A 'Whistleblower' Made Into A Hollywood Heroine Kathy Bolkovac's experience uncovering human trafficking in Bosnia has been turned into a new movie starring Rachel Weisz. In 1999, Bolkovac discovered that aid organizations were turning a blind eye to, and sometimes participating in, forced prostitution.
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A 'Whistleblower' Made Into A Hollywood Heroine

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A 'Whistleblower' Made Into A Hollywood Heroine

A 'Whistleblower' Made Into A Hollywood Heroine

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Kathryn Bolkovac was a hardworking cop in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1999 who'd run into hard times. She'd lost custody of her daughters in a divorce settlement. She was looking for a new job that would give her the means to live near them, and she'd heard she could earn good money in a short period of time by becoming part of the U.N. International Police Force in Bosnia, which is run by DynCorp, a private security agency. She signed on. Once there, she became alarmed when she saw human trafficking - mobsters transporting teenage girls for sex in bars and brothels - and outrage when she found that the security firm and U.N. personnel seemed to be all caught up in that trafficking. She tried to sound the alarm, and she was fired. "The Whistleblower" is the name of the new film starring Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac.


RACHEL WEISZ: (as Kathryn Bolkovac) You should have seen this place. There were pictures all over the walls of guys with those girls. And almost every single guy in there is ours.

SIMON: Kathryn Bolkovac joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

KATHRYN BOLKOVAC: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And take us back to that moment when - well, what did you first see that set off the alarm with you?

BOLKOVAC: Yeah. The initial alarm actually started well before I ever got to Bosnia, during the training session in Fort Worth, Texas. And one night just before leaving for Bosnia, one of the men who had done previous missions in Bosnia came bounding into the pool with a beer, stating where he could find really nice 12- to 15-year-olds once we got to Bosnia. I was the only women in the group, and there was about five or six of us in the pool at that time - and dead silence. And we just really tried to put this, I think, statement in the back of our minds. I think we must have misunderstood. But once I got to Bosnia and began my investigations, began my training, it was just so clear. It wasn't even well-hidden. These brothels were disguised as bars and hotels and strip clubs and dance clubs, and they were just scattered throughout the hills of Bosnia. And the clientele were all internationals. I mean, let's face it, the locals didn't have the money to spend on this kind of an operation. So the international money was definitely funding the flow of the trade.

SIMON: And recognizing this is the story of the movie, but what happened when you said, boy, this is serious and tragic? We ought to do something about it.

BOLKOVAC: Well, you know, I really tried to give my fellow officers the benefit of the doubt. But when a victim came forward, she reported international involvement - someone who was highly identifiable or had a name badge, a description, a tattoo - I forwarded these cases on to the Internal Affairs Unit. But ultimately, they were just trashed.

SIMON: Were you told, as your character is told in the film: Come on, this is war?



WEISZ: (as Kathryn Bolkovac) I found padlocked rooms, young women's passports, and there was a lot of U.S. currency.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN, ACTOR: (as character) Where are we going, Columbo?

WEISZ: I don't know, but something (beep) up's going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN, ACTOR: Ooh. Honey, it's like I say. This is Bosnia. These people specialize in (beep) up.

BOLKOVAC: And I think that's such a great escape. These women are whores of war. They're just prostitutes. They want it. You know, if they want out of this, why don't they whisper in our ears, when we go into these bars, that they're being held captive? And yeah, there's just every excuse in the book. But I mean, the same reaction is always there, from the U.N. to the State Department to the corporations who are involved in this. And that is, simply, damage control.

SIMON: There would be an occasional raid of a bar, right?


SIMON: And what would result?

BOLKOVAC: Well, the girls would be herded out of the bars if, indeed, they claimed to be trafficked. I mean - and so many of these girls were, obviously, not free to speak and were afraid for their lives, and certainly weren't going to tell the very people who were perpetrating crimes against them - who came to save them - that they wanted out.

The few girls that did escape or who would raise their hand, basically, and say yeah, I want to go home, were herded out like cattle, put through a bunch of regulations and rules through various organizations. There were no safe homes to put them in. There was no psychological counseling. So they were ultimately sent home, to their home countries - if we could prove they had a home country - and ultimately, probably picked up again.

SIMON: Many times, there's documented cases where they were met at the airport in their home country by corrupt police on the other end or traffickers, and simply, you know, put right back in the trade. So it was just a vicious circle.

There is a - in a movie that's filled with jarring scenes, there's an especially emotional one where you're able to organize a raid, and a young woman with whom you especially identify, Raya - well, let's play that scene.


WEISZ: (as Kathryn Bolkovac) I know this girl.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know you do.

WEISZ: (as Kathryn Bolkovac) I know this girl. I can't leave her here. Let's go, come on. Raya, let's go. I can't leave her here. I can't leave her here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Look at me. Kathy, we cannot force them. Nothing will hold up in court. Please understand, they will be brought down here, punished. You want blood on your hands?

BOLKOVAC: Tough scene.

SIMON: Did anything like that happen?

BOLKOVAC: Yeah, not exactly that scene, but I did go on a bar raid when I was in Zenica. A young woman had escaped and reported to me that other girls were captive there, in a brothel in the hills. And ultimately, I went to this bar and found seven young women locked in a room upstairs. Very similar conditions to what's portrayed in the film, with condoms hanging over the trashcan, their clothes stuffed in plastic bags.

And scared to death, stating they didn't want to be found floating in the river. It was just so heartbreaking to see the tough exterior, knowing that these were just such young, innocent victims underneath.

SIMON: What would make them not want to go with you?

BOLKOVAC: Well, clearly it's the psychological trauma. These girls are, sometimes willingly, brought from countries thinking they're obviously going to go into these, you know, great jobs in the West, and are forced into prostitution. But in order to do that, you don't just take the girl off the street and put her in a brothel and tell her to start working. You basically rape, abuse and mortify these girls through horrible, traumatic acts in order to get them to do that.

SIMON: Did you feel, as your character does in the film, a tug between your own daughters and the young women?

BOLKOVAC: I get asked that question a lot. And, you know, it's a yes and no. Because any good cop will tell you that you're trained and taught to put those emotions aside when you're dealing with victims. But also, any good cop will tell you that's almost impossible to do.

Whenever you work an event that involves children - whether it's a child death or a sexual assault or incest or anything else, which is, you know, what my specialties were before I went in to Bosnia - you learn how to compartmentalize a bit. But you know, I'd be lying if I said there certainly weren't moments when the children, my own girls, were going through my mind.

SIMON: What do you want people to know about human trafficking?

BOLKOVAC: This is not just about human trafficking. I think human trafficking needs to be looked at from all facets and how organized of a crime this is, and how corrupt the entire organization are that are running this - and what's fueling human trafficking, which are many of these international missions, and the demand side. So until we crack down on the demand side, all the theoretical and Ph.D.s that are out there writing all these ethics policies, aren't doing a bit of good.

SIMON: Kathryn Bulkovac, and she's portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the film "The Whistleblower," which opens in select cities beginning on August 5th. Thanks very much.

BOLKOVAC: Thank you for having me.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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