Will Congo's women ever have justice?

On 25 May, we reported the abuse of young girls by UN peacekeepers in Africa. An internal investigation was promised, but those in power seem unable - or unwilling - to tackle the problem of sexual exploitation. By Kate Holt in Bunia and Sarah Hughes in London
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The Independent Online

At last something seemed to be happening. On 8 June 2004, an explosive cable was sent from the United Nation's Monuc office in Kinshasa to the UN headquarters in New York. The cable, a copy of which has been obtained by The Independent, detailed the sexual abuses against minors carried out by Monuc troops in Bunia, a town in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, over the past year. They numbered a staggering 50.

One week later, a second cable was sent, recording a further four allegations and adding that special attention must be paid to the behaviour of South African Monuc troops in Kindu, Moroccan Monuc troops in Kinsangani and Monuc troops from Uruguay, Pakistan and Nepal.

On 14 June 2004, an independent UN investigation team from the Office of Internal and Oversight Services (OIOS) arrived in Bunia to investigate allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children. Their investigation is "ongoing".

So far this year, a total of 68 allegations against Monuc soldiers have been recorded. Among them a child prostitution ring run out of Monuc airport in Bunia by Monuc personnel, the rape of minors by Nepalese Monuc soldiers in the Ndromo camp on 17 March of this year, an accusation that a senior Tunisian Monuc officer solicited a minor for sexual relations and repeated accusations against Pakistani, Moroccan and Uruguayan Monuc troops, including the allegation that in June last year a troop of Uruguayan Monuc officers raped a group of minors in a Monuc water truck near Régie des Eaux.

The UN continues to insist that it has responded to these allegations, painting a picture of a concerned organisation taking immediate action against those who have committed abuses. The reality is somewhat starker. Paralysed by bureaucracy, its hands tied by the conflict between its own interests and those of the military, the OIOS investigation has yet to bring charges against any of those accused.

"It is particularly important to investigate these allegations thoroughly and make Monuc aware of its responsibilities," says Matteo Frontini, the head of Unicef in Bunia. "It is increasingly important to make the local population aware that Monuc is not only a military force to be feared but is also providing humanitarian, political and social assistance."

Yet returning to Bunia six weeks after our initial report, such a scenario appears a long way from happening. I found that not only were abuses continuing to occur but also that the behaviour of certain Monuc troops was well-known among UN officials.

Documents obtained by The Independent show that in August 2003 the Monuc child-protection office in Kindu sent a memo to Monuc headquarters in Kinshasa detailing their fears about the allegations of sexual exploitation by Monuc forces. No action was taken.

At the start of this year, the gender adviser to Monuc in Kinshasa contacted UN headquarters in New York requesting that the Moroccan troops in Kinsangani were not sent to Bunia because of allegations of extreme sexual abuse. These allegations included reports of child pornography, organised sex shows and the rape of babies. An investigation was launched by Monuc in Kinshasa in 2003 but was dropped because of a lack of evidence and support for the investigation from the military contingent commanders. Dominique McAdams, the UN head in Bunia, also requested that the Moroccans were not transferred. She too was ignored. A memo dated 8 June this year states that 19 out of 50 cases of sexual violence against minors in Bunia were carried out by Moroccan Monuc troops.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that most Monuc soldiers are only on six-month postings and, because of the shortness of their stay, are unlikely to ever face a military investigation. The UN has no legal authority to follow-up on cases once the military takes over the inquiry, and cannot ensure that a repatriated soldier will be prosecuted for rape once he is back in his country of origin.

One such case involves a South African colonel in Goma, who was found guilty of sexually molesting his young male interpreter. During the investigation it emerged he had requested young male interpreters under the age of 18 since the start of his mission. He was repatriated to South Africa. There is no evidence that he was investigated or prosecuted on his return.

Such levels of sexual abuse are not confined to Bunia and Goma. Kindu, Kinsangani, and Bukavu have all filed reports of the sexual abuse of minors. In one day in Goma I spoke to 10 girls who all alleged that they had been sexually abused by Monuc forces. Yet there is still no confirmation that the UN intends to investigate the allegations against Monuc forces outside of Bunia.

