'When I Say I Was Kidnapped, It’s Not Like a Netflix Movie. It’s the Reality of My Life.'

Sold into prostitution in Hungary, Chile Ezra was smuggled into Israel and forced to be a sex worker; she was also brutally raped. After years, and against all odds, she managed to extricate herself. Today all she wants is to remain in Israel and to help other women who are victims of trafficking

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Chile Ezra.
Chile Ezra. Credit: Hadas Parush
Ayelett Shani

For years you have been fighting for the right to be granted permanent-resident status in Israel, the country you were brought to against you will, as a victim of trafficking in women. Where do things stand now?

My request was approved last month. But I had something like three hours to be happy, because the Population and Immigration Authority requested a delay in implementing the ruling, because they are considering filing an appeal. They said they want to study the court’s decision thoroughly. [The story of Ezra’s struggle was first reported in 2016 by Vered Lee in Haaretz; Lee has been following it since.]

I read the decision, it’s a very touching legal document. The judge on the immigration appeals tribunal cites emotional grounds: your contribution to society as a caregiver for women in prostitution, your need for stability.

I was so moved by what he wrote. Good people have stood by me all along the way, it’s truly a miracle. When I met him at the hearing – and of course I didn’t know what his decision would be – I felt that I had something to fight for, because even those who seemed to be against me listen to their hearts.

You were only 22 in 1997, when you were snatched from your home in Hungary, smuggled to Israel and forced to sell your body. Why would you want to remain here?

Israel is also the place where I was rehabilitated, and I want to remain in the life that I created and built. I think there are many things about my behavior that no one – other than those who underwent similar experiences – can truly understand. When I say I was kidnapped, it’s not like a movie on Netflix. It’s the reality of my life. In one day I lost everything I had and became a different person.

Do you feel that nothing connects you to your former life? Your daughter lives in Hungary, your mother is still there.

That’s a question I’m always pondering. Obviously I would want a regular life and good relations with my daughter and my mother and my siblings, but many years passed in a massive use of drugs and in prostitution. We grew apart. I tried to rehabilitate my relations with my family, with my daughter, but I failed. It was too painful. She and I, one opposite the other – it opens very deep wounds now. My daughter grew up without a mother. She is hurt. She herself is in a process of healing and recovery. To see her suffering, to take in her anger – I’m not capable of doing that at the moment. I look strong, and I am quite strong, but I am carrying the pain with me, the trauma. I am not capable of being a mother or a daughter or a sister now.

It’s too much.

Yes. And I don’t think I need to be ashamed of it, or to hide. I am bruised and hurt. A whole life won’t be enough to heal the damage to my body, to my innermost self. My everyday life is very difficult. I am determined, so I do things and function and work, but my achievements have come out of very intense pain.

Do you feel you’re being judged? That the establishment position contains a patronizing assumption: “What is there for her here? Let her go home to her daughter and take care of her mother.”

I know that was also said, explicitly. “What does she have to stay here for – let her go to Hungary and find a husband.” That’s what people write me on Facebook: “Infiltrator. Let her go back to her home.”

Maybe this is the time to tell your story.

I was born in a small city, far from Budapest. I lived with my mother and her parents. My father wasn’t in the picture; I didn’t know anything about him, and my family hid things. I always looked for letters or pictures at home, I always pressed my ear against the door when the adults were speaking. Eventually, I found out he was a Gypsy, and my mother hid the relationship with him out of shame and social pressure. When I was 3, my mother remarried, to a man who was an alcoholic. He abused her physically and emotionally.

And you, too?

I look strong, and I am quite strong, but I am carrying the pain with me, the trauma. I am not capable of being a mother or a daughter or a sister now.

Chile Ezra

Only emotionally. My mother was beaten because of me and he made sure I knew it. I didn’t like being at home. At 14, I already began wandering [outside home]. I discovered alcohol, which was a very appropriate remedy for the pain I endured. At 17, I left home. I found a place to live and worked as a waitress. I met a man, became pregnant. Two weeks before I turned 18, I gave birth to my daughter, and I had no alternative but to return to my mother. For three years I didn’t touch alcohol, but as soon as my daughter started kindergarten, when I felt I had a little more freedom, I started drinking again, using my mom’s tranquilizers and having a good time. Every weekend I went out on the town.

And thus you sealed your fate.

Yes. One time I went out to a local discotheque with a girlfriend. She came over to me with a few men and told me they wanted to invite us for a chaser. I still remember the tequila with lemon and salt – and that’s all. Black screen. I woke up in a moving vehicle, together with my friend. It took me a few minutes to realize that the driver and the guy sitting next to him were the men we’d met in the club. I tried to understand what was going on, and they responded with anger. Voices were raised.

