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This village, tucked down in the southwestern corner of the country near the border with Albania, is one of the strangest places in this part of the Balkans. It has the high-walled brick homes and rutted lanes typical of villages here, but amid the hay barns there are more than a dozen neon-lit nightclubs and sex bars with names like Madonna and Paradiso. And beneath the strange combination of rural quiet and nighttime glitz, the place has a very sinister reputation.
The first bar on the main street is the Expresso. A group of young men and several young women in skimpy clothes stood by their cars outside the club on a recent night. Nearby, in a black Mercedes, a thickset man with a shaved head and half a dozen gold chains around his neck sat next to his driver. It was Dilaver Leku, the richest man in Velesta. Hundreds of foreign women, mostly from former Communist bloc countries, have passed through Velesta and Mr.
Leku's bar and restaurants in the last few years, according to townspeople, the police, foreign civil rights workers and some of the women themselves. A large proportion of them, these people say, are women who are tricked into the job, forced into prostitution and held against their will. The women are bought by bar owners and sold when the customers tire of them. They are moved along by a network of traffickers across borders and ethnic communities, part of a web that spreads across the Balkans and into Western Europe.
A decade of conflict in this region, and the grinding poverty of post-Communist Eastern Europe, have helped breed this network. Across the Balkans, tens of thousands of women have been caught up by the traffickers and have suffered rape, extreme violence and slavery at the hands of criminal groups renowned for their brutality and greed. A recent United States government report cited all of Macedonia's neighbors -- Greece, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania and Bulgaria, along with Lebanon -- as the countries with the worst records in the trafficking in women.
Macedonia at least has tried to take action: the government has gained international praise for opening a refuge for the women and moving to close bars and send some of the women home. But its situation as a transit country for trafficking, and its growing home market for prostitutes -- boosted in part by United Nations personnel and NATO-led peacekeepers on leave from nearby Kosovo -- illustrate the regionwide problem. And as Macedonia grapples with a spreading insurgency and a growing likelihood of civil war, organized crime and smuggling are likely to increase, and the young women caught up in it all may be at more risk than ever.