Sex and death in the heart of Africa

Hungry, frightened and helpless, young women in the Democratic Republic of Congo are selling their bodies in exchange for food and shelter. And the men expecting such 'payment' are the UN peacekeepers responsible for protecting them. By Kate Holt and Sarah Hughes
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The Independent Online

Faela is 13 years old; Joseph is just under six months. Sitting on the dusty ground in Bunia's largest camp for internally-displaced people (IDPs), she cradles Joseph in her arms, and talks about how she ensures that she and her son are fed.

Faela is 13 years old; Joseph is just under six months. Sitting on the dusty ground in Bunia's largest camp for internally-displaced people (IDPs), she cradles Joseph in her arms, and talks about how she ensures that she and her son are fed.

"If I go and see the soldiers at night and sleep with them, then they sometimes give me food, maybe a banana or a cake," she says, looking down at her son. "I have to do it with them because there is nobody to care, nobody else to protect Joseph except me. He is all I have and I must look after him."

It is a story that might not sound out of place in any part of the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo but for one thing: the soldiers Faela is talking about are not from the rebel groups who have devastated Ituri province, in the north-east of the country, during the past four and a half years of conflict. Rather, they are part of the United Nations peacekeeping force, Monuc (UN Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo), and are stationed on UN orders next to the IDP camp in Bunia.

The UN has taken over the local airport, once a bustling trade point that served the entire Ituri province. The region is rich in natural resources, including uranium and huge, newly discovered, oil reserves. Bunia airport is teeming with military personnel, the condition and number of UN planes in direct contrast to the rusty and abandoned Congolese planes nearby.

After leaving the airport, one passes a series of roadblocks along unpaved roads. It is just possible to make out the blue helmets of Uruguayan and Moroccan peacekeepers behind their barriers, which are sandbagged and mounted with barbed wire. People in a steady stream tramp along the dusty road, but it is impossible to tell where they are going.

Just off the road, behind forbidding gates where an old supermarket once stood, is the Médecins San Frontières hospital known locally as "Bon Marché". Near this are a crowded cemetery, and then the town's centre, guarded by several UN tanks and a watchtower.

Bunia used to be a thriving commercial centre, but these days it resembles a frontier town from the Wild West. Its businesses are boarded up, although some traders continue the struggle to stay open. Paint peels off half-derelict buildings, rubbish clogs the roads and chalkboards in front of airline offices display the times of the next flights out of this hellhole. Those who live in the town have learnt to watch their backs. The streets are heavily patrolled and everyone scurries home at the first sign of dusk. Gunfire can be heard nightly, usually between Monuc soldiers and local militia groups. UN forces here, uniquely, operate under a "chapter seven" mandate, which grants them great power to keep the peace, and allows them the right to kill. A recent confrontation between Monuc and the Front Nationaliste Integrationniste (FNI) saw 10 of the militia shot dead. As the nightly violence escalates, it is increasingly difficult to work out who this war is now between.

Bunia's IDP camp was established a year ago, after fighting between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups in the region escalated. People converged on the land next to the UN military base, hoping for protection.

The camp is now home to 15,000 people, and sprawls on a hillside near the airport and the obligatory UN roadblock. Facilities are basic. Row upon row of tents, made from blue plastic sheeting, spread out from the shambolic central point where the camp was first established in the heat of the emergency last year. Then there was no thought for planning, only for providing protection.

Recently, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have attempted to bring some form of order to the chaos, and given people their own plots of land. In some parts of the camp there are now neat rows of huts instead of the plastic tents but, underneath this veneer of organi- sation, life inside the camp remains hard. Fighting between rival ethnic groups erupts each night, and tension is high. During the day a thriving market has sprung up, selling everything from food to guns.

In this world of lost hopes and shattered dreams, Faela's story is a common one. It is a story of war and of soldiers, of sex and, most of all, of fear. If she is indifferent to her future it is because violence and submission are what she has known for much of her short life. Her world, once filled with parents and siblings, with the ordinary rhythms of every day life, and with hard work and the occasional celebration, has slowly shrunk, its focus narrowing each day until all that remains is her son, and what she must do to feed him.

