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Interview: Kathryn Bolkovac – The Whistleblower – One Woman’s Fight for Justice

Interview: Kathryn Bolkovac – The Whistleblower – One Woman’s Fight for Justice

Human trafficking – it is the new slave trade, an action many of us thought be extinct after the US Civil War. But it is worse than ever, not least because many of the victims hand themselves over to get out of economic and political peril. They want to flee societies in turmoil, corrupt systems, they want to find a life they can build on their own. As is often the case, women and children suffer more often than men; they are targeted for prostitution and cheap labour. The problem is not limited to some Third World countries or undemocratic systems, Europe is a large part of it. Traffickers promise poor women the world, but they end up in some downtrodden whorehouse in Hamburg, Paris or London. That is surely not the way these girls intended to see the world.

Europe’s open borders and differences in laws help those trafficking in humans. Add to that the violent and chaotic societies in countries just at the limits of Europe and pimps can go about their business – with humans as commodities! – relatively safe. One such haven is Kosovo, which has not come to rest after 20 years of turmoil and war. Even worse, those sent to help the people of Kosovo – may they be Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, Muslims, or Christians – are often involved in the crimes. With 50,000 KFOR soldiers stationed far from home, brothels “shot up like mushrooms” as Pasquale Lupoli, local head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) once put it. Women from Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria are auctioned off to Kosovo’s pimps for between 1,000 and 2,500 dollars.In another war-torn country, also used as a transit for human goods, Bosnia, Kathryn Bolkovac started her tour as a police force instructor in 1999. She came as a UN peace keeper. Little did she know then she would become a sole fighter against human trafficking. Like so many others in the new imperial wars, she was not directly employed by the UN but by DynCorp, a private military contractor from Falls Church, VA in the USA, commissioned by the UN.

Kathryn Bolkovac accidentally found proof that employees of contractors – there to make Bosnia safe, ensure peace and a democratic society – were involved in human trafficking and abuse of children. Although she was on her own, was threatened, isolated, and eventually fired from DynCorp, she took it upon herself to expose the perpetrators. On August, 2nd, 2002 a court in the UK, where she had filed a lawsuit against DynCorp for wrongful dismissal, ruled in her favour: The company should not have dismissed her for exposing internal defects. Or ‘whistle-blowing’ as it is now widely known. Thanks to Kathryn Bolkovac’s efforts military contractors, who are only loosely supervised by democratically elected authorities, had to explain themselves in court. However, none of the US or European personnel has been punished, yet, regardless of how good the evidence collected by Bosnian police for weapons trafficking, buying women for a few hundred dollars, or forced sex with children is. Whenever possible law violations emerged, soldiers and employees were suspended, sent home, and dismissed. As long as they remain on US soil, it is impossible to prosecute them, since the US will not put their own citizens under the jurisdiction of a non-US court.

US courts see crimes during a UN mission as outside their province, local authorities in Bosnia and Kosovo are powerless. The International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague would be a solution, but since its inception no US President has acknowledged its jurisdiction over US citizens. I talked with Kathryn Bolkovac about her experiences, which she wrote down in her book The Whistleblower. (Bolkovac, K.: The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice, Palgrave MacMillan 2011 / Upcoming editions: Polish and Serbian) Under the same title her story has been filmed starring Rachel Weisz in 2010.


When you started your tour in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what was your original task and intent?
I was hired as an International Police Task Force monitor. Our mandate was to train and monitor local police and government officials in the transition to democratic policing and government.

Where in Bosnia and Herzegovina were you stationed, which regions did you cover during your investigation?
I was stationed both in Sarajevo and Zenica areas, as my home bases. I traveled the entire country on an as needed basis. During my second year of service I was the head gender officer at MHQ in Sarajevo. My function was one of oversight. I reviewed and suggested follow-up activity in all reported and alledged cases of violence against women and gender issues.

In what shape did you find their jurisdictional structures?
I am not really sure what you mean my this? If you are referring to inter-entity boundary lines drawn up as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement, or if you talking about juridicitonal authority of police, prosecutors, investigating judges, etc, as related to interaction with local authorites? It was rather mixed, and varioius levels of training were going on all around the country.

To what extent did Bosnian police assist you?
Most police I came into contact with were forthcoming with information if they were asked the right questions and if you had a good rapport. Some officials were more secretive and did not want to give information on a voluntary basis. I think this was quite normal considering the circumstances of the
envioronment and previous regimes within the varioius ethnicities.

It seems brothels were often warned of raids beforehand. How often did you find informants on your side invalidating your efforts? How did you handle it?
This was not an everyday occurrence but of course it was happening with regard to brothel raids.This tip offs to the bar owners could have come from several sources within the mission. You handle situations like this my continuing to investigate and trying to find the source or sources.

When did you realise you were on the trail of a major human trafficking organisation?
Major human traffikcking organizations simply follow the flow of international money and funding of mission areas. What was disheartening was when I discovered that UN and IPTF internationals were becoming involved in the trade and with the organized criminals at deeper levels than what some thought was simple entertainment at a brothel or a stip bar. This became apparant after months of investigations that continually implicated the involvment of specific individuals within the ranks who were buying women from bars to be kept at home with them, some were making rape video’s as described in Ben Johnstons case against DynCorp and some were assisting in transport and issuance of false documents. Some IPTF from the Ukraine and Romania were making threats of bodily harm to human rights investigators if they did not stop investigations that involved their countrymen.

