COVER STORY

The Long Night

Tackling the scourge of sex trafficking, from the big screen to the big street

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2011
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A
The Long Night / photo: Tanit Sakakini

I

Tanya Domi remembers a garden, a pot of coffee, Madeleine’s cigarettes, and a sunny spring day on the west side of Sarajevo.

It was May 2001, and Domi ’07GSAS, who from 1996 to 2000 worked in Bosnia for the U.S. State Department as a human-rights and media-rights officer and as spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, had returned to Sarajevo to follow up on her academic research. Her first order of business was to visit her friend Madeleine Rees, the British-born head of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia.

Domi’s concern was sex trafficking. She had learned of the horror during her years in postwar Bosnia with OSCE. The sex trade in Bosnia was an open secret among UN contractors, a situation that Domi found especially grievous, given that during the Bosnian War, from 1992 to 1995, tens of thousands of women had been raped as a matter of policy. Many died, by injuries or suicide. Others were sold into slavery. It was unthinkable, then, that UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, there to help bring order to a country that had seen rape camps and mass slaughter, could be involved in human trafficking.

Prostitution is illegal in Bosnia, but international personnel had full diplomatic immunity, and, in any case, the plight of women was not a burning issue for the international forces there. Domi had been in rooms with men like U.S. ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, NATO commander Wesley Clark, and U.S. Army Europe commander Eric Shinseki, where, as Domi later said, the issue of sex trafficking never came up. “Never. Women were just not a priority.”

In the garden, Rees leaned back in her chair, smoke unwinding from her fingers, a copper coffee cup in her hand, and told Domi about a UN peacekeeper named Kathryn Bolkovac.

Bolkovac was an ex-cop from Nebraska and a divorced mother of three. In 1999, looking for a change in her life, she took a job with DynCorp, the government-services company that the State Department had hired to recruit American peacekeepers for the mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The contract paid $100,000 for six months. Bolkovac became an investigator in the UN Gender Affairs Office, and uncovered an appalling scandal: UN monitors, including some DynCorp employees, were not only patronizing the hundreds of brothels that had sprung up around the peacekeeping presence in Bosnia, but were buying, selling, and transporting women and girls, most of whom came from the former Soviet Union. When Bolkovac reported the problem to her superiors in the UN International Police Task Force (IPTF), she was told to back off — no joke in a part of the world where accidents could happen. Military commanders removed her case files. But Bolkovac kept pressing. In 2000, the UN relieved Bolkovac of her duties, after which DynCorp fired her for allegedly falsifying her time sheets.

Domi had heard some outrageous things during her years in Bosnia, but she was still shocked by Rees’s account.

“Are you going to the press with this?” Domi said. “Are you ready to go public?”

“Yes,” Rees told her. “I’m ready.”

The women agreed that the story should be broken in a Bosnian paper, out of regard for a population whose trust had been so profoundly violated. Domi had worked in media development in Bosnia and had even written articles for Oslobodjenje (Liberation), Bosnia’s oldest daily newspaper.

“How would you feel about my doing this through Oslobodjenje?” Domi said.

Rees didn’t have to think. “Tanya,” she said, “you’ve got to get this out.”

The timing was crucial. In just a few weeks, on June 14, Jacques Paul Klein, head of the UN mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was scheduled to address the UN Security Council. Months earlier, Rees had confronted Klein about the mistreatment of Bolkovac, and Klein responded by going to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to get Rees fired. But Rees had two key allies — Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights, and Angela King, Annan’s special adviser on gender issues — and Klein’s maneuver failed. “Madeleine outflanked him,” Domi later recalled.

That seemed to be happening again, in the garden in west Sarajevo. Rees handed Domi a folder of documents, and Domi drove back to her apartment near the Sarajevo Brewery and phoned the editor of Oslobodjenje.

 

II

Sex trafficking?

Like most people in North America, Larysa Kondracki had never heard of it. But in 2003, Kondracki ’01GS, then a graduate film student at Columbia, was visiting her parents in Toronto when the topic came up. The Kondrackis belonged to that city’s large Ukrainian-Canadian community, and were aware that many of the victims of sex slavery in Europe came from places like Ukraine and Moldova, poor countries hit hard by the economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A week later, Kondracki, who was searching for an idea for her thesis film, received a package from her mother: a recent book by the Canadian journalist Victor Malarek called The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade. Kondracki was horrified and fascinated by what she read. She came to a section on the UN, and it was there, in a brief passage, that she first saw the name Kathryn Bolkovac.

 

The freewheeling early 2000s were good years to be in film school. “It was the height of the million-dollar short, where anything seemed doable,” Kondracki says. “It was also the time of Boys Don’t Cry and High Art and Monster, all these amazing, low-budget first features. And a lot of Columbia professors were saying, ‘Hey, maybe you can do your thesis as a feature film.’”

Kondracki knew she wanted to examine sex trafficking. A producer friend, Christina Piovesan, told her that she needed to find a way in. “So I went back and reread The Natashas, because nobody can take a two-hour movie of just sex trafficking,” Kondracki says. “I found that bit about Kathy again, and, when I googled it, I saw that it was all over the news — or at least the European news.”

Kondracki took the idea to a screenwriter in the graduate program, Eilis Kirwan ’04SOA, who agreed to collaborate with her on the script. Kirwan lived in Ireland, a convenient base from which the two women could make their research trips. In February 2004, Kondracki and Kirwan visited Kathy Bolkovac at her home in the Netherlands. That summer, the writers set out on a six-month rail trip. They began in Vienna, where they spoke with OSCE officials, then journeyed to Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Kosovo. They visited underground shelters for trafficking victims, literal holes in the ground that housed a half dozen frightened girls, run by women who, Kondracki says, “were risking their lives.”

Over the next five years, the screenplay of The Whistleblower took shape. In 2009, the project, funded with Canadian and German money, attracted two big stars for the lead roles: British actress Rachel Weisz would play Bolkovac, and another Briton, Vanessa Redgrave, would play Madeleine Rees.

The movie was green-lighted. Kondracki began shooting in Romania in late October 2009. That same week in New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave his annual United Nations Day message. “On this UN Day,” he said, “let us resolve to redouble our efforts on behalf of the vulnerable, the powerless, the defenseless.”

 

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (51)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time