Kathryn Bolkovac

Kathryn Bolkovac

Kathryn Bolkovac
Photo Credit: Teska Overbeeke | Elle DEC 2011
Kathryn Bolkovac was formerly a police officer from Lincoln, Nebraska now with the U.N. International Police Task Force hoping to earn extra money college money for her children, travel the world, and learn more about international law. The adventure that awaited her was completely unexpected; in fact, some of the people that were sent to ensure peace abroad were instead participating in illegal and inhumane activities. Stuck in the middle of this immoral storm, Kathryn choose to stand up for what is right and ultimately sacrifice her career while seeking justice.

Kathryn’s heroic journey began unexpectedly. A recent divorce spurred her to want to change her 10 year routine in policing. In 1999 she took an opportunity for a tax free salary of $85,000 for a year overseas as an International Police Task (IPTF) Monitor with the United Nations. After a brief orientation to DynCorp (the private government contractor handling IPTF contracts) she was sent to post-war Bosnia to join 250 U.S. monitors and about 2,000 other international police officers.

When she arrived she was shocked by the damage and chaos that remained even though the armed conflict between the Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats had ended five years earlier. The ethnic cleansing, civil war and psychological oppression had left the nation with little infrastructure. The under trained IPTF monitors were assigned many tasks, including training local police how to form investigations, prevent ethnic bias and fairly apply justice.

“I thought I was working with the cream of the crop, but in reality, this is the bottom of the barrel.” – Kathryn Bolkovac

With more experience than most, Kathryn decided to take a lead position as a trainer within the Gender Affairs division of the Human Rights Watch. There she helped train the local police learn how to prosecute the rampant domestic violence crimes. Most cases went uninvestigated because local laws ascribed women as property of their husbands. Her first case was successfully prosecuting a husband who was guilty of beating, stabbing and hospitalizing his wife many times prior, without any investigations.

Many within her department and at the local police station praised Kathryn’s efforts and success. Yet, the longer Kathryn surrounded herself in local cases she became more aware of the extensive corruption happening at all levels. She was once asked to squash an investigation into a police raid that beat up hundreds of patrons at a local bar because of the lead officer’s connection to senior management at DynCorp.

A few weeks later, a 17 year old Moldovan girl was brought in claiming to have escaped from a nightclub where she had been forced into captivity, raped and beaten. Kathryn tracked down the nightclub and organized a raid. When they arrived, the place was trashed and vacant. Inside Kathryn found an open safe filled with hundreds of U.S. dollars and a stack of passports belonging to foreign women. She and the local police walked the premise and found a staircase leading to a room holding seven teenage girls huddled together on a mattress with all their belongings in plastic bags.

At one time Kathryn thought she had overheard a co-worker brag about knowing of a good place to find some really nice “12 to 15 year olds.” Originally she had dismissed it as a mistake, but now she realized it was men like him funding these brothels. Sex slavery is common in rebuilding nations often due to the influx of a large number of highly paid and unsupervised male international aid workers. Interviews with multiple women and girls over the next few months began to paint a picture of corruption being aided and protected by members of the local police, foreign military, diplomats and the IPTF.

“This is serious organized crime, making huge amounts of money in this country.” – Kathryn Bolkovac

Moved out of compassion and a sense of justice, Kathryn began compiling cases for various international women who had been trafficked, enslaved, abused, bought, sold, and traded. As evidence became concrete, she began sending reports up through the appropriate channels.

In a few cases where the evidence was egregious, men were sent home. In most cases they were simply ignored or transferred. Despite the fact that IPTF employees had helped forge passports, traffic women across the borders or participated in prostitution themselves, no internal investigations were conducted and nothing was being done to help rescue or bring justice to the women involved.

To make matters worse, many of the files she had sent through internal affairs were beginning to disappear. When she inquired, the Deputy Commissioner of her mission claimed that her complaints were inconclusive or had already been “dealt with months before.” With the support and advice of Madeleine Rees, the head of the Women’s Rights and Gender Unit, Kathryn began to keep her own detailed copies of her reports and evidence. She hoped if those outside her mission knew of what was happening, changes would be made.

In the next six months Kathryn continued to hear tragic stories of sex slavery after interviews with hundreds of former and current slaves. At one point, a co-worker casually told her the “girlfriend he recently bought” had run away and he needed help finding her. She could barely believe how commonplace these immoral actions had become, especially considering they would be felonies in the United States. Unfortunately, the contracts and international loopholes gave her employer and their workers immunity from prosecution.

“I had a sense of a moral foundation and a sense of ethics that police officers are supposed to be good. My strength of character from my upbringing, from the way my parents raised me to stand up for what I believe in and speak up, carried me through Bosnia.” – Kathryn Bolkovac

As she continued to report on the rampant criminal activity Kathryn began to receive threats on her life, causing even her friends to suggest she stop. As one of the few women in the IPTF, she was verbally accosted in the elevators, labeled as a “righteous zealot” and accused of trying to break up the boys club.

Feeling that the official methods were fruitless, Kathryn sent out an email to 50 U.N. mission leaders and local personnel detailing what she had uncovered and asking that something be done. In reply a few officials wrote back positively. One director wrote, “way to speak up, hold up standards, we need more like you.” However, the Deputy Commissioner was not impressed. He called Kathryn into his office and told her that he and the State Department wanted her out.

Kathryn was immediately demoted to a file-clerk position and sent out of Sarajevo in an attempt to keep her from further investigations. Four months later in April of 2001, Kathryn was terminated without warning by DynCorp for what they claimed was a “falsified timesheet.”

At the same time, another DynCorp employee named Ben Johnson who served in Kosovo was also fired for “discrediting the company.” Ben had blown the whistle on the perverse illegal behavior and human trafficking he had witnessed. Convinced that her unfair dismissal would allow conditions in Bosnia continue, Kathryn spent a year building her case and then sued DynCorp.

“It was not being hidden. It was so out in the open, you had to be blind not to see it going on. Wherever the internationals were concentrated, these brothels would be all over the place.” – Kathryn Bolkovac

Despite being U.S. based, Kathryn’s contract had been written under U.K. rules to avoid U.S. laws and punishments. The Employment Tribunal in England found DynCorp’s argument and evidence as “sketchy to the point of nonexistent” and ruled that “there is no doubt whatever” that she was fired for whistleblowing. Worried that Johnson’s U.S. court case would result in a harsher punishment and international exposure, DynCorp settled his case out of court within 24 hours.

Because she had lost her credentials and was known as a whistleblower, Kathryn could no longer return to policing or international policing. She now works internationally and continues on the side to advocate for laws and regulations on international contractors. Her goal is to consult with organizations on how to create and support codes of conduct that would help protect vulnerable women and children.

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More Resources:

Interview with Kathryn Bolkovac

More about whistle-blowers at DynCorp

The movie telling her story

Bio of Kathryn Bolkovac

Q&A with Kathryn Bolkovac


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