We do not see the torture inflicted on one girl for trying to flee her captors, but we see the tears of her fellow slaves forced to watch. We see the iron bar tossed on to the cellar floor when the punishment is over, and we know what has happened.
The Whistleblower spares you little. It is a film about that most depraved of crimes: trafficking women for enslaved sex, rape and even murder.
As a dramatised portrayal of reality, however, The Whistleblower is “a day at the beach compared to what happened in real life”, says its director, Larysa Kondracki. “We show what is just about permissible to show. We couldn’t possibly include the three-week desensitisation period, when they burn the girls in particular places. We couldn’t really capture the hopelessness of life these women are subjected to.”
Starring Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower, released tomorrow on DVD, is the most searing drama-documentary of recent years and has won many prizes. But more important than the accolades is that everything in the film is true. The film deals with enslavement and rape in Bosnia, not during wartime 20 years ago but during the peace. Worse, not only were the enslaved women’s “clients” soldiers and police officers – so too were the traffickers, protected at the top of the United Nations operation in Bosnia.
Speaking to the Observer last week, [former peacekeeper] Bolkovac said: “The thing that stood out about these cases in Bosnia, and cases that have been reported in other [UN] mission areas, is … that police and humanitarian workers were frequently involved in not only the facilitation of forced sexual abuse, and the use of children and young women in brothels, but in many instances became involved in the trade by racketeering, bribery and outright falsifying of documents as part of a broader criminal syndicate.”
Bolkovac volunteered for Bosnia’s peacekeeping force in the late 1990s, working on domestic abuse cases, which brought her into contact with the leading UN officer for gender issues, Madeleine Rees, played by Vanessa Redgrave in the film.
“I went to work with large numbers of women who had been the victims of rape during the war,” said Rees. “But I ended up working as much with women who were being trafficked and raped by soldiers and police officers sent to keep the peace.” Bolkovac uncovered a network of brothels and bars at which kidnapped women were enslaved to “service” peacekeepers. “This was a difficult time in my life,” said Bolkovac. “Not being able to know who to trust when you are working with police officers and UN officials … It was clear that the protection of the ‘good old boys’ club’ was a first priority.”
“Countries get rated by the US Trafficking in Persons report on their records in dealing with trafficking,” said Rees, “for which you need to show results. If you don’t prosecute or repatriate enough people, your rating is downgraded, thereby your financial support. So when there were raids, the girls would be shipped home to Ukraine or wherever, probably to be retrafficked. It was a repatriation factory, run by people who had an anti-immigration approach, and didn’t want women to try to get into western Europe – no focus on the system or rights of the women. Our approach, by contrast, was slow and beginning to work, so it had to be killed off.”