Were you shocked to find people in the UN profiting from this?
At first of course I was shocked. After several years and since that time, it does not shock me at all. This is based on the lack of management and oversight in most international organizations and a lack of recruitment standards from many countries.

To what extent, do you think, the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the resulting presence of international armed forces and relief organisations was instrumental in human trafficking and forced prostitution?
Their is well documented connection.

Doesn’t the general militarisation of society aggravate the problem of women trafficking?
I do think that society in general is at all militarized. In fact I think that society in general has become so liberal in their thinking that for most people about anything goes. Including prostitution and pornography. These are certainly not issues exclusive to the military.

Aside from the victims, you’ve met lots of women in Bosnia and Hercegovina. What is your impression of Bosnian society in regard to women’s rights?
I found a great mix of women in Bosnia. Some were very outspoken, while others were very careful about their opinions. Once again this will be different based on cultural and ethnic differences. The younger generations were obviously making change.

Did you find a sexist society or is equality more than just a word in Bosnia?
I find sexism in every society. Bosnia was no different. What is different are the laws that need to be effective enough to address the inequalities. This will take time.

Isn’t the current stance towards women in Bosnian society aiding trafficking in women?
I have not spent alot of time in Bosnia since 2001 except to visit, so I really could not give you an opinon on this.

Turning back to the victims, when you talked to them, did you get a good idea why they fell for those promising work as waitresses, cleaning woman or such? What were their reasons to leave home and start towards the unknown?
This has been answered in so many ways.

In your book you mention abuse of women by their husbands; Was it your impression Bosnian police was quick to intervene on behalf of these women and against their husbands?
It was my impression that police were so to react when violence was perpetrated in family situations. This is also something present in many countries around the world and had been changing slowing over the decades.

After the Dayton peace agreement in 1995 about 20,000 SFOR soldiers and perhaps as many civilian staff of the UN and relief organisations came to the Balkans, most of them male. You mention frequently hearing fellow soldiers seeing local females as mere prostitutes for them: “Those girls are whores of war. It happens,’ a top agency commander says in the film. How did you react to them?
This was a specific point in my book that I address very strongly. My reaction and response was to confront the behavior with education and awareness.

Since 2001 a mandatory code of conduct for UN and OSCE personnel is in place, specifically in response to human trafficking and forced prostitution. Would you say this code came too late for Bosnia-Herzegovina and similarly affected nations?
A code of conduct should never be considered a tool in fighting criminal activities. Codes of conduct are only good for those who choose to follow them and have a base or moral and ethical standards. Codes of coduct are not written for criminals who reside in all areas or public and private sectors. All countries need enforceable laws in place. If you violate a code of conduct you might get fired or discharged from duty if you are in the military. You will not be prosecuted in a court of law or go to jail.

Eventually prosecution of suspects in the military, of international officials, and contractors lies with the courts in their home country. Regrettably only very few cases make it to the courts. Do you know of any cases coming before a US/international judge or tribunal, and what about their results?
You can contact Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International for these figures. There are not very many but a few.

We have read about employees having been sent home for being involved with human trafficking but were later seen on other UN missions again. Don’t you get frustrated when you hear this?
Of course.

One of your book’s real-life heroines, Madeleine Rees, (portrayed by British actress Vanessa Redgrave in the movie), was forced out of the United Nations.How did you know you could trust Madeleine Rees; was it instantaneous?
In real life I did not know who I could trust. Madeleine was always very forthright and backed me up on my actions. She was also very outspoken on the issues.

You had to assess people quickly, is it part of your job’s training, have you been chosen because you are good at it? Or does it all come out the concrete situation?
Being able to make quick decisions and assess people is partly natural and partly trained. This is definitely part of police training and development but some people are better at gut instincts than others. I have also been completely wrong about people so gut instincts are not always the best. You still need to investigate and be able to assess evidence.

Did you ever think of giving up because the whole thing went over your head?
Never giving up only changing my strategy.

Since your family has roots in Croatia, have you ever been to Yugoslavia before going on tour for the UN?
No. This was part of my reason for wanting to go to East Europe.

Have you been back to the Balkans after your dismissal?

Your investigations made quite a stir, and now, with your book out and the film in theatres, you have become quite famous. It is very different now than back then, when you fought alone? How do you feel about that?
I was never completely alone. I had a core group of close friends who assisted me in many ways, but could not be public in doing so. I was supported by many but not in an open way. This was hard. Many investigators were being silenced. several were quite vocal about it as well in press statments. Take for example David Lamb (source: WomenAid International ), and Rosario Ionnis. Both were interviewed by the Washington Post and detail many organized criminal cases they worked as well.

Bolkovac, K.: The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice, Palgrave MacMillan 2011 / Upcoming editions: Polish and Serbian
more information:


The Whistleblower Trailer


Panel discussion at the UN after a SG Ban Ki Moon ordered showing of ‘The Whistleblower’


Thanks to Dierk Haasis for great help in english translation

Belonging to the first generation of true Europeans, with roots almost covering the continent, I spread my life between Germany and Serbia. Read more