"I came to this camp nearly six months ago, when the fighting got bad in our village," she explains, quietly. "The soldiers, different ones, were coming every night and we didn't know what was going on, we were all scared. Every night the soldiers would come to our hut and make my sisters and I do it with them. We had no choice. If we said no, then they would hurt us. Sometimes they put their guns against my chest and sometimes between my legs. I was really scared." Scared enough to leave the village where she had been born and begin the long walk through the jungle of Ituri province to the IDP camp. She knew before she left that she was pregnant, her child's father one of the anonymous band of soldiers. "I had Joseph in the forest," she says. "My father cannot help me any more - he is ashamed of me because I had this baby when I am not married. He has my brothers and sisters to look after."

Faela expected to be safe in the camp. She believed life would be hard, but at least there would be no more late-night visits, no more men with guns. She felt that she would be fed, clothed and protected. Instead, she slowly discovered, as people refused her food, turned away from her, and talked of her "shame", that she was a pariah.

"It is hard in the camp for the girls like me with little babies and no husbands," she says. "We have no men to look after us. We have been dirtied by the soldiers who came to our villages. No one will now take us as their wives and it is hard to get food in the camp for us."

Faced with starvation, and worried for her son, Faela, along with other girls in a similar predicament, turned to the only salvation they felt that they had - the Uruguayan and Moroccan Monuc soldiers stationed directly across from the camp, barely 20 metres away, with only barbed wire separating the two. "It is easy for us to get to the UN soldiers," she explains. "We climb through the fence when it is dark, sometimes once a night, sometimes more."

Nor is Faela the only girl to tell such a story. Of more than 30 girls who were interviewed, half admitted to crossing the boundary in search of kindness and food. They said that they felt they had no choice - unmarried with children, they claimed that they had no one in the camp to pro- tect them and, as such, had to take help where they could.

Maria is 15 years old. Like Faela, she too has a small child. Standing near the barbed-wire fence, she explains why she feels that she has no choice but to climb through the holes and sleep with UN soldiers.

"I go over the fence when I need food," she says. "Nothing bad happens to us over there - the soldiers are kind and they give us things. In this camp there isn't much. I came to Bunia to be safe and to get away from soldiers who attacked my village."

Maria, like many of the other girls within the camp, is further hindered by her upbringing. Now a child looking after a child, she has never been to school, and cannot read or write. She had always been an obedient daughter, and had no idea who to turn to once her family abandoned her. She went from being protected and loved by her parents to being cast out by them, and admits, whatever the dangers, she will not stop visiting the UN soldiers at night.

"In the camp things are better than they were after the soldiers came to our village," she says. "But it is hard to get food sometimes - if you don't have a husband or someone to fight for you. I don't have anyone else to turn to. The UN soldiers help girls like me - they give us food and things if we go with them."

Dominique McAdams, the head of the UN in Bunia, admitted there was a problem. "I have heard rumours on this issue," she said. "It is pretty clear to me that sexual violence is taking place in the camp."

McAdams is not the only member of Monuc to be concerned about the behaviour of the soldiers in Bunia. At the beginning of this month, the UN announced that it would launch a full investigation into abuse within the camp. Monuc's spokesman in New York, Fred Eckhard, said: "Monuc is committed to completing a full and thorough investigation into [events at the camp] as a matter of urgency. We will apply all available sanctions against any personnel found responsible."

Yet the gap between the intention to investigate and the reality of investigation remains large. "I have requested evidence and proof on this matter, but I have not received anything from anyone," said McAdams. "UN policy with regard to sexual misconduct, both military and civilian, is very strict. All staff are fully briefed on the consequences of such misconduct."

Part of the difficulty faced by the UN is that the girls involved refuse to give evidence against the soldiers. Extreme sexual violence has been an integral part of the war throughout eastern Congo, but there is currently no recourse for any form of justice: the girls are terrified of all military, foreign and local, making any formal investigation extremely difficult.

Nor is there any real sign that such investigations bring change. In 2002, similar allegations of the sexual exploitation of refugees by humanitarian workers in West Africa made headlines across the world. The UN responded by establishing a code of conduct for its workers, and Secretary General Kofi Annan announced a policy of "zero tolerance" regarding sexual misconduct. Despite this, a recent report by an NGO, Refugees International, into events in Liberia suggests that such a policy is hard to implement.

According to this report, the head of the United Nations Mission to Liberia (Unmil), Jean Paul Klein, has emphasised that * * any member of the UN community caught having sex with someone under 18 will be repatriated, and a midnight curfew has been implemented for his UN staff. However, the report suggests that such measures are not enough.

