ROME—Teenage girls are supposed to be having fun. They should be on the cusp of new discoveries, dreaming of what the future holds. They shouldn’t be locked up in the back room of an apartment enslaved and groomed by their fathers as child brides.
But earlier this month, after a year-long investigation, Italian police in Florence swept in and rescued just such a young girl in just such a situation. She had recently turned 17, the age her Serbian father, who had been living in Florence as a legal resident for decades, promised to deliver her to a Serbian buyer in France who had chosen her as a bride for his own son.
She had been captive for the last four years.
According to a police report seen by The Daily Beast, the man had put his daughter on the market as a potential bride with an asking price of €15,000 ($18,000) when she was just 13 years old.
At that time, a Serbian man residing in France reportedly came to Florence to “inspect her” to see if she would be suitable for his own son. She was, so he put down a €4,000 ($4,780) deposit. The rest was to be paid upon her delivery this month. She had not been delivered earlier because she was not yet 17, the age of consent and the age by which she could cross borders without raising eyebrows.
Police say the girl was kept confined in a hidden room of the Florentine apartment for the last four years while her father waited for her to reach the age of delivery. Her mother is reportedly still in Serbia with other siblings. The mother has not been arrested.
The police say the conditions of the young girl’s sale were that the girl keep the prepubescent figure she had when she was purchased and that she remain a virgin, to be tested upon delivery. Her father carefully controlled her diet to keep her thin.
Police say she was also forced to perfect basic household chores like washing dishes and cleaning the house so she would be a “ready made wife” for her new owner. She was taken out to grocery stores by her father twice a month to learn what products to buy and to get exercise.
The young girl, who had been educated in a public school in Florence until her captivity at the age of 13, apparently was allowed only one simple pleasure: playing a video game on a Sim-less cellphone, which she did for hours each day, according to initial testimony she gave police.
But because the Florentine apartment where her father kept her did not have WIFI available to her, the girl was left incommunicado. Then one day, she said she noticed an alert for a new but weak password-free WiFi network, likely from a new establishment on the lower floors of the building.
She logged on but had no way of using it to contact anyone because she had no email or phone numbers. After a few weeks of playing her video game, she discovered a multi-player feature that allowed her to play with others, though she still didn’t know how to call for help until she accidentally discovered a chat room feature she unlocked after reaching a higher level of the game.
She used the chat room to try to get help but most players ignored her until a young person in Sicily took her seriously and alerted authorities with very little information––just the girl’s username and location. Then, police were able to trace her to a suburb of Florence and through an investigation pinpointed her building.
After asking residents about whether there had ever been a young girl living there, they were able to find the apartment and start surveillance. Through that, they finally caught the father talking about the sale of his daughter and were able to trace a money trail to France to also find the buyer, who is under French jurisdiction, but who may not actually be guilty of committing a crime since he had not yet made the final payment or picked up the child bride. They rescued her in early September, just weeks before she was set to be delivered.
The girl is now under police protection where she is receiving psychiatric treatment. Her father is in jail, awaiting trial for kidnapping and harming a child.