Girls and women migrate into the Bosnia sex industry because of lack of opportunity and poor economic conditions. Generally coming from Eastern European countries, they answer ads and are promised good job only to find they become property of traffickers. They are moved across borders on routes that avoid official border crossings, all to disorient the girls and women who are likely to attempt escape. The girls and women are sometimes forced to strip naked before their “buyer” and are sold like slaves to men.
Women transported can end up in nightclubs where they are held in “debt bondage” and told that if they work enough they will pay off their debt and be able to leave. The girls and women are subjected to severe beatings, “psychological torture,” and some who end up in shelters have been known to have head injuries, cigarette burns, fractures and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
The sex industry in Bosnia is what Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) encounters in the recently released film The Whistleblower. Inspired by a truly harrowing story, Bolkovac is a former police investigator from Nebraska who takes a job as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia in 1999. Having lost custody of her daughter, she goes after a contract with DynCorp (which in the film is Democra Security), which is paid by the State Department to help recruit peacekeepers for the UN. Bolkovac does what any mother would do, hoping to earn enough money in Bosnia so she can return home and try to regain access to her child.
A parallel storyline involves two Ukrainian teenagers, Raya and Luba, who become ensnared in the sex industry after being promised a job at a hotel. The girls are sold to a nightclub, where men including local police, UN staff and the very people Bolkovac works with go to engage in perverse, often public, sex acts. The girls and women, as one top agency commander says in the film, are regarded as “whores of war. The people shown are so depraved that nobody is willing to speak up for the abused girls and women—except for Bolkovac.
As much as the story calls attention to the brutal and dehumanizing business of sex trafficking, the film is really about Bolkovac’s struggle with her employer, Democra Security [DynCorp] and the rampant corruption of which her colleagues are complicit. Bolkovac goes on a police raid that she believes has freed the girls and women. But, the involvement of her colleagues in the trade simply results in the women being put in a car and driven around until they wind up back at a nightclub.
Bolkovac works to save Raya. She tries to protect her and give her an opportunity to tell her story, “blow the whistle” on her experiences. Bolkovac is told if she can convince one of the girls to testify in court the girls may be able to enjoy some justice. She makes a promise to the girls that she says she will keep. But, Raya and Luba end up back in the hands of their trafficker and, in one of the most excruciating scenes in recent cinema, Raya is made an example for taking an interest in testifying and tortured in front of the other girls and women.
The character of Bolkovac is a strong heroine. As Rachel Weisz said in one interview, the film’s character is similar to other strong female whistleblowers in movie history, like Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) in Silkwood (1993) or Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) in Erin Brockovich (2000). Her character is taking on a giant corporation—a military contractor that has billions of dollars in contracts with the US State Department. Democra Security (DynCorp) is a necessary part of operations to the United Nations; so critical that, in fact, the UN will do anything to stop Bolkovac from seeking justice for the girls and women to protect the UN.
Through the production of this film, director Larysa Kondracki and the cast & crew involved manage to give voice to any individual that ever felt powerless and persecuted for simply believing in his or her job. In accordance with a signed peace agreement, the International Police Task Force (IPTF) (which Bolkovac was a member) was there to monitor, observe and inspect law enforcement activities and facilities. The complicity and participation of police in the sex industry is clearly something the IPTF should have addressed. But, the “boys’ club” on the ground and the UN, which wishes to avoid scandal at all cost, undermines her ability to do her job.
Whistleblowers are often slandered and smeared for having the courage to go public with their stories of corruption. They are accused of wanting attention, glory and profit. They are sometimes even accused of risking national security and aiding the enemy. They are often treated as individuals who are only interested in their selves. They face repercussions, including but not limited to being forced to leave their job. They may never get to work in a similar position again because employers are afraid a whistleblower will tell the truth about any underhanded scheme or internal business they do not want public. And, whether they exhaust all internal mechanisms for dealing with corruption and waste before going public with their story, they almost always face accusations of not doing enough to privately address the corruption.
They can face clear and present danger. Peter Ward (David Strathairn), working with the UN’s Internal Affairs Department, tells Bolkovac accidents can happen. Her phone is tapped. Her every move is being followed. Her actions in defense of the girls and women are sabotaged. One colleague that does help her is made to pay for their decision to assist her. Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), a UN Human Rights Commission official, warns Bolkovac of how she might be endangered.
As someone who has covered WikiLeaks regularly, Bolkovac’s story is striking. In the film Ward tells Bolkovac to release all the documents because if she doesn’t the media might suspect she is being manipulative and that there is more to the story. This to me seems to be a good defense for any whistleblower seeking to release hundreds of thousands of documents that could never be sift through independently without the assistance of the press or wider public. Bolkovac exhausts every avenue she can until she is essentially fired. At that point, she has the ability to go to a tribunal and argue she was unfairly dismissed. But, what if that doesn’t work? Is there any point where she might have wanted to anonymously release the documents so she could keep her job?
On the other hand, this raises one dilemma that an organization that seeks to be asylum like WikiLeaks faces. The press may be forced to give up its source in court. A whistleblower that goes public may wind up targeted in the war on whistleblowing that the Obama administration is effectively pursuing. But, going to an organization like WikiLeaks to get the truth out could put a whistleblower in just as much danger because if the documents are released, the employer is likely to be able to figure out just who would have had access to those documents. Bolkovac could have faced a much worse situation if she had gotten the documents out to someone or some organization before being canned.
These days the global economic crisis puts an added burden on agencies, institutions and governments. Curbing corruption costs money. And, in the age of austerity, power can exploit the economic vulnerability one faces to keep someone who wants to blow the whistle on corruption from blowing the whistle so they do not have to spend money and resources addressing abuse and misconduct.
Bolkovac’s story communicates the reality of what a whistleblower faces. It is a powerful portrait of what happens when an employer pins someone in a position where they have to become an activist to do their job. It puts responsibility on leaders around the world to change policies. And, Bolkovac’s courage in a situation where she is made to feel powerless shows those in any sector of any society around the globe can do something, even when they are made to feel like they cannot do anything at all. In fact, if they don’t take action, who will?