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.
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.
That means nothing, because the people who are signing the papers and taking the courses don’t understand what this is really about, and there’s no follow-up or accountability.
Is it that military contractors need to hire better people or do more training or both?
Both, definitely both.
On a global level, are we doing better at protecting women from violence and exploitation in war zones?
I think [the problem] is being taken more seriously at the theoretical level. But there’s still a lot of work that has to be done on the ground.
In Europe, where I now live, there are a lot of public-service announcements and commercials being sponsored by the UN and others and there’s backing from Hollywood. But for me, that’s still just the public-relations part of it. And I’m optimistic, but I don’t see a lot of training or development going on where they’re actually developing courses for these people who are being hired by contractors and sent abroad to represent the US. They’re basically just sending people over to these missions with no training as to what the local laws are, no training on international law, no training on the cultural differences they’re going to be encountering. For me, that’s still the main issue.
‘The Whistleblower’ is being released this summer as a movie starring Rachel Weisz. What’s it like being portrayed by a movie star?
Rachel Weisz is a petite, beautiful young woman and I’m kind of a 5-foot-10 big-boned cop. But it was great. She was so willing to want to be and do things like I would have done them. My husband and I went to Bucharest [Romania] last November  when the filming started and spent a week on set. Rachel would stop the filming if she thought something wasn’t said right or done right and come to me and say, “Kathy, how would you do this? How would you say that?”
Will the book and the movie change your life? Will it help your cause?
I’m still trying to figure out what my cause is. I’m pretty sure I was sent to this mission for a purpose. And it was to whistle-blow. I think there’s been a lot of misconception about me being this big human rights advocate fighting to abolish human trafficking and all these women’s issues. I do stand for that, and I do fight for that, and that’s what I want. But a lot of people are missing my main issue, which is the unfair employer practices and the corruption of DynCorp and these contractors who are hiring people to go overseas. I think my cause is to continue to work toward better hiring and recruitment practices, to raise the level of the people who we’re sending into these missions so we can prevent the other end – the human trafficking, the prostitution, the gunrunning, the drug trafficking, and whatever else is going in these missions all around the world and get some good publicity coming out of it instead of just these bad instances.
And you know, I realize that there are 90 percent of the people in the mission doing a really good job, but it’s those 10 percent who are ruining it for everyone. And that’s what I’d really like to see change.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.