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21st-Century Slaves On Assignment

21st-Century Slaves On Assignment

21st-Century Slaves
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Photo captions by
Lynne Warren

By Andrew CockburnPhotographs by Jodi Cobb

There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Sherwood Castle, headquarters to Milorad Milakovic, the former railway official who rose to become a notorious slave trafficker in Bosnia, looms beside the main road just outside the northwest Bosnian town of Prijedor. Under stucco battlements, the entrance is guarded by well-muscled, heavily tattooed young men, while off to one side Milakovic's trio of pet Siberian tigers prowl their caged compound.

I arrived there alone one gray spring morning—alone because no local guide or translator dared accompany me—and found my burly 54-year-old host waiting for me at a table set for lunch beside a glassed-in aquamarine swimming pool.

The master of Sherwood has never been shy about his business. He once asked a dauntless human rights activist who has publicly detailed his record of buying women for his brothels in Prijedor: "Is it a crime to sell women? They sell footballers, don't they?"

Milakovic threatened to kill the activist for her outspokenness, but to me he sang a softer tune. Over a poolside luncheon of seafood salad and steak, we discussed the stream of young women fleeing the shattered economies of their home countries in the former Soviet bloc. Milakovic said he was eager to promote his scheme to legalize prostitution in Bosnia—"to stop the selling of people, because each of those girls is someone's child."

One such child is a nearsighted, chain-smoking blonde named Victoria, at 20 a veteran of the international slave trade. For three years of her life she was among the estimated 27 million men, women, and children in the world who are enslaved—physically confined or restrained and forced to work, or controlled through violence, or in some way treated as property.

Victoria's odyssey began when she was 17, fresh out of school in Chisinau, the decayed capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldova. "There was no work, no money," she explained simply. So when a friend—"at least I thought he was a friend"—suggested he could help her get a job in a factory in Turkey, she jumped at the idea and took up his offer to drive her there, through Romania. "But when I realized we had driven west, to the border with Serbia, I knew something was wrong."

It was too late. At the border she was handed over to a group of Serb men, who produced a new passport saying she was 18. They led her on foot into Serbia and raped her, telling her that she would be killed if she resisted. Then they sent her under guard to Bosnia, the Balkan republic being rebuilt under a torrent of international aid after its years of genocidal civil war.

Victoria was now a piece of property and, as such, was bought and sold by different brothel owners ten times over the next two years for an average price of $1,500. Finally, four months pregnant and fearful of a forced abortion, she escaped. I found her hiding in the Bosnian city of Mostar, sheltered by a group of Bosnian women.

In a soft monotone she recited the names of clubs and bars in various towns where she had to dance seminaked, look cheerful, and have sex with any customer who wanted her for the price of a few packs of cigarettes. "The clubs were all awful, although the Artemdia, in Banja Luka, was the worst—all the customers were cops," she recalled.

Victoria was a debt slave. Payment for her services went straight to her owner of the moment to cover her "debt"—the amount he had paid to buy her from her previous owner. She was held in servitude unless or until the money she owed to whomever controlled her had been recovered, at which point she would be sold again and would begin to work off the purchase price paid by her new owner. Although slavery in its traditional form survives in many parts of the world, debt slavery of this kind, with variations, is the most common form of servitude today.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Online Extra

Slavery expert Kevin Bales outlines how this generation holds the power to end 21st-century slavery.

Online Extra

This interactive map (requires Flash) shows you the global reach of modern-day slavery and how different countries are dealing with the issue.


VIDEO "You can't solve a problem unless you understand it," says Kevin Bales, head of Free the Slaves, who defines modern-day slavery and discusses steps to end this cruelest commerce.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia


This year the United States can seek to impose sanctions on countries listed as the worst offenders in slave trafficking. How effective would sanctions be? What more can be done? And how should the problem of 150,000 or so slaves in the U.S. be addressed? Voice your opinion.


