They are still children, only 12 or 13 years old. They fall in love for the first time, at the school gates or on Facebook, and wind up with a pimp. Parents and police are struggling against the hold so-called loverboys have over young girls, but often it's already too late.
It had happened again the previous evening. One of her johns came into her booth behind the glass window, starting groping her and then wanted more than she usually offers for 50 ($64).
"Twenty minutes, normal sex," she kept saying to him, but the man wouldn't listen and started lashing out and shouting that he wanted anal sex. She pressed the alarm button, her only recourse in this cell of glass and tiles, holding just a bed with a washable cover.
At that moment, says Angelique, when the police didn't show up, as usual, and the man raged at her, she asked herself why on earth she does this, why she is stupid enough to prostitute herself, to give up her youth and her body here in Amsterdam's red-light district, up to 20 times a day. Why?
"I guess I just never learned how to do anything else," says Angelique. She was 15 when she fell in love with her first pimp. He would be waiting for her in his car when she came out of school. He bought her short shirts, high-heeled shoes and big earrings and told her to put them on. She did it because she loved him. Then he drove her to parking lots and apartments, where he rented out her body, the body of a 15-year-old girl. Angelique was raised to have sex.
"He looked like a model," says Angelique today. She drives through the labyrinthine cobblestone streets of Amsterdam's red-light district, De Walen, a tall girl with clinking gold earrings and long hair. Tourists, drug dealers and johns jostle in the narrow streets and alleys.
"I got to know him after school," says Angelique. One day, she says, when she and a girlfriend went to drink a coke after school, a boy offered her a chair, an attractive, 19-year-old Moroccan. He bought her a drink and then invited her back to his car to listen to music. Soon he was taking her to parties and discotheques and giving her alcohol. She fell in love. A few weeks later, he forced her to sleep with strange men for the first time.
Seeking Out Schoolgirls
In the Netherlands they're called loverboys, these men who captivate schoolgirls and then send them out on the streets, young men who meet 13, 14 and 15-year-old girls outside their schools or online, through social networks like Facebook, and who then make them dependent on their attentions, their affection and drugs, until it's too late and the girls belong to them.
That was how it happened with Angelique, who was in 8th grade when it started; and with Maria, 12, whose loverboy made sure that she continued going to school; and with Mowitha, a 13-year-old girl who liked playing football and the guitar, until she met her loverboy.
Dutch society has been shaken by the stories of girls like Angelique, who go to math class in the morning and turn tricks at lunchtime, sometimes even during free periods between classes. But what is perhaps most shocking is that these are not girls from broken homes and socially deprived environments who are sliding into and disappearing in the underworld, but girls from the center of society, daughters of teachers and café owners. Sometimes they work as prostitutes for years before anyone even notices.
Emotional dependence between prostitutes and pimps has always existed. Women are made submissively dependent with drugs, violence and sometimes affection, to ensure that they do their pimps' bidding. But the idea that young men are systematically seeking out schoolgirls to groom them to become prostitutes is a new phenomenon that has overwhelmed parents, teachers and the police.
To fight the problem, Dutch schools are holding informational seminars, social service agencies are setting up shelters for the victims and criminologists are taking a look at the issue. In Germany, a few parents are also waking up to reality and turning to aid organizations, because they are at a loss as to how to save their daughters from pimps.
"Soon he started giving me marijuana and cocaine," says Angelique. She went to school in the morning, where she tried to appear alert. In the afternoon, she went to rendezvous points and got into his car.
If she refused, he would pinch her and hit her, on her arms and legs, in spots where no one would notice. Her mobile phone was constantly ringing, and she was getting messages from him, like: "where are you?" and "get over here, right away." She would tell her parents that she was going to a friend's house.
"I know that he was bad for me," says Angelique, "and that he messed up my life." But to be honest, she adds, she still dreams about his eyes.
By then, she was probably already too involved and not open to outside help anymore. "At a certain point, the girls are no longer capable of recognizing reality," and the loverboy becomes the only reality, says Bärbel Kannemann. She is a short, plump woman, a retired inspector who worked for the police in Germany for 35 years. Now she divides her time between Germany and the Netherlands. She became aware of the issue of loverboys through a TV program about missing children. For the last two years, Kannemann has been involved with an organization called "Stoploverboys."
Aid organizations estimate that about 1,500 young girls fall victim to this form of prostitution every year. The victims are usually afraid to go to the police, for various reasons: because they are being threatened, because they feel ashamed or guilty, or because they have no proof. Two years ago, 180 complaints were filed against loverboys, but police suspect that the number of unreported cases is much higher.
Sophisticated System of Control
The burden of proof rests with the girls. But how can someone prove, years later, that they were abused as a child? The girls are often under the influence of drugs or in shock, and the months become a blur of different places, violence and sex. And besides, who believes what a whore has to say?
