One evening four months ago, a soft-spoken 18-year-old named Aziza was selling bananas in the market here when some U.N. peacekeepers summoned her to their car. Aziza went over thinking they wanted to buy fruit, but was persuaded to engage in a different kind of transaction.
“They offered me love,” she said, in the colloquial French spoken in this former Belgian colony. And they offered her money -- just $5, but more than she would make in a month at the market. “It was done in the car, in the dark,” she said. “I didn’t have the strength to refuse.”
Those words became a refrain in her story, one of many that now dog the U.N. mission here. The next time Aziza met with the peacekeepers, two of them insisted on having sex with her simultaneously. They beat her when she refused to do the things they showed her on pornographic videos. Her mother found out what had happened when Aziza had to go to the hospital with an infection and threw her out. Desperate, she went back to the foreigners several more times.
“I don’t know whether they are normal or not,” said Aziza, who did not want to use her full name out of shame. “I wonder whether all white people are like that.”
Certainly some, even many, U.N. peacekeepers and civilian officers in this war-plagued region were. Aziza’s story and at least 150 other reports of sexual abuse in Congo have come to light in recent months, shocking an institution that considers itself an agency of mercy.
The shock has inspired action on an overhaul of the U.N.'s 16 peacekeeping missions around the world. In Congo, home to the largest operation -- with about 11,000 soldiers and 1,200 civilians -- the allegations point to nearly all of the major peacekeeping contingents. But they also involve senior civilian officials, including a top security officer, a chief on the U.N. special envoy’s staff and an internal oversight investigator.
The charges range from rape to exploitation -- sex for a bottle of water or a military ration -- to “relationships” or solicitations that are marked by a severe imbalance in power. One case, involving a French U.N. staffer who took digital pictures of underage girls, has caused concern that it could become “the U.N.'s Abu Ghraib” if the photos get out.
Charges of sexual abuse have haunted U.N. peacekeepers for years, most notably during operations in Cambodia, the Balkans and Liberia in the 1990s. The cases in Congo, however, may mark a tipping point.
Two years after the first charges were made, top U.N. officials have finally denounced the problem openly and vowed to punish those involved.
Last month, Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the issue publicly for the first time.
“I am afraid there is clear evidence that acts of gross misconduct have taken place. This is a shameful thing for the United Nations to have to say, and I am absolutely outraged by it,” Annan said while attending a summit in neighboring Tanzania. He said that he had “zero tolerance” for sexual exploitation and abuse. “We cannot rest until we have rooted out all such practices ... and we must make sure that those involved are held fully accountable.”
It is pain upon pain for the victims here. A five-year war dragged in the armies of five nations’ and left at least 2 million people dead from starvation and disease. The fighting officially ended in 2003, but lingers on in Congo’s border towns. So does the suffering of the people who have been targeted by soldiers from all sides of the conflict.
The people of Bukavu, a deceptively bucolic town with lush rolling hills on the edge of a shimmering lake, cheered when U.N. soldiers arrived several years ago to protect a fragile peace. The elation didn’t last.
“I have to tell you, because of the misery here, anyone who has some dollars can have anybody do anything,” said Idesbald Byabuze, a law professor at the Catholic University of Bukavu who was one of the first to publicly denounce the U.N. peacekeepers’ behavior almost two years ago. “But we have very strong values here. People have never accepted what has happened with our girls.”
In the shattered postwar economy, a nurse makes about $2.50 a month and a teacher earns about $4. That makes the promise of $5 -- or even $1 -- for a sexual act bitterly tempting.
Among the cases reported in Bukavu is that of a 13-year-old girl who was raped by an African cook who worked at the peacekeepers’ base. Her family threw her out when she became pregnant and she and her baby are shunned by the community.
In another, an 18-year-old girl said that she and her little brother were walking down the road when three South American peacekeepers dragged her into the shadows of nearby trees and all three raped her.
Yet another woman described how she agreed to go home with an Asian engineer but when they got there, she was gang-raped so brutally by a group of his buddies that a condom lodged inside her and had to be medically extracted.
“We only know about some of these women because they had to go to the hospital or had babies,” said Judithe Registre, the head of the Bukavu office of Women for Women International, a group that helps victimized women rejoin their communities. “How many more do we not know about?”
Because such abuses aren’t new, host nations know that the blue-helmeted soldiers may bring peace, but can also bring trouble. And they come with near impunity.
In Cambodia in 1993, when confronted with complaints about sexual abuse of underage girls, the mission’s chief, Yasushi Akashi, replied, “Boys will be boys.” In 2001, U.N. police officers in Serbia’s Kosovo province set up brothels and trafficked Eastern European women to work in them.
The abuse of power is not exclusive to peacekeepers: In West Africa two years ago, local U.N. relief workers were caught demanding sexual favors in return for aid.
There is little the United Nations can legally do. There is no U.N. tribunal in countries where there are missions that can mete out prompt and public punishment that would serve as a deterrent. Countries recovering from conflict often do not have a legal system capable of handling the cases.
