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Hotel in Transnistria

In Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, historian Timothy Snyder focuses on an area in Eastern Europe where Hitler and Stalin organized the brunt of their mass killings. This area, which Snyder refers to as the “bloodlands”, runs from the Baltic to the Black Sea. From St. Petersburg to Gdansk, by way of Poznan and Krakow, to Odessa on the Black Sea, and by way of Kursk and Smolensk back to St. Petersburg.
During the period 1932 – 45, Stalin and Hitler ordered the deaths of fourteen million people in this region. Jews, Soviet citizens - largely Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians - and Poles.
In some of the extermination camps, human ashes were used as plant fertilizer. In fact, however, human blood rarely makes for fertile soil. Or, as Milan Kundera has pointed out: Central Europe no longer exists.
Although some of the cities in the “bloodlands” – such as Krakow and Odessa - have been restored successfully, the region still has something ghostly about it. When I traveled through the southern Ukraine in December 2008, most of the young people I talked to there wanted to get away. Even if it meant marrying a man forty years their senior, the future was elsewhere.
In the northwestern Ukraine, for example, the villages around Lviv, formerly known as Lemberg, seem to have died out completely, as though they only still exist by dint of a misunderstanding. Brody, birthplace of the writer Joseph Roth, is a case in point.
At the periphery of these bloodlands lies a small, independent country which remains unrecognized by any other: Transnistria. It lies pinned between Moldova and the Ukraine, and its reputation is so obscure that when I told friends I was going to Transnistria, most of them thought I was talking about Transylvania, which is a region in Romania.
The official name of the country is the PMR, the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, but in the West it is usually referred to as Transnistria.
Strictly speaking, Transnistria itself covers a larger area, namely the region between the Dniester and the Boeg, both of which empty into the Black Sea.
After Germany violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in June 1941, the region of Transnistria was invaded by Romanian troops. Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany. The Romanian dictator Antonescu set up ghettos and camps in Transnistria, largely for Jews.
Approximately 300,000 Jews were murdered in this part of Romania. The parents of poet Paul Celan were incarcerated in a labor camp here – his father died of typhoid fever, his mother was shot in the back of the neck.
A nearly forgotten chapter of the Holocaust.
In 1992, Transnistria – not to be confused here with the Transnistrian Region – declared independence from Moldova, which had become an independent republic after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The language spoken in Moldova is mostly Moldovan, which many call a sort of Romanian dialect.
The Dniester, roughly speaking, forms the border between Moldova and Transnistria.
The Ukraine is only about thirty kilometers away, the Russians are in the majority here.
Since 1992, this strip of land has been the de facto independent republic of Transnistria. And it is here that anyone wishing to find out about the situation in the bloodlands, 65 years after the mass murders, should start out. A “phantom country” was what people had been calling it in the spring of 2009, when I visited the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. What would the phantom of a phantom country look like?
“Don’t go to Transnistria, you won’t come back alive,” a Moldovan in Chisinau told me then.
From someone else there I heard that Transnistria was a black hole, a hotbed of trafficking in women and weapons. But they also added: “You won’t get in anyway. And they hate journalists like the plague.” Most reports in the Western press confirm this image. The words “open-air museum of Communism” are regularly used, often with barely concealed glee.
The Moldovan distrust of Transnistria is probably understandable. In 1992, shortly after independence, the two countries went to war, a war Transnistria finally won with the assistance of the Russian 14th Army and the Cossacks. On Transnistrian side, between 364 and 913 people were killed, and 624 wounded. The Moldovan casualties added up to somewhere between 279 and 324, with 1,180 wounded. Civilian casualties totaled 600 and 400, respectively.
On a cold December evening, in preparation for my trip, I paid a visit to general practitioner Erik Hochheimer, who had worked for Doctors without Borders in Transnistria for three months in 2007. His job there had been to combat HIV. “A hotbed of sex trafficking and arms deals?” In his tastefully furnished apartment in the center of Amsterdam, Hochheimer shakes his head in laughter. “It’s such a peaceful place. I was very happy there. You never see beggars or homeless people out on the streets.” Hochheimer is all too pleased to share his enthusiasm for Transnistria.
Pouring us a cup of tea, he says: “Sure, homosexuality isn’t accepted there, but things are like that in a lot of other countries too. I think a lot of the nasty reports about Transnistria are passed along by Westerners who are susceptible to Moldovan propaganda, but who have never been to Transnistria themselves.” Hochheimer lends me a book by the president of Transnistria, Igor Smirnov. “This might be helpful,” he says.
In that book, with the sloppily translated English title To Live on Our Land, Smirnov explains why his country’s secession was inevitable. The Moldovans wanted to speak Moldovan, which Smirnov consistently calls Romanian, and sought rapprochement with Romania. For the Russians, that brought back old memories of the Romanian occupation.
In his book, the rather archaic propagandist tone of which makes it unintentionally comical at times, Smirnov says the peace-loving Transnistrian people had no choice. Smirnov himself, by the way, was born in the Urals and came to Transnistria only later in life. He calls himself a Russian in heart and soul, who became a member of the Communist Party as a young man. When he speaks of Gorbachev, his tone is mocking. Little wonder, one realizes, that the capital of Transnistria, Tiraspol, is one of the last Eastern European capitals to sport a huge statue of Lenin. Whether that means the country can automatically be labeled “Communist” remains the question.
Smirnov also says in his book that people have asked him whether it isn’t dangerous for one person to hold all the reins of power. “No, it is not.”

