Where will the girls go when the UN leaves town?

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The Independent Online
WAR can be good business. A visiting foreign army is even better if your business is sex. Certainly, the deployment in Croatia of 12,000 peace-keepers three years ago has spawned a flourishing trade in prostitution and associated professions to service Unprofor, the UN Protection Force.

Although illegal the new brothels, most operating as strip clubs where punters could select the dancer of their choice, were tolerated by the authorities for some time. In the past few months (perhaps since the visit of the Pope last September, when 10 per cent of the population attended open-air Mass) the police have cracked down, forcing some brothels out of business and others to tone down their acts. But a greater threat looms: the scheduled departure of Unprofor when the UN mandate expires next month. "Mandatus Interruptus" is not a happy thought for bordello owners.

"I'll tell you a secret - I spent 33,000 deutschmarks (£14,000) to start up this place; I made it into the black in 23 days," said Goran, owner of the Paradise club, a brothel judiciously sited a five-minute drive from the UN's main air base at Pleso, outside Zagreb. "War is good for some things, bad for others. . . I was shot twice when I was in the army."

At the next table, two young, attractive Ukrainian women giggled and flirted with four French peace-keepers who said they had just come for a drink and a chat. And indeed, they left alone. "A lot of the soldiers don't have sex," Goran said. "They just want to talk and drink and laugh - they want companionship."

The two women did not look disappointed when their escorts left. One, Goran said, had already made DM300 that day, some of it her cut from the bar takings. The house takes 90 per cent of the drinks tab, the women 10 per cent; at DM16 for a glass of champagne and DM6 for a beer, the tips add up quickly.

At Venus, a rival club nearby - surely one of the very few Croatian houses with a video entryphone - the management's paranoia about security is such that at least half the crew-cut young men stalking around were bouncers. The owner was leery and refused to talk; we were only admitted as friends of a friend, though a UN ID card will get most punters in. "He is convinced you are with the fraud squad," we were told.

"Zagreb Vice" is not the problem as far as brothel-keepers are concerned: the financial police are the real enemy. At a former strip joint in central Zagreb a dozen policemen, half in uniform, arrived to check ID cards. "It's perfectly normal," a waiter said quickly. "It will be over in 10 minutes, no problem." The venue is now "just a nightclub", he added. He did not explain why the prices were astronomical, the women arrived alone wearing postage-stamp-sized lycra skirts and made friends immediately with groups of men.

At the Tropicana, once well-known for its floor show and the enthusiasm with which its employees welcomed customers, the atmosphere was muted. Two months ago the police cracked down on its no-holds-barred programme (because, it is rumoured, senior politicians were targeted by a blackmailer). "So now we have just a simple programme, not very big, but nice," the blonde manageress explained. "There used to be lots of Unprofor here," she said sadly. "You could go off with the girls then, but not now."

On the small dance-floor, all flashing lights and dry ice, a young woman sashayed around in an orange day-glo swimsuit for a couple of songs, before removing it and dancing around naked. The Tropicana dancers, who seemed to be Croatian (the managements were not keen on interviews with the staff) were rather more professional than the Ukrainians working for Goran, but in general the emphasis was more strip than tease. At Venus, a young French soldier danced with far more abandon than any of the scantily clad women surrounding him.

In a country where the average monthly salary is around DM400, it is easy to see why Goran's customers are almost all foreign: the cheapest drinks cost DM15, while the brothels charge DM200 per hour for sex, or DM800 for the night - the fee is split 50-50 between women and management.

Since Unprofor's arrival, some 15 strip clubs-cum-brothels have opened in Zagreb, keeping up the UN's reputation worldwide for boosting the sex industry -and fear of Aids spreading - wherever task forces are sent. Pre-war, there was only one club, plus the topless floor show at the city's best hotel. Goran, a former military policeman who said he spent 47 days in Vukovar during the Serbian siege in 1991 that shattered the city, plans to move into a different business once he has made his fortune, and does not - will not - believe the UN is really on its way out.

"I can guarantee Unprofor will not leave - they need a logistical base for Bosnia for example," he said. "Pleso will be here for five or six years at least." Goran is just disappointed that the UN will not allow his business to join Burger King and the video clubs out at the base.

The atmosphere at the Paradise is wholesome, almost innocent; but a visit to the rooms behind the dance-floor dispels the image. Small, bare cells, a dim red light-bulb, a white sheet and a hand towel judiciously positioned in the centre of the single bed must kill any thoughts of romance or fantasy. The ultra-violet light on the dance-floor highlights the white stockings one woman wears - it also means Goran can see instantly whether a banknote is genuine. This is strictly business.

"The girls very rarely enjoy the sex. Maybe if a guy comes here seven or eight times and she knows him she might enjoy it, but not often," Goran said. "But I don't feel that it's exploitative. I give the girls as much as possible. If you ask them, they are happy here. . . Well, not happy exactly, but as happy as they could be." Besides, the punters, at least, are having a good time and paying handsomely for it.