BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Like something from Dickens or maybe the Dark Ages, young children are being sold, smuggled across borders and sold again into slavery and prostitution.
Early in December Yugoslav and Austrian police arrested 13 Yugoslavs and charged them with smuggling gypsy boys and girls between age 8 and 15 intm another country for the purpose of prostitution, slavery or to be street beggars.
In Milan, Italy, three men and a woman, all Yugoslavs, have been charged with 'induction into slavery.' Police official Biagio Sivo, citing 'dozens' of cases of child slaves in the Milan area, said the traffic had by no means been broken.
'It cannot be excluded that child slaves from abroad arrive and live in Italy,' said Raffaele Costa, undersecretary of the interior.
'In 1985, 652 Yugoslav children, living without families, often victims of exploitation, begging and even commiting crimes, were escorted to the border.'
Stories that surfaced after the Yugoslav arrests were horrific. An 8-year-old girl's face was burned by lighted cigarettes; a 10-year-old boy had his legs broken. The abuse was to make them more pitiable, and therefore more successful as beggars.
'This is the worst sort of criminal,' said Inica Bozinovska, an official at the social welfare center in Skopje, Yugoslavia.
'Those who smuggle and 'own' these children, mutilate them to draw more pity when they place these deformed children into the streets to beg.'
In Milan, Sivo added, 'If a child misbehaves or fails to bring in a good daily haul, he is treated viciously.' He said most children who contacted Milan police 'had been horribly maltreated.'
No one can pin down the size of the traffic in child slaves. The Belgrade newspaper Politika guessed that 10,000 children had been sold to groups of Italian professional thieves since 1975.
Authorities say boys are generally more expensive than girls, and those already trained to be beggars or thieves are more expensive than inexperienced ones. Prices range from $300 to $700 each for youths of either sex.
'The problem is enormous,' Italian Judge Corrado Carnevali has said. 'It even extends to France and Switzerland. Although we are only at the beginning of the investigation, another 40 people in the Milan area will be charged with child slavery offenses very soon.'
In this year's first 11 months, 74 children were arrested and returned from Austria and Italy to the Yugoslav city of Skopje alone.
'We give these children some money, but this is not enough,' Bozinovska said. 'Three years ago I warned that children smuggling could turn into a mass problem. Police and authorities should be more involved, should do something to overcome this situation. It's ever increasing and becoming alarming.'
Yugoslav police call the child-smuggling ring the 'Sentilj Connection' after a border crossing point with Austria. In early December police in Graz, Austria, picked up 10 Yugoslav children who had crossed the border illegally at Sentilj and sent them back to Titova Mitrovica, a town in Yugoslavia's far southeastern Kosovo province.
'I do not know how to go back, but I wish,' said Muhamed Hiseni, 14, one of the 10 children. He said his parents are in Italy and he wanted to rejoin them.
But he and his aunt were sent to Rasadnik, a settlement of tin, cardboard and clay shanties where some 10,000 gypsies live on the outskirts of Titova Mitrovica, a town of 100,000.
Yugoslav authorities say all the children involved are gypsies. Most of Yugoslavia's estimated 170,000 gypsies live by begging, trading and re-selling things given to them or objects collected from garbage cans or waste dumps.
Many do odd jobs, but authorites say some, including many teen-aged girls, are beggers, pickpockets and prostitutes.
Bozinovska said about 30,000 gypsies live in the Suto Orizari suburb of Skopje, where living conditions are considered better than in other gypsy settlement. But even there, she said, some children 'work' for their parents or are sold to others. Some children flee the country on their own, and frequently end up working for bosses in Italy, Austria or other West European countries.
'I know for sure two of my neighbors have sold their babies for big money in Sicily,' a 40-year-old gypsy identified only as M.R. was quoted as saying by a Belgrade newspaper. Authorities said newborns can be bought for up to $2,000.
In Milan, Sivo said Milan police first became aware of the problem about three years ago when 'the children themselves began to contact us.
'Only the courageous ones come to us,' he said.
Yugoslav political organizations have condemned cross-border smuggling of children and demanded action. One has has said the children should be 're-integrated' into Yugoslav society.
But even if action is taken, M.R. said a new method of child smuggling is emerging.
'In the past three to four years from our settlement in Titova Mitrovica, about 10 pregnant women left for Italy a month before they were to give birth.
'When they returned they said their babies had died in Italy. None of them has returned with a baby.'