When I go to Transnistria, I won’t be traveling on my own. While embedded with the Dutch army in Afghanistan in 2007 I became friends with a troop captain, Niels Roelen, who has meanwhile been promoted to the rank of major. In the foreword to a collection of stories written by Dutch soldiers who have served in Afghanistan, I made the slightly ironic comment that, having been embedded with the Dutch army, the army could now be embedded with me. Niels took that offer seriously.
And so the roles have been reversed: the army, or at least a part of it, is embedded with me. Soldiers traveling to areas like Transnistria are officially required to report that fact. Niels was called in to talk to the Military Intelligence and Security Service, the MIVD. During that talk, he was told that – unlike what Hochheimer said - we should be prepared to encounter criminality. Niels was asked to report to the MIVD, on his return, about what he saw in Transnistria. That request places me, and I believe Niels as well, in a predicament.
Like journalists, NATO soldiers need not count on a hearty welcome in Transnistria. And so we travel under assumed names. I adopt my middle name, Yasha, and in Transnistria Niels is known as Olav, also his middle name.
We travel under the guise of investors: we are interested in starting a hotel in Transnistria. But what starts as a game can end up very real indeed.

Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, has no air passenger terminal of its own. We land at Chisinau, seventy kilometers away.
Waiting for us in the arrival hall is a muscular man with a little sign: “Olav, Tiraspol.” He is our driver, Alexi. We found him on the Internet. Or, to be more precise, we found his wife on the Internet.
The sentence: “She will advise and assist those interested in buying property or open a business in Transdniester,” was what caught our eye.
She would also see to it that we were smuggled into the country. At least, that’s how I had imagined it.
Many journalists and travelers have spoken of corruption at the border, but when we arrive at the Transnistrian border early that evening there’s no sign of any such folklore.
A small truck is parked in front of us, waiting to cross the border. Otherwise there is almost no traffic.
Alexi says: “Passports.” He fills out a form, has us sign it, takes our passports and the form to a building and comes back five minutes later. A customs official takes a look in the trunk, more for the sake of form I believe, then waves us on.
Anyone who traveled from West Germany to East Germany before 1989 encountered customs officials more intimidating than this.
Fifteen minutes later we are already in Tiraspol, the final vestige of communist Europe, as people say, but seen from the car the city hardly differs from others I’ve seen in the southern Ukraine: deserted and slightly dilapidated.