To report trafficking crimes to the U.S. Department of Justice, or to get help, call its toll-free hotline at 1-888-428-7851.


Read the U.S. Department of State's 2003 Trafficking in Persons Report.


Do you think that you may own goods, such as rugs, that were made by child slave labor? 

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Slavery in Washington, D.C., became illegal nine months earlier than in the rest of the United States. On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which states "that any person or persons who shall kidnap, or in any manner transport or procure to be taken out of said District, any person or persons discharged and freed by the provisions of this act, or any free person or persons with intent to re-enslave or sell such person or persons into slavery, or shall re-enslave any of said freed persons, the person or persons so offending shall be deemed guilty of a felony."

The language of the D.C. act effectively outlawed "trafficking in persons" 138 years before the U.S. Department of State Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 actually defined trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

The D.C. Emancipation Act freed approximately 3,100 slaves. And although the act was tainted by provisions that allowed slaveholders to be compensated for freed slaves—rendering the slaves legal and reimbursable property rather than human beings forced into servitude—it did aid in the resettlement of freed slaves to Haiti, Liberia, or other countries of their choosing. It also protected fugitive slaves in the city and led to the eventual outlawing of slavery in all parts of the country via the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the 13th Amendment of 1865.

—Marisa Larson

Did You Know?

Related Links
Amnesty International
Amnesty International is a worldwide campaigning movement that works to promote internationally recognized human rights.

Anti-Slavery International
Founded in 1839, Anti-Slavery International is the world's oldest international human rights organization and the only charity in the United Kingdom working exclusively for the elimination of all forms of slavery. Anti-Slavery International has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Through campaigning, research, supporting local NGOs' work, and pressing governments to implement national and international laws against slavery, the organization works to end this abuse throughout the world.

Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition
This organization works on prevention of sexual exploitation of people from Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

Children of the Night
Children of the Night has rescued more than 10,000 American children from prostitution since 1979. It is dedicated to assisting children between the ages of 11 and 17 who are forced to prostitute on the streets for food and a place to sleep.

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women is a nongovernmental organization that promotes women's human rights. It works internationally to combat sexual exploitation in all its forms, especially prostitution and trafficking in women and children, particularly girls.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers
The CIW is a community-based worker organization with a member base of mostly Latino, Haitian, and Maya Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. CIW works for fair wages, better working conditions, stronger laws and law enforcement of workers' rights, and respect.

Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking
CAST is the first and only organization in the United States dedicated exclusively to serving survivors of trafficking. CAST is a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive social services to survivors of trafficking and conducts advocacy through training and outreach to raise awareness on the needs of trafficking survivors.

ECPAT International
ECPAT is a network of organisations and individuals working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking of children for sexual purposes.

Free the Slaves
Free the Slaves fights slavery all over the world by helping people to freedom and to stable lives after liberation, by removing slave labor from the products we buy, and by helping governments enforce their own anti-slavery laws. Free the Slaves is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that is leading U.S. work against slavery.

Global March Against Child Labour
Child labor and its worst forms are a problem affecting every part of the world, be it slavery, prostitution, armed conflict, or hazardous work. Children are being used as an expendable commodity, to be used and discarded. Global March works to put an end to child labor worldwide.

Human Rights Watch: Campaign Against the Trafficking of Women and Girls
HRW investigates and exposes trafficking and slavery incidences around the world.  This site links to numerous reports about trafficking in countries in every region of the world.

International Human Rights Law Group
The International Human Rights Law Group is a nonprofit organization of human rights and legal professionals from over 20 countries engaged in advocacy, human rights lawyering, and training around the world. IHRLG's Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons assists advocates and NGOs in building their advocacy, legal-literacy, and case-monitoring skills; encourages governments to protect the rights of victims of trafficking and also to prosecute traffickers; disseminates up-to-date information on trafficking cases and anti-trafficking legislation in countries around the world; and seeks to increase the awareness of the link between trafficking and the subordinate status of women and other vulnerable groups in all societies.