Did your girlfriend know them from before? Do you know why they chose the two of you specifically?

I didn’t know, but today I understand why.

It seems that, like sexual predators, such people are adept at spotting their victims.

They are good at spotting the damaged woman who freezes in the face of male authority. I saw in my mother, at home, a battered woman who underwent emotional abuse. They chose me because of the home I came from, I have no doubt of that. They yelled at us to be quiet and behave, threatening that otherwise we could not even imagine what they would do to us. We were afraid. At this stage, in the car, we were still groggy.

Because it wasn’t a chaser.

It wasn’t a chaser. We were very confused. I remember we stopped at a gas station, where there were two men who spoke a language we didn’t know.

Hebrew.

It was the first time I’d ever heard it. They were Israelis. We were taken into the station’s restroom. One of them examined us – pulled up the blouse, looked at the chest, at the body. At this point, our “owners” switched. Now we belonged to these Israelis. They put us in their car and took us to an apartment in Budapest. There were already a few women there. We talked. Each of us described how she got there. Very rough stories. Almost all of them had something put into their drink.

Did you understand where this was going?

Yes, but I and the other girls didn’t know how we could escape. We were afraid they would kill us. Almost all of us came from small, remote towns in Hungary. We weren’t familiar with other places; we didn’t know how to behave in this situation. There was one bed in the apartment, and more and more women kept arriving. One of the kidnappers slept in the bed, and every evening he chose someone to join him, and the rest slept on the floor. We were kept like that for a few weeks, until they got us passports from the Hungarian Interior Ministry and flew us to Israel. Each of us was given a bodyguard and a story that we had to recite.

A protest against victims of prostitution in Tel Aviv, in 2018. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

‘Disconnected from myself’

What was the story?

I was brought in by a guy from Acre named Fadi, and the story was that we fell in love in Hungary when he went there to visit a friend in med school, and now he wanted me to meet his family. They got us in [to Israel] really easily. We got to Acre, to a brothel. Some of the women I’d met in Hungary were already there; later others arrived. We were kept in a room without windows and we worked almost 24 hours a day. We would get up at 8 in the morning, and we received clients from 9 until 4 the next morning. After the clients were gone, we had to clean up, and only then were we allowed to sleep, for three or four hours, and then it would all begin again. That’s how it went every day.

And a month earlier you were still sleeping in your bed at home. You describe this extreme transition very offhandedly. It certainly wasn’t like that. Your life hadn’t been easy until then, but you weren’t a sex slave.

It really was extreme, but when we arrived in Israel I was already completely disconnected from myself. I realized that if I didn’t want to be murdered, I would have to neutralize the person I had been until then and become someone who was suited to the new situation. I had to erase the person I’d been in order to be capable of leading that life. We worked like that for a few months in the apartment, until the head of the organization and his assistant were arrested in Hungary. When that happened, the brother of the head of the organization arrived, quickly took over in the apartment and sent all the girls back, so they wouldn’t talk. He decided to leave me and another girl there.

Why?

Because we already knew Hebrew.

The property was more valuable.

Yes. We could speak with clients. He brought us to the house of a woman named Miri, and every day he sent a taxi to take us to a different brothel.

Did you get part of the money you earned? Did they arrange living conditions? Take care of food?

In the first month they gave us a little money, and we would give it to a clerk who went to buy us food. After that we didn’t get anything. We were hungry. We learned a trick of how to keep the change from the clients, and with that money we bought hot drinks from the vending machine to fill our stomach. At some point we realized that we weren’t being guarded so closely anymore, and we decided to try and escape. A guy who hung around at the brothel, a friend of theirs, was in love with my girlfriend. He helped us escape and hid us at his place in his village. Afterward he found us jobs in Tel Aviv, so we would be able to save up money and go home. But when we got to the new place, they immediately offered us drugs, the first day. As I said before, I was already an addictive type from childhood and, apparently, after all I had been through…

Why do you justify yourself? It’s understandable. Makes sense.

I only wanted to chill out and disconnect, and the drugs were the perfect answer for that. I felt good, because I had an incentive to make money and get back home fast, but within a few days the world of drugs got the better of the desire to return. We began telling one another: Okay, we’ll stay another week, we’ll save a little more, but obviously all the money we put aside immediately went to drugs. They saw to it that we were on drugs all the time. Even if I didn’t have money, they would give me ecstasy or cocaine, and I would pay them back. The work became a lot easier. I felt more self-confident. Now I was the one who turned my nose up at the clients, instead of them abusing me, like at the start. We got into drugs big-time. Afterward we found out that the guy who helped us escape also made a bundle from us. We had escaped, but actually we fell back into the same pit. Only the faces changed.

