Albania: One year earlier
Whimpering, Lena Cona looked down at the ground to where her brother lay.
The two men were shouting now, their voices angry, intimidating.
She tried to comprehend what they were saying, but their jumbled words were muted, merging into background noise as her ears began to ring loudly, a high-pitched screech filling her head.
She was in shock.
Unable to think straight, Lena tried to move, but she couldn’t.
Her legs were shaking, but her feet felt weighed down, as if her shoes were filled with lead.
She was afraid. Paralysed to the spot, all she could do was stare; her eyes fixated on the thick stream of blood that oozed out from the gash at the back of Tariq’s head.
He’d been hit.
The taller of the men had whacked him around the head with the butt of his gun.
They had a gun!
Panic ripped through her at the sudden realisation.
Lena tried to shout out; opening her mouth, a strained squeak barely louder than a whisper was the only noise that crept out.
‘Get in the car.’
The man pointed his gun at her now. Aiming it straight at her. His words were devoid of emotion, reflecting the same vacant hollowness that she could see in his eyes.
Stepping closer, he shoved the barrel against Lena’s chest.
‘Now!’ This time he bellowed, his face twisting in anger as he pushed the gun harder against her skin.
Lena could see his finger hovering threateningly over the trigger. This wasn’t an empty threat. She knew he was dangerous, but still she couldn’t move.
A few minutes ago she and her brother had been laughing and joking together.
Tariq had been walking her home from school.
That was her parents’ order: that her brother would walk her to and from school every day.
Lena had thought her parents were overreacting. Of course there were risks, but they didn’t apply to her, surely. Now she’d realised she’d been stupid, naïve. She remembered, with increasing terror, Néné’s harrowing tales of girls from Shkodër being snatched. Abducted and taken to the city’s main port, Vlorë, before being shipped off on speedboats across the Adriatic Sea, never to be seen again.
Her parents had pleaded with her to stay at home, to accept the traditional life of a normal Albanian girl just as many of her peers had done, but Lena was anything but normal.
Strong-willed. Defiant. Unlike most of the other girls in her class who had left school at the age of twelve or thirteen due to the pressures that their families had bestowed on them, Lena had refused to follow suit, insisting on completing her education. Why should she be penalised just for being born female? Why should she submit to a life doing what was expected of her? Instead, adamant to remain, schooled in a classroom of eleven boys, Lena had strived to be top of her class.
Not only had Lena excelled in mathematics, but she was also fluent in English. Her teacher had been impressed. He had told Lena that she had mastered the language so well that, eventually, she’d be able to teach it herself.
Lena had loved that idea. Travelling the world, working as a teacher or a translator. Practising daily, she’d even started to educate her parents and her brother. Just the basic words of salutation, or naming the food they ate.
She wanted to learn as much as she possibly could, so that, one day, she could have more than just what her parents had chosen for her. She didn’t want to be stuck here in Albania as just somebody’s wife, or somebody’s mother.
It may have been enough for Néné, but it would never be enough for her. Lena wanted so much more: to be treated as an equal; to experience the same opportunities and freedom that her brother had.
Unwilling to back down, she’d argued so intently that her parents had finally given in; insisting, in the end, that if Lena must continue with her schooling until she was nineteen then she could, on the condition that Tariq chaperone her.
Only now it seemed that fate had played out a cruel hand. Staring down at him she could see that Tariq was hurt, maybe dead.
And it’s all my fault, a voice screamed in Lena’s head.
‘Help me! Please, somebody?’ Shouting hysterically, Lena finally found her voice as she prayed that someone would come to her aid.
‘Help me, please… ’
Lena caught the gaze of a woman across the road, her eyes pleading with her to help her, but all that stared back at her was the woman’s fear. With an apologetic look, the woman put her head down and kept walking, pretending that she hadn’t seen.
Crying now, desperate, Lena scoured the street, looking for anyone that might help her, but the dusty road was almost deserted. School had finished; people were already indoors, evading the mid-afternoon scorching heat.
A single car passed by. Slowing down, the people inside stared out from behind the glass windows, but they didn’t stop to help her. They didn’t dare.
‘Pick her up,’ the taller man shouted now, directing the shorter man.
He did as he was told: grabbing her roughly from behind, clamping his hand over her mouth to mute her cries.
Lena saw their car. It was a battered-looking bright blue Mercedes, covered in flaky patches of orange rust. The back door was wide open; the engine running.
They are going to take me?