Civilians and soldiers can have their immunity lifted and be deported to their home country, where they may face justice under their own national systems. But prosecution depends on the country and the culture, and there is little follow-up from the U.N.'s side.
Jean-Marie Guehenno, undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, said he has been trying to battle the problem since he arrived at the U.N. four years ago.
“I have seen a problem with every national contingent,” he said.
He refused to discuss specific countries, but other sources said the most allegations in Congo have centered on Uruguayans, Moroccans and South Africans, in numbers that reflect the proportion of each nation’s troops. Soldiers from Pakistan, Tunisia and Nepal are also implicated.
The best-behaved appear to be the Indians and the Bangladeshis. Fifty nations are part of the U.N. mission in Congo; it appears that there are no Americans among the accused.
“We must convince them that it is not only the good name of the U.N. that is at stake, but also the reputation of their countries if they don’t take action,” Guehenno said. He noted the difficulty every military faces in maintaining discipline among groups of young men, away from their families and free of normal societal constraints against abusive behavior.
“The ‘boys will be boys’ line is a terrible approach to the issue,” Guehenno said. “It’s a slippery slope from hiring a prostitute to exploitation to rape. We have to make them understand that they are in a position of power, and not to abuse it.”
The U.N.'s code of conduct forbids sex for money, jobs or with anyone under 18. Gender advisors were appointed in the peacekeeping department four years ago and every battalion must have “sensitivity training” and education about HIV/AIDS. But the abuses in Congo show that despite its efforts, little has changed.
In May, widespread allegations from Bunia, home to the largest peacekeeping base in Congo, sparked an intensive investigation and response plan. But investigators who went to Congo in late October said in an internal report that they found “zero compliance with zero tolerance” throughout the mission.
In Bunia, a town in the northeast, near the Uganda border, the victims of nearby fighting made easy targets for sexual predators. The women’s showers and latrines were near a security checkpoint, and soon a queasy commerce began between the soldiers and girls as young as 12, so desperate that they would trade sex for a banana or a piece of cake.
“The girls were climbing the barbed wire fence, meeting with soldiers,” said Matteo Frattini, a UNICEF official based in Bunia. “From there, everything exploded.” More than 70 of the 150 allegations around the country are from Bunia.
The sexual perversion of a French U.N. worker in Goma, another eastern town, shocked the U.N. hierarchy, but gave it a clear case to turn into an example.
The Frenchman paid his maid to procure very young girls for him and took digital photos of them in sex acts. According to local and U.N. officials, a clergyman sent his own 12-year-old daughter and her friend to entrap the Frenchman, then tried to blackmail him for $5,000. The local police seized the Frenchman’s camera, and joined the blackmail effort. When he refused to pay, they gave the pictures to his boss.
The man was handed over to French authorities in November, and is being prosecuted under a French law designed to stop sexual tourism. News of his case and the fact he was being prosecuted spread quickly.
“People here are talking about it,” said a U.N. humanitarian agency official in Bukavu. “It’s a good signal for the U.N. staff and for the community to know that it is going to be dealt with and no one is going to be protected.”
But the battle for real change is just beginning.
Since news of the Bunia cases erupted in the spring, U.N. headquarters has struggled over how to handle them. Some officials argue that now is the worst time to go public, with the U.N. dealing with the Iraqi “oil-for-food” scandal, and calls for Annan’s resignation. Some conservative pundits have started calling the Congo incidents the “sex-for-food” scandal.
Some of the employees who have pushed to deal seriously and publicly with the issue are afraid they will be blamed for the bad publicity it brings to the organization, and that their drive for reform will falter.
But others have treated the issue like a hot potato.
In Bukavu, the U.N. gender advisor said that dealing with sexual abuse was the human rights officer’s job. The human rights officer said she dealt with rape only if it was a war crime.
“If a peacekeeper rapes a girl, that is not a human rights issue,” she said. “But if a Congolese soldier rapes a girl, that is a human rights issue.”
Local women said they are too intimidated by the peacekeepers at the U.N. camp’s gate to lodge complaints.
U.N. officials who have the difficult task of recruiting troops worry that the “naming and shaming” of the countries and soldiers involved in sexual abuse cases will make it even harder.
But a task force led by the Jordanian ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Raad Hussein, is proposing radical changes anyway. Zeid, a former peacekeeper who dealt with sexual abuse cases involving Jordanian soldiers in East Timor, is meeting with officials of every country involved in peacekeeping.
An internal U.N. report lists some preliminary ideas, including ways to mete out swift and visible justice in the countries where the missions are based so that witnesses can testify and communities can see action being taken.
The report proposes taking blood samples from all arriving U.N. civilians and soldiers for forensic testing to address abuse and paternity allegations.
It also suggests including female specialists on sex crimes investigations, and providing counseling and financial support for the victims.
“This is a terrible blot on the U.N.'s credibility, but it is an opportunity for us to make real changes,” said Guehenno, the peacekeeping chief, who was the first senior U.N. official to speak openly about the problems in Congo.
“The secretary-general is convinced we must be straightforward and upfront about it. If there were no action, it would be a bigger problem -- and a bigger story.”