Alexi’s wife, Lena, rents out an apartment which, according to the Internet ad, has hot running water twenty-four hours a day.
In addition to that apartment, we’ve also booked two hotel rooms.
After all the stories I’d heard about Transnistria, it seemed like a good idea to operate from two different addresses.
I am, in my deepest thoughts, a secret agent.
The apartment building dates from the Soviet era. The stairwell smells of wet concrete. Alexi lugs my suitcase up the stairs.
The apartment is on the top floor and is more comfortable than the stairwell would lead one to believe.
“Passports,” Alexi says.
“Why?” I ask.
He explains that we, as foreigners, must register in this country and that he will do that tomorrow morning on our behalf.
I prefer to keep my passport. Where caution ends and paranoia begins is unclear, but paranoia is an indispensible trait for a secret agent.
Because Alexi’s English isn’t sufficient for a situation like this, we call his wife.
“Listen, “ I tell Lena, “it’s simple. I go where my passport goes.” I hand the phone back to Alexi, who shrugs and returns our passports. Shortly after that he leaves the apartment in a bit of a huff. I feel ashamed.
In a country like this, the role of the traveler is sometimes hard to distinguish from that of the colonizer: the arrogance, the moral superiority, the good intentions that sometimes serve to cover up intentions that aren’t quite so good.
“I hope we didn’t make someone homeless by renting this apartment,” Olav says.
The apartment does indeed create the impression that someone was living here until just before we arrived, someone who perhaps even left the place in a hurry.
We take the stairs down.
On the other side of the apartment complex is the Fortuna supermarket, where we find a taxi.
“City Club Hotel,” I tell the driver.
That means nothing to him. We show him a slip of paper with the address on it, but he seems to have just as much trouble with the Latin alphabet as we do with Cyrillic.
The hotel is located along a deserted street.
The receptionist, a young woman, welcomes us. She says: “We were wondering where the two of your had gotten to.” Credit cards are not accepted, credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere in Transnistria; we had wired money ahead, via Western Union, to pay for our hotel rooms.
“Can we still get something to eat?” I ask.
The girl nods. The hotel seems fairly Western, but also empty. I actually have the impression that we’re the sole guests, an impression that will be confirmed later.
Before the trip Olav had said that he was prepared to share a room with me, but in my army the person who goes embedded has a room of his own. When I was embedded with the American army in Iraq, I didn’t lie naked beside a lieutenant either.
When we come back down five minutes later, the receptionist says she’s sorry but the restaurant has closed. She’s made a reservation for us at Villa Rich. And she’s arranged a car to take us there. She urges us to call the chauffeur later on, when we want to come back to the hotel.
From the outside, Villa Rich looks like a careless imitation of an 80s nightclub in Miami Beach.
Inside, as the name suggests, the restaurant looks rather like a cocktail lounge.
A poster above the bar shows a silhouette of a woman with her legs spread wide.
They have sushi on the menu. A symbol of luxury in these parts.
The chairs resemble ottomans.
After we’ve ordered, a rather chunky young man of about twenty, seated at the table next to ours, turns to us and asks in reasonably good English: “What are you two doing in a poor country like this?” As though he can’t imagine anyone coming to Transnistria of their own free will.
The question startles me.
“We invest in hotels,” I say.
“There are no good hotels here,” he says.
His name, it turns out, is Nick, which is short for Nikolai. He lives in Tiraspol but studies economics in Chisinau.
Nick hands us his telephone number and says to give him a call sometime.
Loud music is coming from upstairs.
“I bet they have nude dancers up there,” I say.
If Transnistria is the center of sex trafficking, one should notice something of that in daily life.
After dinner we decide to take a look.
A man tries to stop us, but we go barging in.
Men holding tablecloths are staring at us in amazement. It turns out to be a room specially for parties. The party is probably just over. The men are cleaning up.
For the second time that evening, I feel ashamed.
As we go back down the stairs, Olav asks me: “Have you ever fallen in love with a man?”

