To fight human trafficking, Moldova troupe rewrites own endings
Actors from a NGO based in Balti, "Young people for the right to live (TDV)," perform a play at a high school in Drochia, Moldova, on October 10, 2013
"Everything is legal," Ion promises as they meet in a club. "The company pays for your visa. Someone will wait for you at the airport. The salary is $1,500 a month."
Eager to leave Europe's poorest country, Anastasia is too tempted to refuse. She accepts the offer -- and finds herself forced into a prostitution ring in Italy.
Her tragic story could be all too real in Moldova, where a teacher earns less than $200 (150 euros) a month and much of the labour force works abroad for a better life.
But this time in the northern Moldovan town of Drochia, it is just a play performed by a group of young volunteers fighting to prevent human trafficking through "forum theatre".
This method of participatory theatre, where spectators are asked to change the outcome of the play, was invented by Brazilian director Augusto Boal in the 1970s in a bid to give a voice to audiences.
A short play about a social problem is turned into a forum for discussion -- the spectators suggest different solutions and even climb onstage to enact them.
The organisers of the event say they hope it can make a real contribution to combating the scourge of human trafficking in Moldova, which has become a notorious global hub for people-smuggling.
"It allows them to practice different behaviours in order to better react in real life," said Oxana Buzovici, theatre practitioner for Young People for the Right to Live (TDV), an organisation based in the northern Moldovan city of Balti.
'I could be vulnerable'
Around 600,000 Moldovans out a population of about 3.5 million live abroad in search of a better life, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
More than one-third do so illegally due to labour and visa restrictions in the European Union and surrounding countries.
Traffickers use that red tape to their advantage, promising visas, work permits and good salaries.
Moldova is one of the main source countries in Europe for sex trafficking and forced labour. The exact number of Moldovan victims is unknown, but the IOM helped more than 3,000 of them between 2000 and 2012.
"Russia, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey are the main countries of destination," Eduard Bulat, anti-human trafficking chief at the Moldovan prosecutor's office, told AFP.
In Drochia, despite the lack of heating in their high school, 70 pupils aged 15 to 17 spend two hours enthusiastically trying to change the outcome of the play for Anastasia, a character that could be them.
All raise their hands when asked if they plan to emigrate. Many say they know cases of trafficking victims among their acquaintances.
"She should have asked more information about her employer," says one.
"But how can you really check when firms could present fake Internet sites and registration documents?" says another.
Buzovici gives the contact details of an anti-trafficking organisation that could help verify offers.
"Even if I do not want to leave Moldova, I could be vulnerable if I receive what seems like a good job offer," says 15-year-old Vlada Guila.
"But today I learned a lot, I will need to be very well informed," she adds.
It sounds like a small victory for forum theatre actress Anna Sadovskaia, 24, who is also a social worker in a shelter for trafficking victims.
She herself was targeted by a human trafficker as she desperately looked for a job in Moldova's capital Chisinau after graduating.
The job as a nanny turned out to be a front for a sex slavery ring. She avoided the trap.
"It was difficult because he was very persuasive. I was suspicious because of my studies, but other women could easily be trapped," she says.
'They now treat victims with respect'
Anna and TDV organise forum theatre in several schools with the help of France and the Moldovan authorities.
The US State Department this year praised Moldova for its fight against human trafficking. Moldova "is making significant efforts" to stop trafficking even if more needs to be done, it said.
In the first nine months of 2013, 118 cases of human trafficking were investigated, including 17 involving children, prosecutors said.
Anti-trafficking organisations have welcomed what they say is a change of mentality within the police and the judiciary.
"They now treat victims with respect. They finally understand they are not the guilty ones," Lidia Gorceag, a psychologist at Chisinau Assistance and Protection Centre, told AFP.
"Many survivors of trafficking suffer from post-traumatic stress. The challenge for them is to learn how to live with the trauma, the pain and the terrible flashbacks."
Some find harmless ways to channel the negative energy.
But others fall into addiction and turn violent. They often lose their jobs and "become victims of traffickers for a second time," Gorceag said.
With victims often scarred for life, "prevention is crucial," Ecaterina Berejan, the secretary for the National Committee for Combating Trafficking, told AFP.