smoke, beer and was cold.” She was “perturbed”.

At 6pm the following day Emmanuel again arrived at the house and drove them to the club where Yuri was waiting to address them, “very directly and without any hesitation.” Yulia was terrified. “My objective in coming to Cape Town from Russia was to dance in a luxurious club, nothing more nor less than this.”

Angelika, with strip-club experience, told Yulia to drink some wine for relaxation and to “get into the mood.” After the two women had danced for a few hours on the club’s stage, Yuri instructed them to take two clients up a winding staircase to separate rooms, where they were required to “perform” some more.

“I did not understand what I had to do and Angelika whispered to me that I needed to relax and ‘go with the flow’. I took my assigned ‘customer’ to one of the windowless rooms where there was a bed, a small table and a shower. I was still topless and the man took off his shirt and lay down on the bed. I began massaging his back and hoped that this would be the end of it.

“Then the man started touching and kissing me and as the minutes passed, he was completely undressed, reached for a condom on the side table of the bed and I knew at that moment that was not what I had bargained for. The man had sex with me, but he was not rough or rude or hurtful in any way. I closed my eyes, and allowed him to use my body. I cannot explain exactly how I felt.”

She says that at that point it dawned on her that she had traded her dignity for false promises. She was a lost soul in a foreign country without anyone to turn to.

“When it was over, the man took a shower and went downstairs, and I took a shower and began crying, not knowing what to do, not knowing what sort of position I was in.” She added that although the man had used a condom she didn’t want to think what the following weeks or months would be like if she remained in the same situation.

The uncertainty became a nightmare when her subsequent nights at the club were repeats of that tearful one. And so it went on, night after night. Emmanuel would drive them to The Castle and the whole rigmarole would be played out, from topless dancing to sex in the windowless cubicles. She had become a sex slave.

In her statement, Yulia says the clients would pay R700 for an hour of sex. This would be distributed as follows: R300 for the club; her agents (Irina and Svetlana) would split R100; and the remaining R300 would be hers. Not hers to keep, but to go towards paying various expenses Yuri had allegedly incurred for her “procurement”.

With no legal status in the country and Yuri holding her passport, there was basically nothing Yulia could do. She was bound to one of the Cape Town’s most feared underworld bosses. Crying didn’t help. To whom could she report her predicament? Yuri ensured that there was no contact with anyone other than Emmanuel the driver. “I was frightened and did not want to talk to anyone.”

But worse was yet to come. “Approximately three or four days later, I fell ill with vaginal infection. I visited a gynaecologist that Yuri had referred me to and I was told that I had contracted an infection from my customers, or from the towels that I was using in the club (which I understand were treated with some kind of disinfectants or bleach).”

She stated that about three months after the infection, she could no longer function properly and her owner, the ”good” and “kind” Yuri, had her admitted at the Milnerton Medi-Clinic for a laser treatment procedure to remove growths that had formed in her genitals. The procedure didn’t work and she had to undergo another operation five weeks later.

She was trapped and in pain. She couldn’t move and felt terribly ill for weeks. “Yuri told me to go back to work at the club otherwise he would force me to live in The Castle. “[Yulia’s full sworn statement can be accessed here]

Similar stories have been told to the Department of Home Affairs officials and to our journalists by young women who have found themselves trapped at various strip-clubs around the country. One of these is Cape Town’s Mavericks Revue.

An oddity in Yulia’s statement lies in its having been prepared and presented to the Department by immigration attorney Gary Eisenberg. The same attorney’s main client list reads like a list of Cape Town’s top strip-joints. It’s known that some attorneys would happily take clients regardless of their background, as long as they can pay the legal fees – but why would Eisenberg take on Yulia’s matter just after the death of Yuri the Russian? Could it be because dead people cannot pay bills?

It must further be noted that The Castle was a known competitor of strip-clubs that had enlisted the services of Attorney Eisenberg.

They say the devil is in the details. After presenting the affidavit to the then-Cape Town chief immigration officer, Jurie de Wet*, a case of human trafficking was allegedly opened against the very dead Yuri the Russian. With supposed criminal investigation then on-going, De Wet continued to extend Yulia’s stay in the country. The police officer allegedly assigned to the case was Warrant Officer Tony Beukes. These journalists can now confirm that no such investigation took place.

After the Department’s head office learned this, the Chief Director of Permits in Pretoria wrote to De Wet saying that Attorney Eisenberg should be informed that no more extensions would be made for Yulia’s stay in the country. That was plainly stating that Yulia was to leave the country. Alternatively, Eisenberg was to be advised to petition the Minister directly. Records show that Eisenberg only ever petitioned the Deputy Director General on this matter, contrary to what he had been advised to do.

Among issues the Department’s head office struggled with was how Yulia had survived financially between June 2007 and June 2008, when she swore the affidavit. She was staying at a R4,500-per-month Sea Point flat. If she were as broke as the attorney had informed the Department that she was, how was she affording the accommodation? And what about from June 2008 onward?

It only required a hawk-eyed no-nonsense immigration official to join the dots. On the night of 26 June 2010, a team made up of immigration officers, South African Police Services and Cape Town Metro Police conducted a raid at another Cape Town strip-joint Arabesque (one of Attorney Eisenberg’s corporate clients) and Yulia was among the foreign women netted in the raid. It took some time to identify her since “her” attorney was holding her passport (as was the case with the other women netted). When the passport was handed over, she was identified as the Yulia who had cried to the Department for help.

This brings uSpiked to the February 2012 judgment of Western Cape High Court Judge Siraj Desai. The club owners and the abusive managers of the women are so politically connected that not even the South African Human Rights Commission has the courage to step in and call a spade a spade. They’d prefer to know it as a big spoon. uSpiked recently saw the speed with which that very Commission rushed to consider a complaint filed against State Advocate Gerrie Nel for his tough cross-examination of Oscar Pistorius – yet it has been more than two years since Judge Desai referred them to the treatment of foreign women contracted by Cape Town’s Mavericks Revue. Deafening silence. If the Commission cannot speak for trapped young women, who will?

This is the challenge uSpiked is throwing out, believing that many citizens across the world will add their voices to make right the errors of our times. In the mid-20th century, by Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, slavery was declared to exist no more – so why are we still talking about it in the 21st century? 

*The Department of Home Affairs held a disciplinary proceeding to established probable culpability of De Wet to the runaway issuance of questionable permits to the strip-club owners. While the outcome of the proceedings is kept confidential, these journalists are aware that he resigned from his position shortly afterwards.

 Read Human Trafficking II and Human Trafficking III