Bangui, Central African Republic | AFP
While on the lookout for scraps of food or a little money at a Congolese peacekeepers base, an 18-year-old woman was raped by three men.
“They took me into the bush…. They were armed and said they’d kill me if I resisted,” she told Human Rights Watch.
The conjunction of soldiers, war and poverty in Central African Republic has led to a horrendous number of sexual assaults.
Barely a month goes by without the United Nations revealing a fresh sex scandal allegation involving its blue helmet peacekeepers and civilians.
Since the start of the UN peacekeeping mandate in September 2014, 42 suspected cases of sexual attacks and abuse have been reported, and French investigators too are looking into rape charges against forces stationed in the former colony.
Last year, nearly a third of reported cases among the UN’s 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide involved its Central African deployment, known as MINUSCA.
As the head of the UN mission in Bangui, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, put it: “We have sadly the ‘palme d’or’, and this is unacceptable.”
The most recent case in February involved four children in a camp for displaced people who were allegedly abused by troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Though UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired the head of the 10,000-strong MINUSCA force in August over the mounting number of sex abuse cases, the allegations have continued.
“These will certainly not be the last. There’s no reason for it, now that people are talking,” said Onanga-Anyanga.
The incriminated troops are from many countries — Congo, Morocco, Niger, Bangladesh, Senegal — some of the nations cited publicly by the UN for the first time.
In nearly every case in CAR, the alleged assaults took place near camps for people displaced by conflict that are located close to MINUSCA bases established to protect them.
The UN soldiers are not solely at blame. After three years of horrific strife between Christians and Muslims that has left the economy in ruins and the country in chaos, sexual abuse is widespread.
The UN Population Find (UNFPA) registered 30,000 cases, including rape, in the first 10 months of 2015.
Others turn to sex to survive.
A refugee camp like M’poko near Bangui airport has become a festering slum, overcrowded and desperately poor, with some young girls agreeing to sexual relations or fellatio with men — including peacekeepers — in exchange for some bread or for 500 CFA francs (less than one euro).
“Women only have their bodies to offer to feed their families” if their husbands have been killed or displaced elsewhere, said Irene Ngogui, who works with local NGO Vitalite Plus.
Sometimes it’s the parents themselves who push their young daughters to prostitution.
“Recently a mother wanted her 14-year-old daughter to bring home some food, but the girl refused and she was beaten and chased out of the house,” said a humanitarian worker who asked not to be named.
The scandals involving UN peacekeepers come as no surprise to residents in the M’poko district across from the bases of both MINUSCA and the French force known as Sangaris.
And it’s hard to prevent the two worlds from crossing paths.
“At night, the blue helmets come by in a car and drive off the road and the girls follow them,” said Lea, a mother at the camp. “They know they’ll get some sardines.”
But since the scandals erupted, the MINUSCA force says it has taken measures to confine the troops, when possible.
Local police patrols have also been organised with “night-time rounds to make sure our men in uniform are not found where they shouldn’t be.”
For Onanga-Anyanga, the scandals add to the misery of one of the world’s poorest countries, where 70 percent of the 4.8 million people live in poverty.
“This is a country that’s been destroyed and badly disrupted,” he said, “and pouring salt into the open wound is an abomination.”