"After school, I go to my daily rape," says Kannemann, describing a situation to which many of the girls have become accustomed. Together with Angelique's mother, Anita de Wit, she goes to schools and speaks with parents and victims. Only yesterday, she went to the red-light district in Rotterdam to look for a girl whose parents had reported her as missing. This year alone, says Kannemann, she and de Wit have liberated seven girls from the clutches of their respective loverboys. Kannemann is also trying to investigate cases in Germany, where the first victims contacted her a few weeks ago.
The mechanisms they use to entice the girls into submission, says Kannemann, are always the same: The pimp alienates a girl from her environment and stirs her up against her parents until he become the only person she can relate to.
It is a sophisticated system of control, power and rewards. Eventually, the girls feel that they hardly have an identity of their own without these men, says Kannemann. Sometimes it takes years until girls are able to lead independent lives again.
Maria Mosterd has managed to get out, but she wonders how long it will last. "If he found me," she says, "I can't say that I would never go back to him."
She is sitting in the garden of a row house in a small Dutch city, a pretty girl with her hair braided into pigtails. No one can know where she lives, she says. She is 22 and has a young daughter and a new life, "but it's difficult for me," she says. For years, her life was structured around orders. Her pimp constantly told her what to do, "what to wear, what to say, with whom to sleep -- and suddenly I have to make so many decisions on my own."
It was a summery day in August or September when Maria met her loverboy. She was riding her bike to a new school. Maria was 12 years old.
He was leaning against his car on the school parking lot. The car had darkened windows, and he was a heavyset black man with a big gold chain around his neck. He looked like an actor in a rap video.
"Hello," he said as she rode by. That was all he said, but Maria thought that it sounded cool, and she felt the other girls looking at her, admiringly, perhaps even with envy. "Hello," she replied, as she continued riding her bike to the school.
He was standing there again a few days later, but this time he wanted to talk to her and give her compliments. He said his name was Manou. The fourth time they met he took her for a ride in his car and then, according to Maria, took her to a house where he raped her. He told her that it was normal for girls her age to do things like that. She was now his prostitute, his property.
'It Was Like an Addiction'
He picked her up after school, gave her marijuana, prostituted her to johns during her free periods, and made sure that she was back in class on time and was always present to take important tests. He was making sure that no one would notice anything.
Maria's mother, Lucie Mosterd, a teacher in a nearby school, noticed how her daughter was changing during that time, and how she became estranged from her mother. "She was aggressive and her speech changed". In the past, says Mosterd, Maria was shy and even-tempered, "but suddenly she was a beast, a slut." When Maria came home in the afternoon, she immediately took a shower. "I thought she was sweaty from riding her bike," says the mother. In reality, her daughter was washing off the smell of her johns before she slammed her door shut.
For parents, it is difficult to judge whether changes in their daughters can still be attributed to puberty, a time when it is normal for cracks to form in the relationship between parents and their children. "I thought it was because of puberty," says Lucie Mosterd. "Perhaps it was also depression. Or maybe she was borderline." She sent her daughter to a psychotherapist, "but I had become a brilliant liar," says Maria, who had devised an explanation for everything.
In school too, it took a long time before anyone noticed what was wrong with Maria. Her loverboy made sure that she was not absent enough to raise any alarm bells. Whenever she had to leave class, Maria told her teachers that she had to go to the doctor, or she invented other lies.
'It Was Totally Normal for Me'
After two years, when Maria was 14, her loverboy came home with her for the first time, to the attractive row house on a small canal where she lived with her family. He introduced himself to her mother as a new boyfriend, and he claimed that he was attending the vocational school next to Maria's school. The mother thought the boy, who already had a car, was too old for her daughter. But she liked him, so she permitted him to visit Maria as long as she was home.
He ate dinner with the family and he played with Maria's little brothers. There are some photos of Manou with his arm around Maria, but in others he is shown with fighting dogs.
By now Maria was high most of the time. She had become violent, and anyone who addressed her in school ran the risk of being assaulted. She became a dealer for Manou and introduced other girls to him. At some point, when Maria was 16, a teacher asked her what was going on. The teacher had noticed her aggressive behavior, her absences from school and the rings around her eyes. Maria, not knowing what to say, told the teacher that she had been raped by four men in an apartment.
"At the time, I really didn't understand why she and my mother made such a big deal out of it," says Maria. "It was totally normal for me." She took the police to the apartment where it had happened. Three of the men were sentenced to ridiculously short prison terms for having sex with a minor, but not for rape. Maria did not, however, involve her pimp, Manou. "I was so dependent on him," says Maria. "It was like an addiction."
