The whistleblower

Author: Kathryn Bolkovac
Uploaded: Tuesday, 25 January, 2011

A police officer and divorced mother of three, Kathyrn Bolkovac was looking for a fresh start when she signed up as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia. But when she began to investigate the local trafficking of young girls into prostitution, all the evidence pointed to those she worked alongside

I had assumed I would be working with elite officers from all over the US, but the people lining up for registration at the training session could be divided into two distinct groups: youngsters whose pimply faces made it hard to believe they had the minimum requirement of eight years' active police experience, and the retiree set.
 
A company called DynCorp had been employed by the US state department to recruit police officers to serve as peacekeepers with the United Nations international police task force (IPTF) in Bosnia. It was the autumn of 1998 when I saw the ad. The salary was twice as high as any I'd seen as a police officer in Nebraska. My oldest two children, Jake and Sarah, were in college and could use the extra money for tuition. My 15-year-old, Erin, already lived with her dad, the result of a long, ugly custody battle. I would miss her whether I was in Nebraska or Bosnia, but for the first time in a while here was something I was excited about, something I could believe in.
 
The training week was in Fort Worth. Although DynCorp contracts were generated from the UK, by the subsidiary DynCorp Aerospace Operations Ltd, most employees reported to the Texas headquarters. There had been no in-person interview and no extensive background checks. During training, my evaluation entailed a five-minute conversation, while the physical agility tests included squatting for 30 seconds, then touching our fingers to our noses with our eyes closed – not much different from a drink-driving test, and as I watched the others it looked as if there could have been some drunks.
 
On the last night, a handful of us gathered by the swimming pool to share some beers. ‘Hi y'all!’ a man called Jim, from Mississippi, called. ‘Don't start the party without me.’ Jim had greasy grey hair, tobacco-stained teeth and was wearing nothing but swimming trunks. He grabbed a beer and splashed his way into the pool, telling us that he had already been on one peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and had liked it so much he was signing on for another year. He described how scenic the country was. Then he said, ‘And I know where you can get really nice 12- to 15-year-olds.’ There was an awkward silence as the others looked at me, the only woman in the group. But all I could think was that I must have misheard, or perhaps missed a part of the conversation that would have somehow put his comment into context. DynCorp – now riding high on its coveted position as one of the largest government contractors – certainly would not be employing a boasting paedophile.
 
By June 1999 I was in Sarajevo as part of IPTF: nearly 2,000 civilian police officers from 45 UN countries. I was made a human-rights investigator and, after a few months, transferred to a station 40 miles north of Sarajevo to head up a new UN project called Effectively Addressing Violence Against Women. It wasn't long before a number of serious cases found their way to me.
 
The first, in late 1999, was that of a young woman found floating in the river Bosna, partially clothed with a blunt injury to the back of her head. The coroner determined she was of Ukrainian heritage, but what no one could answer was why a young Ukrainian woman would wind up dead in a river in Bosnia. A country as devastated and poverty-ridden as this did not see many young immigrants.
 
The next was that of a young woman who arrived at the IPTF office in skimpy clothes, her dingy blond hair matted with leaves and dirt. She had been found before dawn, delirious, wandering the banks of the same river. She said her name was Viktorija and she was from Moldova, but that was all I could understand – that and an English word she kept repeating in her thick accent: ‘Flor-i-da.’
 
There was a decaying nightclub on the riverbank called the Florida, so I went along with a local police officer to check it out. Inside, the place was grim. Several tables and wooden chairs, some overturned, surrounded a small, scuffed stage. Its centrepiece was a pole bolted to the ceiling. The corner of the room was sectioned off so that a dingy red drape could be drawn around a bar stool. Walking around to the back of the bar, I spotted what looked like a metal gun box. Inside there was thick stack of US dollars.
 
I picked it up to estimate the amount and underneath, held together with a rubber band, was a bundle of a dozen passports. In the top passport was the photo of a round-cheeked, 16-year-old girl from Ukraine. Next was a 20-year-old from Moldova. The next, a 15-year-old from Romania. I had a sudden flashback to what Jim from Mississippi had said.
 
Outside I spotted a fire escape leading to a wooden door that wouldn't open. I kicked it in. On the other side, in a stuffy, attic-like room, huddled seven young women. The only furnishings were two bare, stained mattresses, which the seven had been sharing, and a bin with a wrinkled condom dangling over the edge.
 
I spotted a small notebook on the floor. In it were rows of neat handwritten numbers. One column was for tricks; another was for price charged – ranging from DM25 to 100; and a third column was the balance – what the owner of the notebook had made, subtracted from what she owed. She owed a whopping DM7,000 – over $3,000. Her tricks, precisely recorded, hardly made a dent.
 
‘We are going to take you somewhere safe,’ I told them. They eyed me warily. ‘Are there any other girls here, at the Florida?’ I asked. Silence. I tried again. ‘Please tell me, so we can help them, too.’
 
A blond girl pointed out of the window and said, ‘We don't want to end up floating.’
 