Gripped with fear, Lena dug her heels into the dry mud, trying her hardest to resist as one of the two men tried to grab at her feet, but it was no use. The men were much stronger than her.
Overpowering her, they lifted her off the ground, hauling her over to their car.
A hand came from behind her, clamping tightly across her mouth, making her gag for breath. Silencing her. Lena struggled to break free but her attempts only caused the men to hold on to her tighter.
‘Stay still, you stupid bitch!’
The man’s voice was commanding. He was losing patience. The sternness of his tone indicated that he’d had enough of her not complying. ‘Do as you are told, or you will be punished.’
Lena twisted her head back to where her brother lay sprawled out on the ground, motionless.
Hadn’t they punished her enough already?
She had no idea who they were or what they wanted. All she knew was that she couldn’t let them take her.
Her brother needed her. Despite feeling helpless, Lena couldn’t just leave him like this.
Kicking and clawing at the men like a wildcat as they tried to force her onto the back seat, her body convulsing, Lena fought to break free from her abductors.
If she got inside this car, maybe she’d suffer the same fate as all the girls before her.
She had to fight.
Kicking out her heel, her foot connected with the shorter man’s face. She startled him, just enough for him to lose his footing and his grip. Stumbling, he dropped her legs. But her small victory was short-lived.
A massive thud exploded at the back of her skull. The almighty blow from the man behind her immobilised her in an instant.
‘I warned you.’
Lena flopped forward like a rag doll.
She felt the man grab at her roughly, breaking her fall just before she hit the ground.
She felt herself being lifted up, thrown into the back of the car. She was dizzy, her head pounding.
A sharp burn of her scalp as the man seized a fistful of her long auburn hair. Wrapping it around his fist, he twisted her around to face him.
He was just inches away from her now; his face almost touching hers. He was so close that she could smell his stale rancid breath, see the glistening beads of sweat forming on his forehead. His face was puce from the heat and the struggle to get her into the car.
Still woozy from the blow she’d received to the back of her head, she tried to focus. Her vision blurred; she was surprised at how young her abductor looked. She had expected someone older. This man looked only a few years older than Tariq. No more than twenty, she guessed.
‘So, you think you’re a wild one huh?’
The man’s steely grey eyes flickered then, and Lena thought that she saw the tiniest hint of amusement behind them as he yanked at her hair even harder, ripping a clump from her scalp as he did so. The pain so acute, it forced Lena alert once more.
‘Well, it won’t take me long to tame you.’
Lena kept eye contact. Refused to let him see her pain; she stared back at him with nothing but pure contempt.
‘Stupid little girl.’
He punched her again, this time his fist locking hard with her cheek, her neck snapping back, her head smacking against the window behind her.
Slumped in the car now, Lena had nothing left. She was exhausted; her body weak and broken.
‘Tie her up,’ the man commanded, as the shorter of the men slid in beside her.
The man did as he was told. He bound her legs together tightly with coarse brown rope before wrapping thick black strips of tape firmly around her wrists. He was obviously taking no more chances with her.
The car began to move.
Petrified, Lena sat slumped in silence as she stared out of the window. Her gaze fixed on Tariq’s body, motionless, on the ground.
Move! Please, let me know that you’re okay?
Only Tariq didn’t. He remained completely still, lifeless, as the car continued off into the distance.
Lena watched until her brother was completely out of sight. All hope from her now gone.
She could feel the stream of blood pouring from her nose; the metallic taste mixed with the saltiness of her tears, filling her mouth.
Silent tears ran down her face as she wondered what fate was ahead of her.
She thought of Néné’s words once more.
About those girls. About what happened to them after they were taken.
How they were trafficked around Europe like cattle.
Her mother hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell her young daughter why the girls had been taken, but Lena knew. Rumours in Shkodër were rife. People in the village had spoken of how the girls that were taken were used for sex. Forced to earn money for men in ways so disgusting it was almost unimaginable to Lena.
Except maybe now she didn’t have to imagine it.
Maybe she was destined to experience the horror of it all herself, first hand.
Lena sobbed as she thought how she should have listened to her parents.
They only wanted the best for her, to keep her safe, but she’d been so foolish, so pig-headed. She’d put Tariq in danger.
These men were savages, animals.
Capable of anything.
Resting her head on the window as the car made its way out of Shkodër, out towards the rural mountains of the countryside, Lena closed her eyes and said a silent prayer.
She had no idea what fate lay ahead of her, but one thing she knew for certain, her nightmare was only just beginning.