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
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III

Tanya Domi’s article broke in Oslobodjenje in early June 2001. An English-language version also appeared on the website of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. The piece was stark and direct. “Bolkovac alleged that extensive trafficking of women into prostitution had been carried out by UN personnel, NATO troops, and other international officials in Bosnia, along with the local police,” Domi wrote. “Bolkovac was diagnosed as ‘stressed and burned out’ by the IPTF deputy commissioner Mike Stiers, and her contract with the UN was subsequently terminated by DynCorp, the U.S. State Department’s personnel subcontractor for the UN Mission.”

After filing her report with Oslobodjenje, Domi approached her friend Aida Cerkez, the bureau chief for the Associated Press in Bosnia, and helped Cerkez prepare a story for the wire.

The bid to put Jacques Paul Klein on the defensive succeeded. By the time Klein stood before the Security Council to talk about the UN effort in Bosnia, all the member states had the documents, and reporters were ready with questions.

But Klein had come prepared. He announced that the Bolkovac matter had been brought to his attention, that the UN was not involved in human trafficking, and that there was no cover-up, but that, in response to Bolkovac’s complaints, he was implementing a measure called STOP — the Special Trafficking Operations Program — which would include a series of raids on brothels.

“He knew he had to cover his ass,” says Domi. “The raids were done as a reaction, and it was a good show. But the real work that Bolkovac had done in confirming the identities of UN personnel and Bosnian officials involved in sex trafficking was never presented in a court of law.”

Still, the reporters seemed satisfied with Klein’s response, and so did the members of the Security Council.

IV

“The term human trafficking can be problematic,” says Siddharth Kara ’01BUS, the author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery and a fellow of Human Trafficking at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “‘Trafficking’ tries to encapsulate everything — acquisition, movement, and exploitation — but the nature of the term focuses on the movement, and, as a result, we’ve become fixated on movement. Do we stop movement? Do we make movement the crime?

“But the movement is almost always incidental to the exploitation. We used to refer to the acquiring and movement of people for the purpose of selling them into servitude or exploiting them as slaves as ‘slave trading,’ and it was very clear exactly what was going on.”

In the summer of 1995, Kara, then a Duke undergrad, spent eight weeks as a volunteer in a refugee camp near the town of Novo Mesto, Slovenia. The camp was filled with Bosnian Muslims who had been routed from their homes. Kara lived as the refugees did, on “stale bread, oily soup, and rotting brown salad.” He lost 18 pounds. His main occupation was listening to survivors’ stories of death and despair. A particular atrocity bore into his conscience: Serbian soldiers, he was told, had raped countless Bosnian women and trafficked them to brothels across Europe.

Five years later, Kara, still haunted by the stories, began poking around in libraries to see what research and analysis was being done on sex slavery. He didn’t find much. Then, in 2000, while getting his MBA at Columbia, Kara decided that his own advantages and abilities required him to dig deeper.

“I had a diverse background in finance and economics and literature, and eventually law as well, and I thought, Let me take a plunge and see what I come up with,” Kara says. “I knew that in essence these were economic crimes.”

Kara’s self-funded odyssey took him around the world and under it — down into the brothels, sex clubs, and all-night massage parlors of India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, Moldova, Albania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and the United States. With hired guides and translators, he traveled to big cities and remote villages to get a grasp of economic conditions; made his way to border towns to observe the mechanisms of transport; and met with former and current slaves, the majority of whom were too terrified, distrustful, and traumatized to speak. “Most victims I interviewed were under the age of 25,” Kara reported in his book, “and most suffered debilitating physical injuries, malnutrition, psychological traumas, post-traumatic stress disorder, and infection by a scourge of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.” Dozens of Kara’s subjects were minors.

Kara estimates that there are between 22 and 30 million slaves worldwide, forced into everything from prostitution to construction. By Kara’s calculation, the sex-slavery market generated about $38 billion in 2010, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing criminal industries. He credits the global marketplace for driving down prices to the point of stimulating new demand.

“If you take the fundamental premise that slavery has always been about maximizing profit by minimizing or eliminating the cost of labor, the nature of globalization puts that formula on steroids,” Kara says. “It’s not just acquiring people from one continent, spending weeks to cross seas, and then putting them to work in agricultural servitude, which you can monetize once or twice a year depending on the crop; you can now acquire poor, desperate, vulnerable individuals from almost anywhere for a very small amount, transport them to almost anywhere in the world within a day or two or three for a relatively small cost, and then, in the case of commercial sex, monetize them several times a day.”

 

In The Whistleblower, a Ukrainian teenager, Raya, is sold into slavery by her uncle, who had promised her and her friend jobs in a hotel. Kondracki describes a crucial step in the trafficking process that she didn’t depict onscreen: “The traffickers hold these girls and repeatedly rape them and beat them, burn them in discreet places, behind the ear and on the bottom of the foot, and break them down, to the point where they can sell them. Then they give them this weapon of hope, which is, ‘You can rebuy your life.’ If you look at how psychologically advanced the crime is, it’s quite brilliant, in a way.”

What Kondracki does show, through the eyes of Weisz’s Bolkovac, is awful enough. The Polaroids that Bolkovac finds tacked to a wall in a raided bar tell the story: young, listless girls being groped by partying peacekeepers wearing UN T-shirts. What might look at a glance like vulgar frat-house hijinks becomes, as we absorb the context, a ghoulish tableau of human misery. Then, in the searching beam of Bolkovac’s flashlight, we see the slaves’ dungeon-like living quarters, suffused with the gunmetal blues and grays of contemporary noir: filthy mattresses, strewn condoms, syringes, a waste-filled bowl, and, most startlingly, metal chains and cages.

The Whistleblower’s sharp, straightforward script evokes a 1970s conspiracy thriller (Kondracki’s favorite kind of movie growing up), and the movie’s dark, stylized look exposes a vivid moral ugliness, rendered in the gaudy hues of smeared makeup, bruises, and dried blood. But the movie might well be remembered for its one explicitly brutal scene. In it, Raya, whom the police had handed over to Bolkovac after finding her dazed and beaten, is recaptured by her traffickers, and now they will make an example of her. The other girls are forced to watch, their screaming faces wide with terror as Raya, bent over a table, receives her punishment. None of them will talk to the police anytime soon.

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