Anna is 12 years old. She lives in Goma in a shelter for women and girls who have been raped. "I came to Goma with my family from Massissi over two years ago when the war got very bad. My father and my two brothers were killed on the way. We had to escape the war and came here to be safe."

Although Anna's family had little, they gradually adjusted to their new life, living in a makeshift house of plastic sheets. "It was hard because we had nothing," she says in a faltering voice. "Then a few weeks ago I was walking past a UN vehicle and there were South African soldiers standing around with guns. They asked me if I wanted a biscuit and so I went up to where they were holding a packet out for me. As I came close one of them grabbed me and took me inside the vehicle and shut the door. Then he ripped off my dress and made me do it with him.

"I was really scared and tried to get away but he wouldn't let me. He told me that if I said anything he would find me and hurt me. He let me go and I ran away but I'm really scared now that maybe he'll come and find me.'

The Congolese head of the NGO, which runs the shelter where Anna now lives, admitted that she hears similar stories on a daily basis. She declined to give her name, but says: "We have had many cases of young girls coming here who have been raped by Monuc soldiers - mainly Indian and South African. Often the soldiers encourage the girls to go near them by offering them sweets and biscuits. Then they rape them. Most girls and their families are too scared to speak out because the UN soldiers have guns. Many people see them as being like the local armies and are scared of them."

Kristina Peduto, the head of Monuc child protection in Bunia, believes that the situation will only get worse. "Women and girls in the Congo have been subject to so much sexual violence that it has become an accepted social habit," she says. "It is not viewed as rape anymore."

Peduto believes that the widespread lack of a normal human response to violence and rape has been exacerbated by the behaviour of the Monuc soldiers. "Acts of sexual violence by Monuc soldiers are undermining our credibility," she says. "However, I trust that the investigation will prove our resolve to seriously address the issues."

Like many people whom I spoke to, Peduto believes that, while the OIOS investigation is a step in the right direction, it will be hard for the investigators to achieve anything of substance.

"The OIOS needs to be given the power to prosecute and act as a substitute for national justice," she says. "Members of the UN have a strong responsibility to send troops committed to uphold the UN code of conduct, and strong mechanisms have to be enforced on all Monuc staff, military and civilian, to act as a deterrent against sexual abuses, especially with minors."

Yet it is clear that such steps are not being taken. The UN cable from Kinshasa to New York of 14 June confirmed The Independent's initial report into the Internally Displaced People camp in Bunia. "The Monuc Provost Marshal Colonel Diouf and five Senegalese MPs have started the work of the deterrence team," the report states. "They have already identified several dangerous posts due to the lack of outside surveillance and the close contact with the civilian population. They have also identified five gaps in the rolls of barbed wire that surround the IDP camp including a very significant gap right near the Pakistani observation post.'

I had a meeting with Colonel Ihasan, the Military Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Battalion, to ask him about the deterrence team's concerns regarding Pakistani troops and the 14 allegations that have been made against Pakistani Monuc officers. He admitted that there would be no independent military investigation until the OIOS investigation was complete and added that such an investigation could take months.

"I don't know why this issue has been blown up so much," he says. "Much of what we have seen are only allegations - there is still very little evidence to prove anything, and without proof we can do nothing."

A senior member of Monuc's personnel who declined to be named admitted that the inquiry would achieve little. "This whole OIOS inquiry is a joke," they said. "The UN has no authority to follow through any of the investigations currently being made. At most, after a lengthy process, they can repatriate an individual, but they cannot see those cases followed through in the country of origin. There is total impunity for Monuc soldiers, and this is a deep cause for concern."

Juliane Kippenberg of the African division of Human Rights Watch also believes that more needs to be done. "These are very serious allegations against Monuc soldiers and they need to be properly investigated and the results must be made public," she says. "An issue such as rape and the sexual exploitation of minors is not just a matter that can be dealt with internally in the UN. If there are credible allegations against peacekeepers then they should be suspended immediately while the investigation takes place, and once the investigation finds evidence of sexual abuse the peace keepers should then be prosecuted."

Yet, as the OIOS investigation continues to struggle against a closed military and a tangled bureaucratic system, it would seem that for girls such as Anna and the hundreds like her the chances of receiving justice are slim.