And whole years of your life disappeared.

More than 10 years.

Did you lose contact with home?

I called every few months. I was already using drugs massively. Nothing else really interested me. I also met my partner at that time, but I don’t want to say more about him. He’s no longer alive. He became part of my life.

A whole life won’t be enough to heal the damage to my body, to my innermost self.

Chile Ezra

In other words, alongside your relationship you went on working in the brothel? You went on taking drugs?

Yes.

Was he a kind person?

Very much so. He felt so much compassion for me. He embraced me, gave me support. He also had drug problems. We rented a place – he didn’t want me to sleep at the place where I was working. He looked after me, because at the time the people I had escaped from were still looking for me. We began a process at the Interior Ministry. I became legal, because I had an Israeli partner. Before that, I worked even though I was [technically] a tourist, because the owner of the brothel worked with the police and they let him keep up to three women tourists in his place.

The system needs things to be orderly.

Exactly. No more than three tourists. Time passed. Things began to deteriorate between me and my partner. The drugs became harder. We started using heroin and then also started to shoot up.

And from there it’s a short way to working on the street.

I was already wasted when I started working on the street. I wasn’t capable anymore of getting to work on time for the shifts at the brothel or at designated apartments. I was too thin anyway, broken, no longer in demand. My partner went to jail and I went to the street and stayed there two or three years – I don’t even know. It’s hard on the street. Rough things happened to me. I was raped. Actually, I was raped every day, but one time I was brutally raped by someone who’s now in prison. I filed a complaint with the police.

How did you manage to bring yourself – a drug addict working in prostitution on the street – to file a rape complaint?

I had a few critical moments in life, and that was one of them. Amid all the haze of the drugs, I had a certain understanding that I couldn’t go on like this. I told myself that the moment I got to the same situation as people around me, who would simply collapse and fall asleep on the sidewalk, I would have to do something. That was my red line, lying on the sidewalk, and I was just about there. I realized that if I collapsed and died from an overdose, no one would even look for me or notice. That really hurt me and absolutely terrified me.

You were able to feel it.

I don’t even know how. I was so disconnected and indifferent, but I managed to feel that. And then came the rape. During the rape, I understood that he was going to murder me. I remember saying to myself, “Well, you knew this was going to happen, you knew you were sliding.” I realized I wasn’t capable of defending myself anymore, and I knew how dangerous the street was. Many of my friends were raped and beaten and stabbed and murdered. I knew that my turn would come, too. That’s what I told myself during the rape – “You knew it would happen. If you don’t die now, it’s only because of a miracle. If you’re saved and go on like nothing happened, you really will die.”

And then the miracle happened. Someone heard me, stepped in, and the rapist ran off. I felt responsibility: that if I didn’t do something, it would happen to someone else. It was hard for me to take that responsibility, but I went to the police. The police really got into the story. They came every day with the van and asked me to come with them to look for him. And then everything started to change. The fall turned into a rise. I started using less. I wanted to be clear-headed. I wanted to feel my real self. I started doing detox in a program, but my papers weren’t in order and I couldn’t continue.

I got clean and then I fell again. And then I met a good-hearted man who bought me a plane ticket and simply put me on a plane. I went back to Hungary after more than a decade. My family was waiting for me. I saw a girl of 16. I recognized her straight off, because I’m her mother, but I couldn’t grasp the gap.

The last time you’d seen her she was a little girl in kindergarten.

Israeli police shut down brothels in Tel Aviv, March 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

And now she was a woman. I couldn’t cope. It was hard for my family, too. They resented me, they were angry. I understand them. It’s not easy to deal with a junkie who suddenly comes back after 10 years, after abandoning them like that. They didn’t understand what I had been through and what happened to me. I entered a therapeutic community in Hungary. I was there for half a year. One day there was a call from Israel, a prosecutor was on the line and told me that they caught the man who raped me, and that even though I was a deportee, the state was proposing that I return for a few days to testify in the trial. I went, I testified in court, cooperated with the police and went back to Hungary.

That was a corrective experience that was important for my healing – to confront what happened to me, to look into the rapist’s eyes. In the meantime, my partner came out of rehab and started looking for me. He called me in Hungary and told me that he was going to go to the Interior Ministry and tell them everything, and that they would issue me a visa to return. I came back. We started the process. I was in a therapeutic framework. He had fallen into drugs and climbed out, fell and got up.

But you didn’t fall again.

No. I was in a different place. I had already begun working. Studying.

