Meet Angelina Jolie's London-Based Power Squad

Preventing sexual violence in conflict - Newscom - One Time Use Only - H 2016
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Sept. 8, 2015 - London, UK - (Left to right) Former Foreign Secretary William Hague, Baroness Arminka Helic and Angelina Jolie Pitt, Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, give evidence to a House of Lords committee charged with considering the UK's policy and practice of preventing sexual violence in conflict. 

The star's close friends and supporters include a onetime Bosnian refugee whose story is "more incredible than any Hollywood script" and whose high profile in UK politics, say insiders, has drawn the fury of hard-line Serbs.

Next year, Angelina Jolie becomes a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. She’ll be teaching at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, a program she helped create in 2015 that focuses in part on ending war zone rape, a cause close to her heart for more than five years.

But Jolie didn’t get to this imposing, world-renowned institution at Clare Market and Houghton Street in central London on her own.

She’s here in large part due to Baroness Arminka Helic, 48, a former Bosnian refugee whose desperate flight from her war-torn homeland and extraordinary rise to the loftiest heights of British politics — in 2014 she joined the House of Lords, a lifetime seat — make her the kind of woman Jolie might play in a movie.

In fact, Helic got to LSE first, as a 24-year-old with few funds fresh out of Bosnia who knocked on the door of an international history professor, told him her country “was falling apart” and begged to be allowed to study there.

Jolie co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in 2012 with then-British Foreign Secretary William Hague but it was Helic“Minky” to her friends — who connected the two after she persuaded Hague to watch Jolie’s 2011 movie about the Bosnian war, In the Land of Blood and Honey.

Together with Chloe Dalton, another former Hague aide and the British-born daughter of a former ambassador, Helic and Jolie have traveled to conflict zones together as a highbrow, global girl squad.

Last year Jolie, who has often said she has rarely had women friends, formed the Jolie Pitt Dalton Helic foundation with the two, aimed at preventing violence against women and helping refugees.

But since the Jolie-Pitt divorce news broke last week, Helic, 48, who guards her privacy zealously and did not respond to requests for comment, has been described variously as Jolie’s “mentor” and part of Jolie’s new “coven” helping Angelina plot her divorce strategy from Brad Pitt.

All of which makes her friends and associates — political leaders, policy experts and human rights lawyers from London to Belgrade to Sarajevo — by turns aghast and amused.

Helic’s story is “more incredible than any Hollywood script,” said Dan Hamilton, a member of the U.K.’s Conservative Party and a longtime political consultant. “If people only understood where she came from. This woman escaped a country where people were being shot at and their throats cut every day and women were gang raped for months — and eventually made it into Britain’s House of Lords. So to see her singled out as if her claim to fame is helping Angelina Jolie through her divorce is almost funny in a sad way.”

The Bosnian war, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, was the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II. It involved the eruption of ancient, complex ethnic feuds between Bosnian Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats after the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1980s. But because it was so hard for Westerners to grasp, the war was just as easy to forget — despite horrifying atrocities committed in a country just a 20-minute flight from Venice, Italy. It’s estimated that 60,000 women were sexually assaulted and tortured in the so-called “rape camps” there.

Had Helic not fled the country at the start of the war, she might have been one of Bosnian Muslim women gang raped and deliberately impregnated by Serb guerrillas whose harrowing accounts broke hearts at the international war crimes tribunal at the Hague in 2000.

But Helic did escape and rose through the ranks as a British foreign policy advisor helping to end sexual violence in war zones around the world. Not only that, she has dinner with Angelina Jolie and her kids in London at restaurants like Quaglinos when they aren’t helicoptering to sites like the genocide memorial in Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina where 8,000 Bosniak men were murdered in 1995.

Until her friendship with Jolie, Helic was the most low-profile of a trio of Bosnian Muslim women who have made a splash abroad. Bosnian-born Aida Hadzialic, 29, was until recently Sweden’s youngest-ever and first Muslim government minister. She moved to Sweden at age 5 with her family to escape the civil war in Bosnia.

Senela Diana Jenkins, 42, another Bosnian refugee with movie-star looks and an unstoppable drive, fled Sarajevo for London — also penniless and at the same time Helic did. She’ s now worth millions.

“War was raging and I was escaping through barricades, walking, buses, whatever I could find,” Jenkins, born Sanela Dijana Catic, said in 2009. “I made it to Croatia and then out. Every day it seemed I would hear my friend died, my uncle was dead, my cousin was dead.” Her brother was shot dead eight days before the war ended in 1995.

In Jenkins’ case, she barely spoke the language. But she began working odd jobs, set up her own jewelry stall, began studying computer science — and in 1999 married Roger Jenkins, a Barclays banker who — with her networking help  became one of the richest men in Britain. 

