Slave to the Music

By Olga Borzenkova

When people think of human trafficking, they inevitably think of young girls being duped into the sex industry. Here’s the story of a middle-aged man with no hands who was used as slave labour to make a recording studio.

"Music is my life. If there’s no music, I don’t live. It’s like breathing," says Andrei Zhukov, a famous Belarusian sound-producer and sound-designer. 

Andrei’s success is remarkable as he creates music and runs his business without hands.  He is an amputee, and he’s also a victim of trafficking.

Up to the age of seven, his life in the then Soviet Union, was happy. His whole family was musical: "My mother was an operatic singer and we used to sing songs together. When I still had hands I played musical instruments." 

But that all changed when he was seven and accidentally grabbed an industrial electric cable, resulting his both his hands being so severely burnt they had to be amputated.

In those days there were no special facilities for a disabled child and he was placed in an orphanage. 

But even this didn’t quell his passion for music: he tied sticks to his ‘hands’ and learned to play the drums.  He worked hard and was successful, playing with several prominent bands. The money he earned allowed him to study abroad, first in Austria, and then in the United States. He perfected his art and was in big demand.  

Two years ago he was invited to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv to build a state of the art music studio. This seemed like the pinnacle of his life and career. 

Instead, he fell victim to modern-day slavery. 

"My student invited me to Ukraine. That's why I went there. He is from our circles, and we are used to trusting each other when it comes to work. I didn’t need to request documents, I knew him for years."

"I started off my equipping the studio. I was also teaching people to sing and giving music lessons."

It seemed that making the dream come true was so easy.

"That guy promised me: ‘you will get 1000 dollars a month, plus medical care’. We agreed that when I needed money, he would give it to me."

"At first, I was so carried away by the process that everything was fine to me, though I lived and ate in the basement where they also fed me and where the equipment was stored. I suppose it was suspicious, looking back, but at the time the building for the studio was still under construction."

"They came here [Belarus] and took my equipment. They promised me to help with procedures for citizenship and register me officially. It all turned out to be lies. For two years I was there illegally, and they took my passport from me saying something like ‘we’ll do everything, don’t worry’."

"And I trusted them. I never anticipated any problems."

But he never got his passport back. He couldn’t even travel to another city without documents or money. When he started to ask questions about his passport and salary he was met with empty promises. He stopped working. He was told that nobody owed him anything and that he could go wherever he wanted. 

"I was left alone in the country I didn’t know - I really didn’t know it as I was always in the basement or in the studio - somehow it was suddenly very scary. It was winter, and so cold."

Andrei looked for help at different NGOs. One of them recommended he go to the IOM Office in Kyiv and through a meeting there he was helped to get back home. IOM Belarus helped him to recover his documents and provided medical and psychological assistance. 

"I was taken out because I could not leave the country myself. I had neither my passport nor money. IOM bought me some clothes because I was wearing flip-flops and no socks," he recalls.

Now Andrei is planning to start working again.

"I'll start buying everything that I need. I’m not going to be taken in by dream-like offers again. All I need – all anyone needs - is knowledge, talent and vision."

His musician friends are rallying round. The legendary Belarusian band Drum Ecstasy with whom Andrei worked many times has organized a charity concert to raise money for equipment for his new project in Minsk.

Andrei is on the way back.