The next morning we go to Lena’s apartment.
We have to take off our shoes at the door. There is a clothesline hanging in the hallway. Life here seems to center around the kitchen, which is nice and warm. On the table is a carrycot with a baby in it, Lena’s son, Ilyusha. Sitting at the table in a jogging suit is Lena’s father-in-law.
“He’s ill,” she tells us.
Lena says she has no time to help us with registering, but that one of her girlfriends will do it.
“And what exactly is the situation with Sheriff?” I ask.
Sheriff is the name of a company that seems to own half of Transnistria. Sheriff has gas stations, supermarkets, an ad agency, two industrial bakeries, a publishing house, a soccer club, a cell-phone network, a distillery, a TV station and a construction company. We’ve heard that they have been working for years on constructing a five-star hotel, but that it’s never been finished. Olav and I are interested in working with Sheriff.
Sheriff is owned by Victor Gusan and Ilie Cazmali, two former officials of the Ministry of Justice, the military police, and, some claim, former intelligence officers and confidants of Igor Smirnov. “Oh, Sheriff,” Lena says. “Sheriff is Superman.” She pours us tea.
“You guys should go by the post office,” she says. “You can buy Transnistrian postage stamps there. Nice for souvenirs. But they’re only valid in Transnistria.” Lena’s friend arrives, her name is Jelena, a friendly woman in her thirties. “If they ask you anything during the registration,” Lena says, “be sure to tell them you’re friends of Jelena’s.” The registration office is in the center of Tiraspol. The office has counters with Venetian blinds in front of the windows. The counters seem closed.
Three older men and a woman are hanging around in a kind of waiting room in front of the counters. It’s not clear whether they’re actually waiting here or have only come in to get warm. The whole thing reminds me of an absurdist play from the 1950s.
Jelena knocks on the window of one of the counters. Someone peeks out through the blinds. The window opens a crack. Jelena is handed two forms, which she fills out on our behalf. We sign our names and she takes our passports and the forms back to the counter.
We still haven’t seen who’s behind the counter. This strikes me as more peculiar than ominous.
“What do you do for a living?” Olav asks Jelena while we’re waiting for our passports.
Jelena writes her phone number on a piece of paper.
“Does this mean that her English isn’t so good and that she didn’t understand your question, or does it mean something else?” I ask Olav.
In Transnistria, reality seems to be a puzzle that can be solved only by advanced puzzlers.
Now that we’ve registered, Jelena is in a hurry. She has no time to drink a cup of coffee with us.
When we ask, she tells us where we can find a bank.
ATM machines have come to Tiraspol only recently. Transnistria has its own currency, the Transnistrian ruble, but the money can only be spent in Transnistria itself. The ATM machines dispense either Russian rubles or American dollars. Those, in turn, can be exchanged for Transnistrian rubles. There are change offices everywhere, but so far we haven’t seen many foreigners. If Transnistria actually is the European hub of sex- and arms trafficking, as the Moldovans mostly claim, wouldn’t you expect more people from abroad?

