Interview with Kathryn Bolkovac, author of "The Whistleblower"
Kathryn Bolkovac talks about sex trafficking, military contractors, and her book "The Whistleblower."
How far would you go to defend justice? Would you risk your job – and perhaps even your life? Kathryn Bolkovac did just that when, while working as a human rights investigator for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, she discovered that some of her UN colleagues were involved in human trafficking. Here are excerpts of a conversation I had with her about her book The Whistleblower and her experiences in Bosnia.Skip to next paragraph
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What drew you – a divorced mom of three living in Nebraska – to work in Bosnia?
My grandfather was Croatian. He came to the US in the 1920s. I always had kind of an interest in that area of the world. Over the years I had some traumas take place in my own life, and I divorced for the second time while I was a police officer and just found that I was ready for a change.
So when this [recruitment] flyer came along from [military contractor] DynCorp to our police department I decided to give it a try. It was a kind of adventure and good way for me to support my children while they went to college and also to build my own résumé.
The situation you describe working as a peacekeeper in Bosnia is almost fantastical. There were 2,000 police officers from 45 countries trying to operate as a unified force. What was that like?
Some of these officers come from really underdeveloped countries and didn’t know how to use the computers or drive. So we were not only mentoring the local Bosnian police on democratic principles but we were also teaching police coming from some of the UN nations how to do tasks like drive, write reports, use computers.
When did you first begin to realize that, far bigger than such cultural challenges, you were facing problems like human trafficking – and the fact that some of your colleagues were involved?
I wasn’t that knowledgeable about human trafficking before I got into the [peacekeeping] mission. During the training process at DynCorp it became evident that at least one person in our group was familiar with the use of [underage] women – 12-to-15-year-olds, children – for sex [in] Bosnia.
That really shocked and appalled me, and I hoped that I had misunderstood this guy, but by the time I got to Bosnia it was pretty clear that this kind of activity was prevalent. There were a lot of brothels dressed up as restaurants or dance clubs, and a lot of international [clientele] in and out of those places. It was not a very nice picture. I could not even imagine the police in my home country doing this kind of thing. Yet here we are, [far from home], and they’re acting like it’s all OK.
When you alerted your superiors, you realized that they did not want to deal with this. Then you lost your job. When did you begin to fear that your life was in danger?
Some [fellow workers] told me they feared for my life. But I’d already been through a lot. I’d been a police officer for 10 years, and I’d been in life-threatening situations. So that was something I was used to. This was more of a trust issue. I think that was the main thing for me, not being able to trust my own colleagues.
You say in the book that human trafficking follows global tumult. What can we do to break that connection?
For me, the path we have to follow is to educate our own [police and military]. We have to really do it and not just pay lip service to it as many of these organizations or contractors do when they say that they have ethics courses and they have the people they hire sign these pieces of paper saying that they won’t be involved in prostitution and trafficking.