Angelina Jolie's new squad in London are extremely powerful


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.

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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.

PHOTOS: Angelina Jolie during a UN visit

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Angelina Jolie visits Greece to highlight Mideast refugee plight
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Angelina Jolie visits Greece to highlight Mideast refugee plight
UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie greets (C) refugees and migrants during her visit in the port of Piraeus on March 16, 2016. Some 4000 refugees and migrants are stranded in the port due to Balkans route closure. European leaders scrambled Wednesday to salvage an under-fire deal with Turkey to ease the migrant crisis with a round of shuttle diplomacy on the eve of a crunch summit. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - MARCH 16: Special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie talks to young migrants during her visit to the temporary refugee facilities at the port of Piraeus on March 16, 2016 in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Refugees and migrants wait to see UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie in the port of Piraeus during her visit on March 16, 2016. Some 4000 refugees and migrants are stranded in the port due to Balkans route closure. European leaders scrambled Wednesday to salvage an under-fire deal with Turkey to ease the migrant crisis with a round of shuttle diplomacy on the eve of a crunch summit. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie greets refugees and migrants in the port of Piraeus during a visit on March 16, 2016. Some 4000 refugees and migrants are stranded in the port due to Balkans route closure. European leaders scrambled Wednesday to salvage an under-fire deal with Turkey to ease the migrant crisis with a round of shuttle diplomacy on the eve of a crunch summit. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - MARCH 16: Special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie talks to young migrants during her visit to the temporary refugee facilities at the port of Piraeus on March 16, 2016 in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras (L) welcomes Hollywood star and UN refugee agency envoy Angelina Jolie prior to a meeting at his office in Athens on March 16, 2016. Angelina Jolie on Wednesday visited refugees stranded in Greece by the closure of borders along the migrant trail to northern Greece. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Hollywood star and UN refugee agency envoy Angelina Jolie (R) speaks with Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras prior to a meeting at his office in Athens on March 16, 2016. Angelina Jolie on Wednesday visited refugees stranded in Greece by the closure of borders along the migrant trail to northern Greece. / AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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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."

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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.

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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.

PHOTOS: Meet Sanela Jenkins

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Meet Angelina Jolie's new friends
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Meet Angelina Jolie's new friends
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 28: (L-R) Host David Furnish, Sanela Diana Jenkins, host Sir Elton John and Asher Monroe attend the 24th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation's Oscar Viewing Party at The City of West Hollywood Park on February 28, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for EJAF)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 31: Ludacris and Sanela Diana Jenkins attend Ludacris Official Birthday Party at Compound on August 31, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Prince Williams/FilmMagic)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 31: Ludacris, Usher, Letoya Luckett, Eudoxie Agnan and Sanela Diane JenkinsDian attend Ludacris Official Birthday Party at Compound on August 31, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Prince Williams/FilmMagic)
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - JUNE 27: Bosnian entrepreneur and philanthropist Sanela Jenkins (C) who fled her home country during the Siege of Sarajevo and emigrated to London, joins the gala of 'Hotel Europa' theatre of French author Bernard Henry-Levy (L) in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on 27 June, 2014. (Photo by Samir Yordamovic/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - JUNE 27: Bosnian entrepreneur and philanthropist Sanela Jenkins who fled her home country during the Siege of Sarajevo and emigrated to London, joins the gala of 'Hotel Europa' theatre of French author Bernard Henry-Levy in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on 27 June, 2014. (Photo by Samir Yordamovic/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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PHOTOS: Angelina Jolie through the years

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Angelina Jolie through the years
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Angelina Jolie through the years
American actor Angelina Jolie attends an event wearijg a strapless black gown, New York City, circa 1998. (Photo by Victor Malafronte/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Actress Angelina Jolie kisses her Oscar at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles 26 March 2000. Jolie won for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 'Girl Interupted'. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/SCOTT NELSON (Photo credit should read Scott Nelson/AFP/Getty Images)
Cast member Angelina Jolie and husband Billy Bob Thornton before the 'Original Sin' premiere held at DGA Theater in Los Angeles, CA., Tues., July 31, 2001. (photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Angelina Jolie arrives for the premiere of the film 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' at Mann Village Theatre in Los Angeles, CA., Monday, June 11, 2001. (photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, UNITED STATES: US actor Billy Bob Thornton (R) and his wife, actress Angelina Jolie, arrive at the 59th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills 20 January 2002. Thornton is nominated for Best Actor-Motion Picture Drama for his role in 'Monster's Ball.' AFP PHOTO/Lucy Nicholson (Photo credit should read LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 20: Actress Angelina Jolie, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), participates in a World Refugee Day ceremony June 20, 2003 in Washington, DC. World Refugee Day celebrates the lives of the eight million refugee youths who live around the world. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 29: Actress Angelina Jolie attends the 76th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater on February 29, 2004 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - MARCH 16: Actress Angelina Jolie arrives for the world premiere of her film 'Taking Lives' March 16, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
BURBANK, CA - MARCH 16: Actress Angelina Jolie appears on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' at the NBC Studios on March 16, 2004 in Burbank, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 10: Actress Angelina Jolie and her son Maddox attend the World Premiere of 'Shark Tale' in San Marco Square, as part of the 61st Venice Film Festival on September 10, 2004 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - JUNE 07: Actress Angelina Jolie arrives at the premiere of 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' at the Mann Village Theater on June 7, 2005 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
JABEL SHAROON, PAKISTAN - NOVEMBER 26: In this handout photo supplied by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie listens as a local woman in this village 6,000 feet above sea level in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, tells a UNHCR worker about her preparations for the coming winter, which includes salvaging materials from the remains of houses after the earthquake, November 26, 2005 in Jabel Sharoon, Pakistan. (Photo by J Redden/UNHCR via Getty Images)
Hollywood movie stars Brad Pitt (C) and his partner Angelina Jolie ride on a motorcycle on a busy street in downtown Ho Chi Minh city, 23 November 2006. Jolie, the partner of fellow screen idol Brad Pitt, was expected to adopt a three-year-old Vietnamese boy 15 March 2007, according to the head of the Tam Binh orphanage, from where the child is. AFP PHOTO/FILES (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - JUNE 05: Actress Angelina Jolie and actor Brad Pitt arrive to the Warner Bros. premiere of the film 'Ocean's 13' at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on June 5, 2007 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20: Producer Brian Grazer, actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt arrives for the 'Changeling' Premiere at the Palais des Festivals during the 61st International Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2008 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is seated to the left of actress/activist Angelina Jolie as she speaks at a United Nations Security Council Meeting on the situation in the Middle East and Syria at the United Nations on April 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
INGLEWOOD, CA - MARCH 28: Actress Angelina Jolie hugs Zahara Marley Jolie-Pitt (L) and Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt (R) after winning award for Favorite Villain in 'Maleficent' during Nickelodeon's 28th Annual Kids' Choice Awards held at The Forum on March 28, 2015 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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