Helping to save others

You started to help women in prostitution in the van of the Levinsky Street clinic in Tel Aviv. You still do that.

Today I work in the van and also in the Ramat Gan welfare services.

What do you tell the women?

Lots of times I don’t speak at all; I only listen, embrace. When I do speak I share my story with them, that I was on the street, too, and that I succeeded in getting out of it. When I was working on the street, one of the women from the team in the van had been a prostitute herself. She told me her story, and that saved me. I remember thinking to myself: If she could do it, I can. That’s what I try to make the women I work with feel.

What do you hear from them?

They really want to [succeed]. Even if previously a person said, “Leave me alone, I’m lost, I’ll be a user my whole life,” when she sees a living example, she can shake off the suppression and the denial for a bit and connect with her feelings. With the dream of leaving the street, which they feel they can never achieve.

The discussion about women in prostitution is polarized. I see it as a crime against humanity, but there are still a lot of people who think it’s normative, that it’s the “oldest profession” for a good reason. Only yesterday someone said to me, “They choose it, at least some of them do.”

No woman chooses it. There’s no such thing. Does that person really imagine that a woman gets up in the morning and what she wants is for 10 or 20 men to touch her and penetrate her body one after the other? Think about entering an elevator that stops on every floor. More and more people enter. It’s crowded. Think how unpleasant it is. Not just for the woman – for the man, too. No one feels safe and liberated when a strange man attaches himself to her. And if that’s how we feel in an elevator, how does a woman in prostitution feel?

Israel has made progress on this front. The law that criminalizes being a client was enacted. Maybe that will help.

The law passed and enforcement will soon begin. The clients who are caught will have to attend a workshop, under the responsibility of the parole service. They called to invited me to be a speaker at a workshop. I will talk to those men about prostitution – do you understand how much of a tikkun [repair] I am making?

Afterward we found out that the guy who helped us escape also made a bundle from us. We had escaped, but actually we fell back into the same pit. Only the faces changed.

Chile Ezra

What will you tell them?

I’m still thinking about it. I have so many things to tell them. I think I want to ask them if this is what they want in life, if this is the love they are looking for, the feelings they need.

Do you think they don’t understand what they are doing?

Yes. In my opinion, they don’t really understand.

Do they also disconnect completely from their feelings during the act?

The encounter between the client and the woman in prostitution is one of a complete disconnect for both sides. Neither of them is really there. In this workshop I want to connect head with heart. I believe it’s possible; that even the men want to change.

You must certainly have encountered stories about the sex tourism in Dubai.

I’ve known about that for some time. I read testimonies of Hungarian women who were there, in the Hungarian press. What horrors. What’s happening there is very cruel.

The method doesn’t change, only the locations.

Those stories only reinforce my opinion about our situation as a society. We have a big problem, we need to wake up. It’s not only a matter of women in prostitution or their clients. It’s a human and social story that also involves the woman who never worked in prostitution and the man who never went to a prostitute. We all have a part in it. If people will learn to put aside their judgmentalism and stop distancing themselves from situations like that, the change could come from there. People need to understand that they also bear responsibility for it. In the way they behave. In turning women and men into objects in language and in culture. In the education they give their children.

Chile Ezra.Credit: Hadas Parush

You don’t have to go far – I remember a recording of Netanyahu’s son [a reference to Yair Netanyahu’s comments during a night out at strip joints two years ago, about paying prostitutes and “fixing up” his then-girlfriend with other men].

That’s it exactly. Or the custom of holding a bachelor party before a wedding and sleeping with strange women for money.

And that is supposedly normative.

But it’s not. It’s not normal. People have to understand that already. There’s nothing normal about it.

Your story touches on two wrongs: prostitution and human trafficking. It’s different, because you were torn from normative life and hurled overnight into this world, which was completely foreign to you.

I’m not sure there’s a difference between me and women who were not kidnapped. My trauma was the kidnapping. For another woman in prostitution the trauma is that her father abused her when she was little. Those aren’t only statistics – [which I know] as someone who was part of that world, as someone who knows so many women in prostitution – everyone has been through very hard times.

Prostitution is one station on the whole continuum of injuries they experienced. Prostitution is like a glove on the hand. No woman will succeed in being part of the world of prostitution without having prior experience of that total disconnect from body and feelings. It’s something she has already experienced because she was hurt very severely, not because she was born like that. The results of that injury become part of her personality. She will have developed very strong defense mechanisms that make it possible for her to live that life. I think that everyone who is connected to that world, men and women, both the consumers and those involved in the business side – all of them are wounded people. All of them are victims.

Comments