At the apartment we’re renting from Lena, we meet our interpreter, Anya. Anya is an English teacher. She’s in her thirties, she has prominent cheekbones and a gaze that is both fatigued and suspicious.
“Is your name really Yasha?” she asks.
“Take a look at my passport,” I say.
Anya doesn’t sit down.
“You have to be careful,” she says, “that people here don’t think you’re a spy.” “What would make people think you’re a spy?” I ask.
“Don’t take any pictures,” she says.
“And what else shouldn’t you do?” “Just not act like a spy.” We nod.
“Something else,” Anya says. “A friend of mine says I should charge you 10 euros an hour. Is that okay?” “Fine,” I reply.
The average monthly wage in Transnistria is 250 dollars.
“What’s life like in Transnistria?” I ask Anya.
“This is the Sheriff republic,” she says.
The next morning we go to visit Sheriff’s construction company. We have an appointment with Dimitri, the “vice-president”. No one has told us his surname. The main offices are located next to the F.C. Sheriff sport complex, with two stadiums.
Perhaps it has to do with the thick layer of snow, but compared with the rest of Tiraspol, where everything seems to date from the Soviet era, the sport complex reminds us more of a science fiction film, but then an old one.
The secretary lets us wait ten minutes before ushering us into Dimitri’s office. The office is big but bare, on his desk is a clock in the form of a soccer ball.
Dimitri has a moustache and wears a big watch.
“What are you two doing here?” he asks.
“We’d like to invest in Transnistria,” I say. “In hotels. Maybe there’s a possibility of working with Sheriff.” The conversation goes by way of our interpreter.
“We have enough money,” Dimitri says. “We’re building a five-star hotel of our own.” “Does tourism have a future in this country?” I ask.
“Do you want an honest answer, or the answer of a patriot?” Dimitri asks. “The future is uncertain. Will this country remain independent, will we establish an economic union with Moldova?” “Does soccer bring in the tourists?” I ask.
Dimitri shakes his head. “People come by car and leave again by car,” he says, for the first time with some feeling in his voice, a feeling of slight disappointment.
“But in Bender,” he says, “there’s a hotel in Bender, and they could use some money. The name of the hotel is Prietenia, which means ‘friendship’ in Moldovan, there are a lot of Russian soldiers living at that hotel. Would you like me to call them?” “If you would,” I say.
Fifteen minutes later we’re on our way to Bender, a town on the border with Moldova, in the little strip of Transnistria on the western bank of the Dniester: during the war with Moldova, this is where the fighting was heaviest.
As we cross the bridge we pass a sentry post manned by Russian soldiers. The Russian soldiers here are called “peacekeeping troops”.
In front of the Friendship Hotel, which looks impoverished, a Russian soldier is shoveling snow.
Could this be where the remnants of the Russian 14th Army, stationed on Transnistrian territory, are quartered?
The manager, Vitali, welcomes us enthusiastically and without suspicion, as though he’s been waiting around for months for investors to arrive from the West.
He wears jeans and has a paunch.
“We have two restaurants, a nightclub, a billiards room and a sauna,” he says. He shows us the sauna, which has just been renovated.
“What does a room cost?” I ask.
“We have three price classes,” Vitali says. “For people from Transnistria, for people from the former Soviet Union and for foreigners.” The renovated rooms are on the hotel’s top floor. They seem relatively comfortable. On the bed is a big pillow in the shape of a heart. I can’t help it: I don’t see a hotel room, I see a love nest.
“How much does your investment have to produce?” Vitali asks as we go downstairs. “What do you need to get back on your investment?” “That’s something we’d have to negotiate,” I say.
On the ground floor is a little shop where they sell wedding dresses.
“Who actually owns this hotel?” I ask.
“The trade union,” Vitali says.
Later we hear that the trade union owns the Friendship Hotel in name only; the real owner is Vitali’s father.

Back at our hotel we meet with a fixer - a female journalist by the name of Marina. She’s in her forties. She has an interpreter with her, a woman in her twenties who wears a gray watch cap that she never takes off.
Circumspectly, I explain to Marina that we would like to know whether there is any truth to the rumors that Transnistria is the center of sex and arms trafficking.
A 2006 U.S. State Department report on Moldova and Transnistria says that Transnistria plays a significant role in the international trafficking in humans, that prisoners are tortured here and that dubious arrests are made of persons criticizing the government.
“Do you two have press credentials?” Marina asks.
“No,” I say. “We’re here primarily as investors. But we’re curious investors.” “Without credentials you put yourself and other people in danger. Do you really need us?” “I’d really like to know more about sex and arms trafficking.” “Without credentials you put yourself and others in danger,” Marina says. “Do you really need me? What can I do for you?” This dialogue repeats itself four times.
Dadaism is not dead. Tiraspol might very well be the Dadaist capital of Europe.
Then I try it through the interpreter.
“Are you a journalist?” I ask.
“I work for a marriage bureau,” Irina says. “I put Western men in contact with Transnistrian women.” “Are you married to a Western man?” “No, thank God.” “What does one have to do in order to marry a Transnistrian woman?” I ask.
“You have to be ready for love,” Irina says.
Then Marina takes over the conversation again. She wants to know who we’ve met and who we’re planning to meet. In my view, that’s none of her business.
Before leaving, Marina and Irina wangle fifty euros out of us.
The next day, at my request, Olav calls Irina to say that we are ready for love, but Irina slams the phone down.
For the umpteenth time since arriving in Transnistria, I feel ashamed of myself.