Back at the IPTF station, the girls were hesitant to talk. They provided only vague descriptions of IPTF officers, local police and military men visiting the bar. It was unclear if they were confusing one uniform with another, but my mind kept circling back to the US dollars in the box behind the bar. The only place to receive US dollars in Bosnia was on American military bases, where we DynCorp staff could cash our cheques. All other IPTF monitors were paid in deutschmarks, and the Bosnian currency was the konvertible mark (KM). Something was very wrong here. And if these were underage trafficking victims who were being kept against their will, then this was not just an illegal visit to a prostitute; this was not just underage sex; this was rape.
 
None of the young women, including Viktorija, was willing to testify against the bar owners for fear of reprisals – and it was difficult to blame them. So that evening, a convoy of four vehicles driven by local police and IPTF officers delivered the women to Sarajevo, where they would be placed in safe houses and repatriated to their home countries. A police officer who worked on the case told me that the owner of the Florida was arrested soon after, not for holding women captive or for human trafficking, but for employing illegal immigrants without proper work permits.
 
In the following weeks, women and girls began to show up at the station door. Their stories were eerily similar, and their accounts of who was paying to use them were becoming more and more detailed. A clear but disturbing picture was forming. All across the country, brothels masquerading as cafes, bars and hotels had sprouted practically overnight around the military bases, where there were not only soldiers but hundreds of DynCorp employees. Girls and women were herded in, forced to strip and evaluated by bidders who bought and sold them like cattle.
 
In April 2000, as I was winding up my year-long mission, I was asked if I would be interested in taking over the position of gender officer at the UN's main headquarters in Sarajevo. The work was busy and challenging as more and more trafficking cases poured in. One case had very detailed and specific allegations: a diplomatic vehicle with a recorded licence number was spotted at a nightclub. The driver was an Asian-American male, who entered the club and requested several females for sexual services. His identity would not have been difficult to determine, but because this case implicated someone within the UN, I forwarded it up the UN chain of command.
 
After hearing nothing for a month, the case file reappeared on my desk with a scrawled note saying, ‘This was dealt with a month ago!’ I took the file to the human rights office and spoke with my immediate boss. She lowered her voice and told me she believed that everyone knew who the suspect was, but the case was being swept under the rug. She suggested I keep a separate file in my office with copies of cases such as this.
 
In the first week of October, 16 young women arrived at the local IPTF station in Doboj, the oldest city in Bosnia. They were originally from Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia and Belarus, and had been found after police raided a local bar. Most of the women gave separate, detailed reports of local and international police who frequented the bar as their clients. They described specific identifying features: gold teeth, jewellery, uniforms, tattoos and first names.
This was the single largest case implicating IPTF we had yet documented, and I suggested we conduct a photo lineup. Positive identification of IPTF monitors who were frequenting brothels would send a strong message to mission officials and all IPTF members that these were serious charges.
 
The next morning, I turned on my computer to find an email from a senior official. The email was sent to me and approximately 120 others, most of whom were American DynCorp monitors. It said there had been a raid on ‘some houses of ill repute’ and that a ‘few ladies of the evening’ had been taken into custody. And: ‘I have been informed that several descriptions were given of 'American IPTF' monitors... Apparently, photo lineups will be made available to the 'witnesses'.’
 
My head was spinning. Did an officer just leak confidential information on the particulars of a case – to the suspects in the case? They might as well have entitled the email: ‘Get your alibis in order, everyone!’ Shortly after, the case was pulled. Nobody could tell me why. I was livid. Why was I being paid taxpayer dollars to collect evidence I was then forced to suppress? Why should trafficked women risk their lives coming to the IPTF and give us information when we were not going to do anything with it?
 
That night, I sent an email to about 50 mission personnel. I described how women found themselves trafficked to Bosnia. I offered specific details, telling the story of a woman who was forced to dance naked on a table in a bar. For kicks, the bar owner smashed the light bulb above her head and forced her to hold hot electrical wires while she danced. When this bored him, he yanked her by the hair and raped her. I wrote: ‘It is time we realise this is serious organised crime, making huge amounts of money.’
 
The next day, another senior figure, deputy commissioner J Michael Stiers, began lobbying to have me removed from my position. I discovered he wanted me redeployed and that there was even support from the US embassy and the state department to have me repatriated. Eventually I was demoted to duty officer and forced to leave the UN building. But what Stiers had not anticipated was that, despite my demotion, many of the human rights investigators were still sharing information with me and asking my advice. Also, since I was in charge of compiling all the incident reports into a daily briefing report that I sent to main HQ, I now had access to far more information than I had at the human rights desk.
One of the biggest cases took place that November, in the town of Prijedor, when IPTF monitors carried out an unauthorised raid on three nightclubs, rounding up 34 young women trafficked from Russia, Moldova and Ukraine.
 
The victims' testimonies indicated that 11 of the IPTF officers had frequented the very nightclubs they had just raided. Some of the accused were American DynCorp monitors. Yet, without evidence of further investigation, the IPTF commissioner sought the resignation of six monitors. The monitors were repatriated nearly as swiftly as the 34 victims, who were flown over the border, where their safety was no longer our mission's concern. Along with them went any hope of testimony and a full picture of what happened. A UN press statement was issued, denying allegations that any IPTF monitors were involved in illegal activity and claiming that their resignations had been accepted ‘more [with] sorrow than [with] anger.’
 
