The last decade of the previous century was a difficult time for many, both financially and personally, and the 1990s can be described as the golden age of prostitution in Estonia. If today, it is believed there are around 300 active prostitutes in Estonia, that number was at least 13,000 in the 1990s.
Kelis is the first to dare appear on camera without hiding her face to tell investigative journalism program «Radar» about the horrors she has gone through.
Kelis found herself in the complex world of human trafficking as a result of tragic events that still bring tears to her eyes. «My mother had left to work in Russia, and my older brother and his wife were living in her apartment. One night when I came home, he was gone,» Kelis recalled.
Kelis was met by her sister-in-law and her new boyfriend. She later learned that her sister-in-law had cheated on Kelis’ brother that had caused him to leave.
At first, Kelis, who was fifteen at the time, was told she has been a very bad child.
Initial «parenting» consisted of locking Kelis in her room. «I was not let out even to wash or go to the toilet. I was given a bucket and kept in my room for I don’t know how long, what felt like weeks,» Kelis said.
The girl was made fun of because she couldn’t keep herself clean. Kelis described that as the most degrading part of her experience. But things did not stop there. «He raped. It was his right as a man. I tried to fight back the first time, but he threw me against the wall from one end of the room to the other and I realized it was pointless to try and resist. I think I no longer lived after that. I just kind of existed,» Kelis said.
The girl escaped this first nightmare when her mother returned from Russia, but what she had gone through had already left its mark. «A good student became a problem child,» Kelis said and admitted she tried to kill herself on several occasions.
That was the beginning of her downward spiral. Kelis went to find pimps who welcomed her with open arms. She reached hers, whom she calls the boss, through an owner of a video store. She visited the store to see the movie «Striptease» starring Demi Moore on several occasions that prompted the owner to talk to her.
«He was the first to suggest I make money instead of just sleeping around,» Kelis said. The man gave her a phone number to call once she has made a decision.
«How much of what it really meant did I realize at the time… But I didn’t care where I would end up. I just wanted to get away and went where they had me.»
Kelis called the number and became – just like many other young women at the time – a prostitute. She shared an apartment with her boss and their bodyguard.
«Because I knew nothing of sex, they had me watch porn films. The boss told me to sit down, learn and work like they did in the movies,» Kelis recalled.
That is also when she became pregnant for the first time. As a naive young woman, she believed it was an opportunity to escape her new job. But her boss got angry. «He grabbed me by my collar, lifted me up against the wall and yelled he didn’t care and that I would work off everything they had spent on me with a belly if necessary.» She had an abortion after that.
It was extremely difficult to get out of the prostitution world in the 1990s. «If a girl wanted to leave, she had to pay 5,000 kroons and find a replacement herself. Perhaps it would have been possible to save up enough money, but finding someone else to take her place… It would have been necessary to find a young girl and lie to her,» Kelis said and added that neither her nor her colleagues could go that far.
After she got pregnant for the second time, Kelis miraculously managed to escape the traffickers.
Kelis hid with her mom, always fearing she would be found, and slowly set about rebuilding her life. She found a partner. «Was it love? No, I don’t think so. But I remember that the first night he stayed over, I woke up in the middle of the night and felt a human being next to me. It gave me such a strong feeling of security, that I was no longer alone,» she recalled.
She lived with him for three years that turned into a different kind of hell. «He drank over the weekend and beat me,» Kelis said. It happened every weekend.
Kelis decided to run away again. She hid her children in Estonia – another child had been born when she was living with her partner – and looked up people who sent women to work abroad. She found herself in Iceland.
«After they sent me to work abroad, these bosses, I was suddenly in their debt.» Kelis was to work as a prostitute once again in Iceland, but there were not enough clients and she did not manage to work off her debt. She owed 50,000 kroons by the time she got back to Estonia.
Kelis saw what happened to girls who owed money to the so-called bosses – they were taken to the woods. In dire straits, she decided to go to Norway to work off her debt as a prostitute there. Kelis worked as a prostitute in Oslo for a few months. Norway already had support centers for prostitutes that offer women hot meals, condoms, medical assistance and advice by police and psychologists. Kelis ended up in one such center where she could tell a police officer her story. «They said: do you know what you described is human trafficking? They were from the human trafficking unit of Oslo police. I saw no condemnation. It was one of the first times my faith in the police was restored,» Kelis described the first steps of her escape. «I think I felt like a person for the first time. I was worth something.»
Kelis escaped human traffickers in 2006 and set about rebuilding her life. She currently runs a Norwegian anti-human trafficking organization aimed at minors called «Invisible Children». She is the subject of several articles, writes a blog and is working on a series of books.
Kelis’ organization does not offer children crisis counseling or work with them directly. «Invisible Children» looks for alternative ways for finding underage victims of human trafficking. «Despite everything I’ve gone through, I have lifted myself up and found meaning in life. I have not been broken in that sense,» Kelis said.
Her bigger plan for combating human trafficking is for Eastern Europe and Estonia especially. Kelis plans to find human traffickers in Estonia.