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The Paris metro was her principal target...
The Paris metro was her principal target...
Yves Bordenave

PARIS - Jessica is the pseudonym she used. Her real name is Vasvija Ferhatovic. She was born in Rome on Jan. 24, 1985 and the only “job” this young woman ever had is thief.

In May, a Paris criminal court convicted her and 15 other girls to sentences between one and five years in jail. The network’s bosses, a Bosnian couple named Fehim and Behija Hamidovic, were sentenced to seven and four years respectively.

Like the other 15 girls on trial with her, Jessica has never gone to school. “We suffer, we don’t have any education. All we can do is steal, eat and steal again.”

Jessica steals from people in the subway “to eat,” she says. She’s been doing it since she was 13. “It’s my life,” she says matter-of-factly. She steals from tourists – preferably Asian – with the help of young girls who she has trained. They target the most touristic neighborhoods of Paris, notably around the Trocadero and Champs-Elysees.

Between 2008 and 2010, she had a group of half a dozen young girls, who she initiated and trained to pickpocket. They would roam the streets of Paris and the metro line No.8, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. At night, in seedy motels, if the little pickpockets didn’t meet their targets, they were beaten.

Jessica, already a mother of four, would steal with her little group of trainee-thieves, while her husband Roberto would look after the children, and wait for her to come back with the day’s earnings. About 500 euros-worth, sometimes more, rarely less. She would steal cash and valuables that she gave to Roberto. “So that he could gamble them at the casino or go out to nightclubs,” she says. She would steal, “while others were building houses for themselves.”

Who are the others? They were all on trial with Jessica: Men, women, all Roma gypsies, mainly from Bosnia, like her. They were born in ex-Yugoslavia, or Roma camps in Italy or in the Paris region. No one has a real job. They have all already been arrested – many times. Some have already been sentenced to jail.

Fehim Hamidovic is a balding man with rectangular glasses and a round face. He is in his sixties and doesn’t look diminished by his time in jail. His wife, Behija, 60, looks frailer. There are accused of being the heads of the “Hamidovic clan,” which forced minors – mostly girls – to steal for them. They ruled their operation with an iron fist, with Jessica as their lieutenant.

Casinos, cars, villas

This vast network, dismantled in Nov. 2010 wasn’t operating in Paris exclusively. Hamidovic was also active in Spain, Belgium and Italy. In fact, he was arrested in Rome. When he was taken into custody, he was living comfortably in a spacious villa. The police seized his three cars. Hamidovic didn’t pay any taxes, and spent his days playing high-stakes card games in casinos. In 2007, when he was sentenced to three years in jail in Vienna, for human trafficking, he had accumulated 1,3 million euros – all of which was stolen by young girls in the Paris metro.

“I don’t even know them,” he told the judges at the beginning of his trial. “Never saw them in my life.”

Jessica didn’t say anything much different. Even if her husband is one of Hamidovic’s nephews, she never had direct contact with the man. But when she was interrogated by police in Nov. 2010, she told them that she gave the money to Rambo, one of Hamidovic’s sons, also on trial – whose job it was to courier the money to his father in Rome. The whole family stole for Hamidovic, Jessica told investigators. “All my life I’ve been a slave to a lot of people,” she says, even though she does not complain, not even about the violence.

“Violence is our life,” she adds.

Before coming to France, she lived in Spain with Roberto, where she also stole for a living. When she arrived in Paris, she had to buy her “license to steal” from one of Hamidovic’s stepdaughters.

During her trial, because Hamidovic and the others were also present, she tried to water down the confession she made to the police. But when she talks about her childhood, her life as a teenager and a – very – young mother, she does not pretend. She says she has learned to “live with it.” She has constructed for herself “an armor.” She was interned in a psychiatric ward, and started psychotherapy. Since she has been incarcerated at the Fleury-Merogis prison, near Paris, she has learned to read and write.

When she gets out she says, she wants to “change her life and work.” To achieve that, she knows that she will have to cut ties with the Hamidovic clan and Roberto. But she's not sure if that is what she'll end up doing.

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