In Seven Fridays, Tiraspol’s most popular café, we meet with Irina Gherasimciuc, a midwife in her early twenties who works for the NGO Municipal Open Socio-psychological Public Women’s Alliance (also known as “Gospoja”). The NGO provides sex education for Transnistria’s young people.
Her interpreter is Stella, a young woman who knows Erik Hochheimer and with whom we have already had a drink in Tiraspol. Stella works for an NGO as well, one by the name of Rezonance. Even though we told Stella that we are investors, she doesn’t seem surprised to see us here. Our interest in sex trafficking seems completely normal to her.
“The state,” Irina says, “provides sex education too, but the teachers are women in their fifties who are afraid to use the word ‘condom’.” She speaks a little German, her sister lives in Germany and she lived there for a while herself.
“We try to prevent sex trafficking by means of public information,” Irina says. “But there is a lot of poverty in the rural areas. The mother often goes abroad to earn money, while the husband remains at home with the children.“ “Do these women know beforehand that they will end up in the sex industry?” I inquire.
“Sometimes they’re recruited as babysitters, but if they’d known they were going to be beaten and raped and not receive any pay at all, they wouldn’t have gone. When it comes to trafficking in women, though, we’re not at the top of the list. Moldova is. Sixty percent of Moldova’s GNP comes from citizens living abroad. Those are the official figures; in reality, that percentage must be even higher.” “And what’s the situation like for homosexuals in Transnistria?” I ask.
“There used to be an NGO for homosexuals,” Irina says, “but it was disbanded. People in the government put pressure on to have it disbanded. People in the government are usually older people who think things like that should be forbidden.” “And what about your NGO, do you have problems with the government?” Sometimes Irina answers in German, when she switches to Russian, Stella interprets for her.
“This is a small country. If there’s a member of your family in the government, he can help you. Otherwise you have to fill out an awful lot of forms. Without contacts, it’s hard. And it’s not a good idea to get involved in politics.” “And what about the high school students you give sex education to, do they want to stay here?” Irina hesitates. She herself returned to the country because of her husband.
“Most of the young people would like to get out of here, I think that’s right,” she says.
That evening we meet Nick and go to a nightclub. There are less than ten people in the place.
We order vodka and Nick says: “It’s better to order a bottle, then at least you know you’re getting the pure stuff.” “Where does one meet girls around here?” Olav asks him.
“Well, it’s none of my business,” Nick says, “but aren’t you married?” Nick points to Olav’s wedding ring.
Two women who keep their clothes on are making a half-hearted attempt at pole dancing.
Nick asks me: “Why are you so sad?” When we get back to the hotel, Olav undresses halfway while I’m still in the room; a few times before this he has received me in his hotel room in a state of partial undress.
I’m getting ready to go back to my own room, but he asks: “Do you think Nick works for the intelligence service? I mean, the way he noticed my wedding ring.” “No, “ I say, “I don’t think so. Nick is a good-natured guy. Maybe a little lonely and shy.”

Each morning from ten to twelve Olav and I receive Russian lessons from the journalist Andrey Smolensky. Smolensky speaks fluent German and reads the news in German for Radio PMR, the Transnistrian radio station. A small publishing house in Germany has put out a photo book about his news broadcasts and about Transnistria in general. The book is informative and, at the same time, a wee bit propagandistic.
His Russian lessons have that wee bit of propagandism as well. He has us translate sentences like: “We love Tiraspol.” Smolensky gives us our lessons in the kitchen at the apartment where he lives with his wife, their child and a little dog by the name of Keks.
One morning, when the lesson is over, he says to us: “They’re keeping an eye on the two of you.” The way someone else might say: “The Alps are beautiful this time of year.” According to Stella, Smolensky is not a journalist, or at least not a real one, but what he really is she doesn’t know or perhaps won’t say.