That December, I was offered a lift home from the IPTF station by a colleague I'll call ‘Carl’. As he drove me home, Carl told me his girlfriend had left him. ‘She ran away.’
 
‘Did she go back to live with her family?’ I asked.
 
‘Well, she's not exactly from Bosnia. I think her passport says Romania or Moldova or something...’
 
My eyes narrowed. ‘Is it possible she'd been trafficked into Bosnia?’
 
‘I don't know about that, Kathy,’ he said. He said he'd bought her from the owner of a local club.
 
I knew of this man, one of the most notorious traffickers in the region. The human-rights office had been after him for years – and all the while DynCorp's Carl had been having dealings with him?
 
‘He gave her to me for DM6,000,’ Carl continued, as if he were talking about a puppy. ‘I kept her in my apartment, and I wanted to marry her and bring her back to the States. But she ran away yesterday, and she took my mobile phone. I'd at least like my phone back.’
 
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. ‘Carl, why didn't you go to the police and get this girl out of there legally if you want to help her?’ He shrugged, as if that had not occurred to him.
 
I told a colleague what I'd heard and, when news of Carl's girlfriend reached the commander, he was quietly sent back home. He was never prosecuted or fined. The official line was that the poor man had been duped. ‘It's a love story,’ said an anonymous senior UN official. ‘He fell in love with this girl and bought her freedom.’
 
Throughout the winter, I was biding my time, collecting information, and planning, when I returned home in several months, to visit my state senator to discuss what was happening on this mission. Simultaneously, although I did not know at the time, at the DynCorp hangar on the US Comanche base camp in Tuzla, Bosnia, an aircraft mechanic called Ben Johnston reported to his superiors at DynCorp that some of his fellow employees were buying weapons and trafficking girls aged 12 to 15 from the Serbian mafia.
 
According to Johnston, the DynCorp men would forge passports for the girls, rape them and, as a pastime, buy and sell them to each other. When Johnston's reports fell on deaf ears at DynCorp, he went to the army criminal investigation division (CID). The military police conducted a sting on the DynCorp hangar and, after an in-depth investigation, their findings supported Johnston's allegations. But the culprits were immune from the law. Although the CID could have explored waiving the immunity of these department of defence contractors, it turned the case over to DynCorp, which simply sent two employees back to the States with no prosecution or blemish on their record. Then DynCorp fired Johnston.
 
In April 2001, with three months left on my contract, I was accused of falsifying my time sheets. I had evidence to show that I hadn't committed any wrongdoing, but my employment was terminated.
 
I refused to sign the letter of termination, and I bought a small tape recorder. I spent my remaining time in Bosnia gathering information from as many people as I could, until a colleague and friend, Thor, came to find me at my accommodation. ‘We need to talk,’ he said. ‘In my car.’
 
‘We overheard some chatter at main HQ,’ Thor began. ‘We think your phone has been bugged and likely your apartment. We have reason to believe you're in danger.’
 
‘What exactly did you hear?’ I asked, panicked.
 
‘Significant chatter, implying bodily harm,’ Thor said.
 
I packed everything I owned, including the evidence I'd collected over the last two years, and next morning I drove nonstop out of the country.
 
A few months later, a story ran in Sarajevo's largest newspaper. Based on my evidence, the headline was: ‘The UN mission in Bosnia comes under fire for allegedly trying to cover up a prostitution scandal.’ It was the first of many.
 
At the end of June 2001, a lawsuit was filed on my behalf against DynCorp for unfair dismissal due to a protected disclosure (whistleblowing), and on 2 August 2002 the tribunal unanimously found in my favour. I quietly celebrated, hoping that the larger victory would be that the US state department would take notice of DynCorp's handling of trafficking issues. But the senior men who were ruled to be not credible and of having acted in discriminatory, malicious ways were not fired or even demoted. They kept their high-level positions. The morning after my verdict, I called Ben Johnston's attorney to tell him I had won. The attorney told me DynCorp had contacted him the previous night – only hours after my verdict – with an offer to settle out of court. Johnston had taken the offer. He could not give me any more details because the parties had and agreed to a gagging order.
 
Not long after, DynCorp issued a press release that the US state department had awarded it a $22m contract to police Iraq. In the years since, allegations of sexual assault and human rights violations by UN peacekeepers have been brought forth on missions in Congo, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Cambodia, Colombia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have involved DynCorp.
 
It was ordinary conscience that compelled me to blow the whistle on DynCorp. I was the first American police officer to go public with these allegations, and it did not occur to me to dwell on the fact that I was going up against one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Or that, in the decade that followed, the company would continue to survive and thrive.
 
This edited extract from The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors And One Woman's Fight For Justice, by Kathryn Bolkovac and Cari Lynn, reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
appeared in The Guardian (London), 22 January 2011..
 
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