"Unmil lacks a clear and transparent process for reporting sexual exploitation incidents," says Sarah Martin, the author of the report. "We interviewed representatives of local NGOs and women's groups, international NGOs and many different members of Unmil's staff - no two people could identify the correct person to report allegations or cases of sexual exploitation. In December 2003 Unmil were asked to appoint a community focal point to hear complaints from the community. As of April 2004 this had still not been done."

Martin's report suggests that the situation is further complicated by the fact that UN procedures for investigating a case against military personnel are different from those for investigating a case against civilians. She adds that this makes matters harder for the NGOs providing services for the victims of rape and sexual exploitation, as the procedures for dealing with UN military personnel are not clear.

The Refugees International report goes on to state: "A US government representative told us: 'We know that bad stuff is happening [in Liberia] but it is hard to find out who is responsible. Further, it is hard for victims and their families to find out if justice has been served. If found guilty, violators are usually repatriated to their home countries, where it is impossible to find out what, if any, actions have been taken. Realistically, the UN can do little about this impunity.'"

The situation in Liberia, with its complicated chain of command, failure to establish a coherent policy, and well-meaning but half-hearted investigations, mirrors that in Bunia. Médecins San Frontières, the NGO responsible for running the hospital next to the Bunia camp, and for providing medical care to the displaced civilian population, said that they treated victims of sexual violence, committed by local militias, daily, and were concerned by lack of monitoring of the situation.

"While we are not directly involved in the camp, it is clear that the necessary steps to protect the displaced population from violence and sexual exploitation have not been followed in the IDP camp in Bunia," said Patrick Barbier, the head of MSF's Bunia mission. "The need to provide protection for these girls is urgent."

Adele is 16 years old. She arrived in the camp last July. "I came because the fighting was getting bad in our village," she says. "Every night soldiers came and made me and my mother do it with them. We had no choice. We had heard that in Bunia there were foreign people who would help us, so we thought we should go there."

On the trek to the camp, Adele, like Faela and Maria, discovered she was pregnant. Rejected by her father, who refused to provide food for her following her "shame", she, too, turned to the peacekeeping force.

"I didn't know what else to do," she says. "People in the camp are horrible to me because of my shame. I can't get a food card because I have no man to look after me. The soldiers have dirtied me, but I can't leave the camp because nobody will want me there and I won't be able to live with my family again. I don't know what to do."

The sexual exploitation of women in African war zones is an increasingly common occurrence. In 2001, a report commissioned jointly by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and Save the Children found that the sexual violence and exploitation of displaced and refugee children in West Africa was endemic.

In 2002, the two organisations laid down guidelines for the treatment of girls in refugee camps, including demands that camp layouts take into account the need for female privacy and physical security. Outlines were also given as to how instances of exploitation should be reported.

Yet in Bunia those recommendations appear to have been ignored. Standing in a female latrine on the camp boundary, women are fully exposed to the Uruguayan military tents, and holes in the barbed wire are obvious. One camp worker, who refused to give his name and worked for Atlas, the NGO in charge of charge of managing the camp, said: "Yes, we know that girls go and visit the UN soldiers every night. There is nothing to stop them, and the girls need food. It is best to keep quiet, though. I am frightened that if I say something I may lose my job, and I have children of my own to feed."

Part of the problem is that IDPs do not come under the mandate of the UNHCR. In certain crises, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the UN Security Council extends the authority of the UNHCR to look after the needs of those internally displaced by fighting. But no such authority has been issued for the Congo, where it is estimated that 3.4 million people have been displaced by the war. And although there are other UN and international agencies in Bunia, none has been given the responsibility of protecting the civil rights of displaced people such as Adele.

Matteo Frontini, the head of Unicef (the United Nations children's fund) in Bunia, said he was concerned by the exploitation in the camp, but there was little more they could do. "Obviously we are concerned with the protection of the rights of women and children in the camp, and we have been putting measures in place to avoid abuse. But there is an urgent need for more UN agencies to be operational in Bunia, as well as an increased response from the Congolese government."

Meanwhile, as the international organisations argue over who is responsible for the camp and its people, the abuse in Bunia continues. For girls such as Adele, Maria and Faela, who have scant hope of protection and little belief that the situation will change, the UN soldiers provide the only security they can hope for.

"Going over to the camp is OK because the soldiers are kind to me and don't point their guns like the other soldiers did," Faela says. "I'm scared for Joseph, but maybe something good will happen soon."

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