In a cellar on Zelinskogo Street are the offices of Interaction, an NGO involved in combating both the trafficking in humans and domestic violence in Transnistria.
The director is Oxana Alistratova, an educator whose activities got her into trouble with the Transnistrian intelligence service in 2004. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) made efforts to have her granted political asylum elsewhere in Europe, but she doesn’t want to talk about that anymore. Now, she says, her NGO cooperates with the Transnistrian intelligence service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Two of Alistratova’s assistants, Jelena and Julia, explain what Interaction does.
“We have two hotlines, one for domestic violence and the other for illegal immigration and trafficking. We started the hotline for trafficking in 2006,” Jelena says. “So far we’ve had 600 calls, 180 of which were SOS calls. An SOS means that a member of the family has called to report that his daughter or wife is the victim of trafficking. The countries to which most of the women are sent are Turkey and the Emirates. But you also have internal trafficking. We had one case in which a sixteen-year-old girl was abducted and taken to a brothel. She was afraid they were going to sell her abroad for a bottle of vodka. She was able to call us.” “A bottle of vodka? Is that what a woman costs?” I ask.
“It happens. There’s also some trafficking in men. They don’t end up in the sex industry, but are sold as slaves. But it’s hard to reach the men, because they won’t talk about it. They’re ashamed.” Oxana says: “Sometimes women who have been victims of sex trafficking rise in the ranks. They’re sent back to their own country, where they become ‘recruiters’. Which means they get other girls to go abroad. One time I asked a girl like that: ‘Do you approve of what you do?’ She said: ‘It’s better than being a prostitute.’ I can understand that very well, also as a psychologist. You’re better off managing prostitutes than being a prostitute yourself.” Oxana walks outside with us. She offers to put us to work for the NGO, collecting money in the Netherlands.

The night before we leave, we meet with Grigori Volovoi, editor-in-chief of the independent opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (circulation: 2,500). The weekly’s editorial offices are located in a drab apartment on the outskirts of Bender.
We’ve asked Stella to be our interpreter. She sits down beside Volovoi. She knows him, she has been here before.
“We have freedom of the press here,” says Volovoi, an earnest man in his fifties. “But not for everyone. The government leaves us alone, but we have teeth and we can bite back. Do you mind if I film this conversation? We have a website as well.” The camera is turned on, aimed primarily at Olav and myself. “The secret police here is bigger than it was during the time of the Soviet Union,” Volovoi says. “I was once secretary of the Communist Party here, so I know what I’m talking about. The judges are corrupt. The lawyers are corrupt. The elections are not free. It is in the interests of the elite that this country stays the way it is, independent but unrecognized, because then they don’t have to comply with any international law whatsoever and can smuggle as much as they want. There is a lack of serious information, but that’s mostly because people don’t want any serious information.” Volovoi’s voice is quiet and monotonous.
“People here think they are being monitored, but that’s not true. The idea that one is being monitored is a phobia.” In Transnistria, it’s hard to tell where reality stops and phobia begins.
During our stay here in Transnistria, a Moldovan journalist in Tiraspol has been sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment for espionage. I ask about the trial.
“It took place behind closed doors,” Volovoi says. “But Tiraspol and Chisinau don’t want to change the situation at all. As I said already, this instable situation is to the advantage of both Moldova and Transnistria.” “And what about the trafficking in women and arms?” I ask. “Is the government involved in that too?” Volovoi has no time left for us.
“I have to go,” he says. “I enjoyed it. See you next time.” That evening we dine with Stella at Kumanek, a Ukrainian restaurant which she says is the best place in town – a judgment which, on the basis of my week in Tiraspol, I am willing to tentatively confirm.
Stella doesn’t want to be paid for her interpreting, but then she reconsiders: “When I visit the prison again, I’ll use it to buy things for the prisoners.”

The next morning we drive through the fog to the Moldovan border.
Transnistria has something amiable about it: if you leave the government alone, the government will leave you alone. And isn’t that pretty much the way it is everywhere?
But I cannot think of Transnistria without being reminded of Oxana Alistratova’s remark: “You’re better off managing prostitutes than being a prostitute yourself.”

Three weeks after leaving the country, I received an email from a journalist. He told me that a friend we had in common in Transnistria had asked him to contact me. That person did not want to contact me directly, for reasons of personal safety.
After our departure, the MGB, the Transnistrian secret police, attempted to contact the people we had talked to.
The journalist wrote: “I understand that you would like to return to Transnistria in the future. It’s important that you know about this.” He explicitly asked me not to mention his name in this article.
I read the mail as a warning not to return to Transnistria for the time being. But I’m not sure exactly who is paranoid here: the journalist, me, the citizens of Tiraspol, the Transnistrian government?
And in this case it’s hard for me to decide which is more dangerous: paranoia, or a lack of it.
Perhaps paranoia should be seen as a form of Dadaism.


(Humo, originally NRC Handelsblad, January 25, 2010)