Wolves among the sheep

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am

When Kathryn Bolkovac signed up to join the United Nations' peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in 1999, she was a recently divorced police officer from Nebraska seeking a change of scene and a new way to earn a living. Never did she imagine then that a little more than a decade later, she would be attending a star-studded gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, watching her story of those Balkan years brought to life on screen, with the Oscar-winning Rachel Weisz playing herself.

But The Whistleblower means much more to Bolkovac than a brush with fame and glamour. Rather than just a story of her struggle to adapt to a new calling, it's a troubling indictment of how peacekeepers exploited and abused the people they should have been protecting, and the way these crimes were concealed from public knowledge through the collusion of the UN, Western governments and the private corporations which ran the policing operations in Bosnia.

The title speaks of Bolkovac's role in all of this: a year after she landed in Sarajevo, she was demoted and then sacked after she reported to her employers, private security firm DynCorp, her findings about fellow peacekeepers' involvement in cross-border sex trafficking in Bosnia.

'I was overwhelmed with emotion as it brought back all the adrenaline and feelings that I have really tried to bury for so many years,' she says, recalling the screening of The Whistleblower in Toronto last September. 'I had also written a book [The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman's Fight for Justice] over the years, which acted as my therapy, but after seeing the film I knew the therapy was not over and the real fight was just beginning.'

Her fight for justice for herself ended in 2002, when she won a suit against DynCorp in the British courts for wrongful dismissal (the company claimed it dismissed Bolkovac for rigging her time-keeping records). She was vindicated when the corporation admitted during the tribunals that they had dismissed several officers for visiting prostitutes, and quite a few more were sent home because of what they did in Bosnia - horrifying, criminal transgressions which Bolkovac's report described in great detail.

'The psychological trauma, rape, sexual assault, forced imprisonment, kidnapping and murders that these girls went through are capital or felony offences,' says Bolkovac, who is of Croatian heritage and now lives in Amsterdam. 'Some colleagues and civilian employees were committing these crimes, and many were also facilitating human trafficking by visiting brothels and seemingly using these girls as what they described as 'just prostitutes'.'

While the officials and peacekeepers enjoyed diplomatic immunity in Bosnia, none were prosecuted for what they did when they returned to their own countries - an injustice which drove Bolkovac to make her experiences known to a wider public after she left Bosnia.

The opportunity arose a year after the trial when Bolkovac received an e-mail from Larysa Kondracki, a Columbia University graduate seeking a story for her first film after finishing her master's degree in film directing. Kondracki, an Ukrainian-Canadian, had already acquired a bank of knowledge on international sex trafficking after conducting research in her community and from reading material such as The Natashas - Inside the Global Sex Trade, a book by Canadian investigative journalist Victor Malarek.

After a phone discussion, Kondracki and her screenwriter partner, Eilis Kirwan, flew to Amsterdam to meet Bolkovac; days later, they returned home with the adaptation rights to Bolkovac's story - which they bought for US$100.

Bolkovac says she was moved by Kondracki's 'attitude and honesty'. 'They had no money, and I did not care,' she says. 'Perhaps I saw something of myself and my background in Larysa as well. She had Eastern European roots and really wanted to dig into the why and how, and not just the superficial what of trafficking.'

Kondracki says she was stunned by what she read and what Bolkovac told her in more detail. 'When I looked Kathy's story up, I realised how huge the problem was,' she says from her home in Los Angeles. 'It wasn't a bunch of crazy Eastern Europeans doing this, it was the Western involvement and their demand [for young prostitutes].'

She wrote a letter to the Ukrainian-Canadian community, Kondracki says, and 'we raised C$30,000 [HK$237,000] in a few weeks - and [Kirwan and I] spent two years travelling all over Eastern Europe, interviewing everyone from high-level officials to underground NGOs to put together this story'.

After many false starts with several film companies - including discussions with Focus Pictures and HBO Films - shooting finally began in Romania in 2009. 'While we were at Focus, we'd given the script to Rachel Weisz, right after she did The Constant Gardener,' Kondracki says. 'But she was pregnant at the time, so she felt she couldn't quite go there. In the meantime, the project was put together in different ways at different studios with different actors, but she always kept checking in. So when we finally got the script back again, we went to her and she loved it, and came on board.'

While Weisz's presence certainly brought the film more attention it's the story which gives The Whistleblower all the gravitas it needs, as it documents Bolkovac's uphill struggle against both the criminals running the trafficking business and the prostitution rings, and also the bureaucrats and security company executives who did their utmost to stifle her quest.

Interwoven with Bolkovac's story is that of Raya, a young Ukrainian who had left home hoping to find a new life in Western Europe, only to find herself smuggled into Bosnia, then chained, beaten, abused and made to work as a sex slave by her captors.

According to Kondracki, the challenge in telling Bolkovac's story lies in toning down the real-life circumstances unfolding in Sarajevo then. 'The idea that the girls were in a brothel on a hill was to create a sense of discovery for the character,' she says. 'But in actuality, the officers claimed these girls were in every bar, and they were walking around with people in the UN buildings. Madeleine Rees [the UN's human rights commissioner in Bosnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave] actually said the coffee shops down the street from her office had rooms with beds upstairs - these things were much more in the open. It was just too unbelievable.'

And there's the portrayal of what Kondracki dubs the 'anti-trafficking industry' - self-proclaimed humanitarian organisations which purport to stop human trafficking, but only does the minimum on the ground. In the film, this 'business' is represented by an organisation run by the chic but cold Laura Leviani (Monica Bellucci), who returns Raya to the local police (who are in the pay of the traffickers) because the young woman doesn't have the proper identity documentation.

Bolkovac, meanwhile, says she hopes 'many more films' like The Whistleblower will be made. 'I hope to be as much of an advocate as I can to promote change both in the way the UN missions are run and how our State Department creates and selects US representative police to send abroad and serve in UN missions,' she says.

'This needs a complete overhaul with regard to private companies being involved in this process through lucrative contract bidding. I do not believe policing should be outsourced to private corporations.

'The UN must also face the facts ... It is just as culpable and must be just as accountable.'

The Whistleblower opens on Thursday


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Wolves among the sheep

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