Insight: Kathryn Bolkovac, whistleblower
'People ask me where I got my strength from... and I don't know'
Thursday 19 January 2012
Former Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac joined the UN Police Task Force in post-war Bosnia in 1999 as an employee of the private military contractor DynCorp. She became a human rights investigator and discovered, to her horror, that people from the mission were involved in human trafficking. Bolkovac blew the whistle and was fired. Her story was the inspiration for the powerful thriller The Whistleblower.
When I signed to work for DynCorp, I hadn't heard anything good or bad about them. It was representing the US State Department, so how bad could it be? There was no rigorous selection procedure, though. You didn't get a personal interview, just a couple of telephone calls and a packet of information to fill out. It asked for references from friends and neighbours and if it checked out, you were in.
You then went to its training facility in Fort Worth, Texas, for a week, where you had to prove your fitness by running down a hill, do a drunk-driving test, and get some blood drawn. If you didn't have, I guess, drugs in your system, you were sent off to Bosnia. One evening, after class, this guy comes bounding in and says he knows where to find really nice 12- to 15-year-olds when we got there. I thought I must have missed something. But when I got to Bosnia, it was pretty clear what he was talking about. Those are the kind of people who were being recruited and put into posts by the US.
My first case of human trafficking was in [the city of] Zenica. I was working with a woman who had escaped, and she tipped me off about the Florida bar. I went there and found it empty. Behind the bar I discovered all kinds of passports of women from Eastern Europe, along with a lot of US dollars. On a second floor there was a locked room. I found seven women trapped inside. There were used condoms all over two mattresses on the floor, as if they'd been gang-raped there.
I didn't do too many more raids where I found conditions like that, but other monitors in the mission did. And many women described those same conditions when they escaped. One girl described how when she was dancing, a man known as the "Doctor" would put coin Deutschmarks into her vagina. To me, one of the worst examples of involvement by someone in the mission was a police officer from the US who told me how he'd purchased a young woman outside Sarajevo. How could anybody think it was OK to buy another human being when he had the power and authority to do something about it? That kind of mentality was appalling and made me think, "OK, how do we change this?"
Unfortunately, real investigations could never take place because they were basically shut down from the beginning. Once a person was implicated – especially if they were an international – then basic steps were taken to end that investigation. The person was, maybe, sent to another mission or sent back to their UN contributing country. If it was diplomats who were involved, steps were taken to cover their tracks. The victims, of course, the girls, were always repatriated or shipped out to somewhere else, and were never available for ultimate testimony or interview.
Eventually I decided, "Enough's enough. I've got to go outside the circle somehow." And that's when I wrote my email headed: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE A WEAK STOMACH OR A GUILTY CONSCIENCE. I addressed it to about 50 UN officials and DynCorp managers, and staff within the UN, to make sure at all levels that they knew what was going on.
I had a lot of good response emails from people within the mission, and one or two negative ones from DynCorp employees such as Michael Stiers. He was the deputy commissioner of the mission and got me demoted. It didn't stop me: they put me in a duty station position where I was privy to reports of every single raid that was done and every single victim who was transported. I made a further complaint to DynCorp, and this time I was called in and told, "Here's your walking papers."
I was fired for falsifying time sheets, which was completely untrue. I fought my case for two years in Southampton, in the Employment Tribunal, and used that as a tool to bring forward the real reasoning behind my termination, which, of course, was the involvement in human trafficking of both UN and DynCorp officials.
I can't say I was totally elated when I won. I was proud of what I had done and glad that I was able to win the case. But I was still very embarrassed for my country, because I do believe that DynCorp is a huge misrepresentation of what the US should be sending to these missions, and just sickened by the whole thing. It had tried to take my credibility away, it had taken my career away. Obviously I will never be a police officer internationally again.
People ask me where I got my strength from to do this, and I don't know. Maybe I'm stupid to try to push issues like I do. But I guess I do have a line that I don't want to cross and when I see others crossing it – especially law enforcement officers or politicians or diplomats – that really bothers me. What can I say? Right's right and wrong's wrong.
'The Whistleblower' is released on DVD by High Fliers on 16 January; 'The Whistleblower', written by Kathryn Bolkovac with Cari Lynn, published by Palgrave Macmillan, is available now
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