They divorced in 2009, but he gave her almost half of his $500 million fortune, saying “Without her, I wouldn’t have had the success I had.” Jenkins courts publicity as much as Helic avoids it, and is a leading philanthropist and international human rights activist who now operates out of a $32 million cliffside estate in Malibu. She counts everyone from Mick Jagger and George Clooney to Elton John and Sean Penn among her friends.

She runs the Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project at the UCLA School of Law, which helps hunt down war criminals, as well as a Bosnia-based foundation formed in memory of her brother. She also teamed up with Penn after the Haitian earthquake and used $1 million of her money to charter a plane in with Penn and medical personnel.

Helic, Jenkins and Hadzialic’s achievements abroad are a form of vindication for many Bosnian rape victims who returned to their villages after the war and were forced to see their former rapists strolling around town or sitting near them in a coffee shop.

But Helic, unlike the others, is despised by some current-day Serb politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina who were once allied with Serb dictators like Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, all three of whom were arrested for war crimes for their roles in the “ethnic cleansing” and genocide of Muslims and Croats.

That a female Bosnian Muslim refugee was appointed by former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth to the House of Lords — traditionally a part of Parliament reserved for Britain’s most accomplished, elite and aristocratic — and has been able to help shape British foreign policy has outraged Bosnia’s hard-line old Serbs, experts say.

“They are furious,” says Nermin Mulalic, a longtime Sarajevo lawyer who once worked for Bianca Jagger’s Council for the Defense of Human Rights and has represented clients at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at the Hague. “They are trying to destroy her the way they tried to destroy women during the war. They cannot stand to have a Bosnian Muslim woman in such a position of power and influence.”

Mulalic adds that these forces are trying to ruin Helic by painting her as the instigator of a worldwide conspiracy against Bosnian Serbs. “They see themselves as victims of her,” he says. Indeed, fantastic stories about Helic have been circulated on Bosnian news blogs that have her single-handedly steering Britain away from support of Israel in favor of the Islamic world and especially Palestine.

Last week Milorad Dodik, the president of what is now called the Serb Republic of Srpska, the region where Helic grew up, who has been called the “new Slobodan Milosevic,” appeared on local TV to denounce Helic.

Former Serbian politico Zoran Cicak, a onetime ally of the notorious Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and so-called “Butcher of the Balkans,” described Helic to THR as somewhat of an opportunist. He said she leveraged her relationships with both British and American politicians to nudge Britain away from backing Israel in favor of the Islamic world.

“The rise of Arminka Helic in British politics is certainly the result of her exceptional intelligence, hard work, strong will and total absence of morals and scruples,” Cicak said in an email from Belgrade. “I know from one of the people engaged by British agencies to profile her in 2013 that she did even did not use her female charm that much."

Because Helic has identified as a Bosnian Muslim, accusations about her being anti-Israel might be credible to those who don’t understand that in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian Muslims were much more of an ethnic group than a religious one. While sources close to Helic say she may well be sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, it has more to do with her own past as a refugee; they point out that she has proclaimed herself pro-America and does not seem to have an anti-Israel agenda.

Helic was born in eastern Bosnia, one of five sisters, and got a degree in English literature at the University of Sarajevo in 1989, where she stood out for her punk-rock hairdo, a fellow student told BBC News in 2014. 

As Serbian paramilitaries started burning down villages and murdering Muslims, Helic and her family fled to Croatia. She and one of her sisters managed to flee to Britain because Helic knew someone there who could take them in.

Though she had planned to be a Shakespearean scholar, her arrival in London “was replaced by a passion for truth and survival — by my desire to see my family alive and my country safe,” she wrote in a recent essay. “I would talk about the war to anyone who cared to listen, naively thinking that by telling the truth I could somehow help to stop the bloodshed.”

Realizing she had to have a British education to be effective, Helic said she found her way to LSE, despite having no money for tuition and knocked on the door of David Stevenson, a professor of international history.

“I told him ‘My name is Arminka Helic. I am from Bosnia-Herzegovina,’” she wrote. “‘My country has been destroyed and no one believes me when I say how or by whom. I am told I need to be educated in the U.K. at a good university. Please could I study here?’”

Stevenson, who is still an LSE professor, helped arrange for Helic to study for her master’s degree in international history (he declined comment when contacted by THR). Helic began working at a Haagen Dazs ice cream shop to help pay her way.

Helic graduated in 1996 and spoke about how much her time at LSE meant to her during her first speech at the House of Lords in 2014. Jolie watched from the gallery.

“Arminka is a woman of courage and integrity,” she told the BBC in 2014. “She has extraordinary energy and will.”