'Men Are Disgusting Creatures'
In the Netherlands, girls like Maria, who have been victimized by loverboys, are placed in a special section of a juvenile prison for their own safety. Her mother, desperate, gave her a choice: prison or a therapeutic project in India, so far away from her pimp that he would never find her. Maria, who was 16 by then, went to India, where she worked with children in an orphanage and spoke with her social worker every day. It took a long time before she realized that Manou was a criminal. "I didn't even know myself without him," she says. It was as if she had grown up with him.
"My life is boring today," says Maria, as she sits in the small garden behind her row house. Yes, she says, it sounds absurd, but somehow, in a sick way, she misses the excitement of her former life. She says that because of him she became a dull, hard person who has trouble empathizing with others. She cannot imagine being in love and having a relationship. "For me, men are disgusting creatures."
It's early in the morning on a clear spring day in the Maasland region in the southern Netherlands. Some 70 kilometers away Angelique, the Amsterdam girl, is preparing for her next shift behind the shop window, as her mother, Anita de Wit, sits down behind the teacher's desk in a stifling classroom fully of teenagers. She wants to prevent more girls from suffering the same fate as her daughter.
"What is a loverboy?" she asks. "A pimp," the students say, giggling.
De Wit shows the class a film in which a girl talks about how her loverboy forced her to have sex, and how she smuggled drugs for him, was caught and is now in prison. Maria Mosterd also appears in the film. Then de Wit shows a recording of a 2007 Dutch TV program about missing children.
At the time, Angelique had disappeared from a therapeutic facility, together with a boy, and de Wit began searching for her daughter by posting flyers in Rotterdam and other cities. She was also accompanied by a camera team.
Suddenly, after six weeks, she received a call from her daughter. "Where are you, where are you?" the mother asked. "I don't know," Angelique said, with panic in her voice, "somewhere in Rotterdam."
She said that she had run away from a house filled with men to get to a telephone store. The film shows the mother and daughter when they are reunited for the first time. Angelique looks puffy and her eyes are tearstained. "They forced me to take drugs and sleep with men," she says. The policed raided the house and arrested most of the men.
Things improved for Angelique after that. She helped her mother with her work at the Stoploverboys group, and she seemed to be doing well. She was 19. Then, on a weekend in Amsterdam, she met Yassin, her next pimp, fell in love and the horror began all over again.
Angelique is now so brainwashed that she voluntarily prostitutes herself for a man. Maria lives a hidden life in a secret location and is nostalgic about her past. Mowitha Wittmer will still have to choose the direction in which her life will go. She disappeared on Nov. 5, 2009.
"The last traces of her lead to a German brothel," says her mother, Estella Kempen. She glances around Mowitha's room on the top floor of her house in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht. Kempen is a petite woman, desperate but composed. The words "Happy Birthday Mowitha, Sweet 16" are written on a blackboard, and the walls are covered with vacation snapshots, posters of Bob Marley and strings of lights -- a normal teenager's room. "In reality, I lost her much earlier," says the mother. Mowitha was 13 when she met her loverboy. Five months ago, she ran away from a closed facility for girls.
Traces of a Lost Daughter
Kempen and her husband are both music teachers. They live in an attractive, welcoming and lovingly furnished house. She sounds astonished when she talks about her daughter's story, as if she were hearing it for the first time. But on the table in front of her are police files, court summons and pieces of evidence from the last four years -- all traces of a lost daughter.
Mowitha attended the same therapeutic project in India where Maria Mosterd went to get away from her loverboy. There are photos on the table of her dressed in a sari, a beaming girl with curly hair and freckles. For a time, after she had returned to the Netherlands, it seemed as if she were coming to her senses and wanted to lead a normal life. But then she slid back into prostitution, and her mother felt that her only option was to send her to the juvenile prison.
In November, she and another girl ran away from the facility by climbing the fence. Her loverboy had contacted her again, via the Internet, e-mail and text messaging.
The investigators managed to get into his e-mail account. He goes by the screen name babsyscle23. In one e-mail, he writes that she has to get a passport because he wants to take her abroad. He also tells her to have his name tattooed onto her chest in two places. This is how pimps mark their prostitutes.
Together with Angelique's mother Anita de Wit and Bärbel Kannemann of Stoploverboys, Estella Kempen is now searching for her daughter. She has printed flyers, one in Dutch and one in German, that include a photo of Mowitha and state that she is 17 and 1.60 meters (5'3") tall. The women follow up on leads from informants within the prostitution milieu. A girl wrote that she had worked with Mowitha in a brothel near Kleve in western Germany. Kempen plans to go there, hand out flyers and search brothels.
A few weeks ago, Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin proposed legislation that would raise the minimum age for prostitutes from 18 to 21, so as to protect minors from involuntary prostitution, human trafficking and loverboys.
The legislation probably won't do Kempen any good. She has almost completely lost her daughter already. Mowitha will no longer be a minor when she turns 18 in October. Then she'll be just like Angelique, a prostitute working behind a shop window or in a brothel somewhere in the world.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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