International Justice Mission
IJM's legal and law enforcement professionals use investigation strategies, legal expertise, and cutting-edge technology to rescue individual victims of injustice and abuse around the world.

International Organization for Migration
IOM's counter-trafficking activities are geared toward the prevention of trafficking in persons, particularly women and children, and the protection of migrants' rights.

Interpol: Children and Human Trafficking
The main aim of Interpol is to promote assistance among all criminal police authorities. It provides a structured platform for raising awareness, building competence, and identifying best practices within law enforcement worldwide. Trafficking in human beings is considered one of the top priorities at Interpol, and only by ascertaining the true character of trafficking can we hope to adapt appropriate measures against it.

Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse
The Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse Electronic Clearinghouse provides a quick and user friendly access point to the extensive electronic resources on the topic of violence and abuse available online.  It also has a section of links to trafficking articles and resources.

Polaris Project
Visit the site of Polaris Project, a non-profit organization that researches and combats the sex trafficking of women and children.

The Protection Project
The Protection Project is a human rights research institute based at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. The project documents and disseminates information about the scope of the problem of trafficking in persons, especially women and children, with a focus on national and international laws, case law, and implications of trafficking on U.S. and international foreign policy.

RUGMARK is a global nonprofit organization working to end child labor and offer educational opportunities for children in India, Nepal, and Pakistan. The RUGMARK label is your best assurance that no illegal child labor was employed in the manufacture of a carpet or rug.

United Nations Children's Fund
UNICEF works to protect the rights of children worldwide, including protecting them from trafficking and slavery.

U.S. Agency for International Development, Trafficking in Persons
USAID is funding direct anti-trafficking activities that include prevention through economic and educational opportunities targeted at groups that are especially vulnerable to traffickers, public awareness, protection and rehabilitation of trafficked victims, and legislative changes.

U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons assists in the coordination of the U.S. government's anti-trafficking efforts, both domestically and abroad, guided by the vision of eradicating trafficking worldwide. It also releases an annual report on the state of trafficking worldwide.


Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. University of California Press, 1999. 

Bales, Kevin. New Slavery: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2000.

"Crime & Servitude: An Expose of the Traffic in Women for Prostitution from the Newly Independent States." Global Survival Network, 1997.

"The Department of Labor's 2002 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor." U.S. Department of Labor. Available online at

Estes, Richard, and Neil Alan Weiner. "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico." University of Pennsylvania, September 19, 2001. Available online at

"Integration of the Human Rights of Women and a Gender Perspective: Traffic in Women and Girls." United Nations Economic and Social Council, January 20, 2003. Available online at

Jordan, Ann. "Trafficking in Human Beings: The Slavery That Surrounds Us." International Human Rights Law Group, 2001. Available online at

Kyle, David, and Rey Koslowski, eds. Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Le Breton, Binka. Trapped: Modern-day Slavery in the Brazilian Amazon. Kumarian Press, Inc., 2003.

Lyday, Corbin. "The Shadow Market in Human Beings: An Anti-Corruption Perspective." October 2001. Available online at

Masika, Rachel, ed. Gender, Trafficking and Slavery (Oxfam Focus on Gender Series). Oxfam Publications, 2002.

"Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Crime." United Nations, 2000. Available online at traff_eng.pdf.

Richard, Amy O'Neill. "International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime." Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, November 1999. Available online at

Vandenburg, Martina. "Hopes Betrayed: Women and Girls' Experiences of Trafficking Into the Bosnian Sex Industry." Human Rights Watch, 2002. Available online at

"Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000." U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, July 2002. Available online at


NGS Resources
Steinberg, Jennifer. "Last Voyage of the Slave Ship [Henriette Marie]," National Geographic (August 2002), 46-61. 

Busch, Richard. "Tourism and Child Exploitation," National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1993), 6.


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