Anna* moved to London in 2010 to study and work. One year later, she was dragged into the back of a car and taken to Ireland where she was trafficked for sex. She was raped and beaten on a daily basis before escaping nine months later. In the aftermath, her pimps were jailed and Anna has successfully campaigned for an anti-trafficking law. Here, she tells her story to Cosmopolitan's Olivia Blair.
"I was 21 years old when I came to London from Romania to continue my studies. I'd always been fascinated by mental health and thought I'd make a good psychologist, so I planned to eventually apply to a London university. In the meantime, I supported myself with a number of part-time jobs: I was a house cleaner, I worked in coffee shops, sandwich bars, a laundrette and did some bookkeeping.
Looking back, I was an easy target for my attackers. Nobody knew my story. I enjoyed my life in London, but I was very independent. I was shy and I rarely went out because I was working so much. I had some friends, many of them Romanian too, but I chose them carefully and kept them close. The people I was closest with were back in Romania but I kept in touch with them through texts, calls and Facebook.
I now realise my kidnappers could easily cut my links with other people.
The 'dangerous' people on the next floor
In London, I'd hopped around house shares. After a few months, I moved into a new shared accommodation, a really big one. The landlord was Romanian and so were many of the other tenants which was nice, it felt a bit like being at home.
Shortly after I moved in, the landlord told me to stay away from one couple who lived upstairs because they were 'dangerous people'. I didn't really know what that meant, but I got the message they were involved in organised crime. But I'd only seen their faces once or twice, and I didn't think much of them. I was working all the time and when I came home, I would head straight to my room and close the door.
I had no idea I was being watched.
Taken in front of my own home
One Friday in March 2011, I had finished work and was walking home with my headphones plugged in, blaring out Beyoncé. The sky darkened and I thought it might start to rain. As I reached my front door, I felt a hand on my neck. I was jerked backwards and another arm came round the front of my face to cover my mouth. I was dragged backwards and bundled fast into a car.
A man and a woman inside the car took my bag, pulling out my purse, phone and passport. As I screamed desperately, I was repeatedly punched in the head and hit.
I stared straight ahead, not daring to look out the car window to provoke another attack, and started to cry. I didn't know what was happening to me, where I was going, or what these people were going to do to me. A million questions buzzed around in my head before I found myself shrieking: 'Let me go'. They punched me in the mouth and threatened me with knives.
The extremity of the situation clicked as we made the hour's drive. I didn't know where they were taking me, but I felt sick as I thought of all the potential horrifying reasons.
At the airport
We pulled into an airport car park and I was so confused about what to do - should I risk trying to escape? As we got out, my captors warned me not to say a word, threatening to stab me. The man who had taken me gave my passport to the woman at the check-in desk. I stood behind him silently.
The woman didn't ask me if I was OK or why I didn't hand over my own passport. I now know there are several factors which can indicate if someone is being trafficked: The terror in my eyes, why I didn't hand over my own passport, why I didn't utter one word to her.
I still think about that interaction. If the woman at the check-in desk had even asked me where I was going, I wouldn't have known. Surely that would have rung alarm bells.
Instead, she smiled and handed the man back my passport and our boarding passes. I stared ahead, hoping that when we landed I'd get the chance to make a break for it.
The moment I realised why I'd been taken
After we boarded the plane, the captain spoke about flying to Galway. I didn't know where that was. We landed after an hour in what I soon would learn was a small city on the west coast of Ireland, and the kidnappers immediately put me in a car. At this point, I had no idea where they had put my passport.
We parked on the street outside of some shops as it began to get dark. The men led me into a filthy flat where all the blinds were closed. There were dirty dishes and rubbish strewn out. The air was thick of the smell of alcohol, cigarettes and sweat. There were other women in there, partially naked, who stared at me as I walked in.
It was then that I realised what was happening.
Later that evening, I was raped for the first time.
I went on to be raped every single day for the nine months I was there by different men. Most of the women in the house were raped by at least 15 men per day. There were days where I couldn't walk. I had no treatment given to me, no contraception, nothing. I hated when the men referred to me as a prostitute: I had not chosen to do this.
I never saw the light of day. When I wasn't being raped by the men, the pimps beat me and washed me with bleach. They tried to destroy me. My physical strength and body slowly began to erode as they made money off of me.
Quite early on, I was valued by my pimps at €30,000 - they discussed that openly. After a few months, a figure of €500,000 was bartered as they talked about selling me, despite my poor physical condition.
About four months into my captivity, I was in a group of women who were moved to a couple of different places in Ireland before law enforcement could catch on to what was going on.
I ended up in Belfast in Northern Ireland, meaning I was being trafficked in the UK. I started to count the number of men I saw each day, and then calculated how much money I was making for the pimps. An hour with me could cost a couple of hundred euros.
Building up the courage to escape
I got through the days by looking out of the window and imagining my mother's voice telling me it was OK. I'd remember my Granny, too. The pimps monitored my every movement, so I tried to stop my tears. I didn't want them to see me cry. I tried to speak to some of the other girls but we were all so sleep-deprived and hungry that we weren't in the mood for talking.
In September, six months after I was taken, I overheard my captors talking about selling me to someone in the Middle East. I was terrified. How would I get out of there when I hadn't even been able to escape in an English-speaking country? From that moment, I knew I had to come up with a plan. I decided to co-operate with the pimps and stop fighting back in order to win their trust. I watched some of the other girls spiral into alcohol and drugs, but I was aware that was the worst thing I could do. I knew the one thing I needed to survive was a clear mind.
Three months later, my captors rang my mother. They told her I was being paid for sex as well as lying about other things, making out like this was my choice. I felt helpless hearing my mum crying at the end of the phone, but it stirred something up in me; a courage I hadn't had previously. I knew I had to find a way to escape immediately.
I waited until my pimps were drunk and seized a rare opportunity to sneak out the door into the rain. Without looking back, I ran towards the city centre, towards the one place I knew I could go - a local drug-dealer's flat. I'd met the dealer a couple of months earlier when my captors had sent me to him. He'd spent €1,000 for five hours with me - but it turned out he hadn't wanted sex, he just wanted to know about the pimp's business dealings to help his friends who wanted to run brothels. He told me if I could help them, he could help me.
So I memorised the way to his flat and ran as fast as I could, desperate to get as far away as I could before they realised I was missing. By the time I got there, I felt exhausted and terrified. But after nine months, I was finally free.
I worked with the police for two years to secure justice. After endless interviews, the two pimps were arrested and convicted in Sweden, and were jailed for four years. Disappointingly, they were released just a few years later. I didn't end up in court. I was offered witness protection but I couldn't stand the thought of being left without my mum after finally reuniting with her. Instead, I provided plenty of information that led to my pimps being found and put on trial.
Since then, I've got involved in law-making, meeting senior Northern Irish politicians and using my story to help campaign for the anti-human trafficking bill which would officially recognise victims of trafficking and support them.
I'm now 28, going on 29. It's amazing that after everything I've gone through that I'm healthy today. After I escaped, I went to college in Belfast and completed my A levels. I've started a law degree, I live in a new country, and I have friends and family around me. I'm also trying to set up a charity so I can continue the fight for justice. I'm thinking positively about the future, and my main focus now is raising awareness to let people know that what happened to me, can happen to anybody."
*Names have been changed.
Anna wrote a memoir about her experience. You can find her book, "Slave," on Amazon.
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