UN mission in Congo forces reckoning over sex abuse scandal

UN mission in Congo forces reckoning over sex abuse scandal

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BUNIA, Congo (AP) — She had been orphaned by a brutal conflict, but the 14-year-old girl found refuge in a camp protected by U.N. peacekeepers.

The camp should have been safe that day: A delegation from the United Nations was paying a visit, and her grandmother had left her in charge of her siblings. That was the day, the girl says, that a Pakistani peacekeeper slipped inside their home and raped her in front of the other children.

It was an attack so brazen it still haunts the U.N.’s top human rights official more than a decade after hearing the girl’s story.

“What on earth would it take for this soldier not to do it – to have all the heads of the U.N. together, and he still does it?” asked Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, a member of the delegation that heard the girl’s testimony in 2004.

One year later, he helped write a landmark report to curb sexual abuse and exploitation within the U.N. system. Yet neither Zeid’s outrage nor his report helped the girl.

Her case is grimly emblematic of the underbelly of U.N. peacekeeping, and the organization as a whole: In a year-long investigation, the AP found that despite promises of reform for more than a decade, the U.N. failed to meet many of its pledges to stop the abuse or help victims, some of whom have been lost to a sprawling bureaucracy. Cases have disappeared, or have been handed off to the peacekeepers’ home countries — which often do nothing with them.

UN sexual abuse and exploitation was back in the spotlight at the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week with fresh calls for reform. Failed reforms have led to a cycle of abuse _ nowhere more visible than in Congo. (Sept. 21)

If the U.N. sexual abuse crisis has an epicenter, it is Congo, where the scope of the problem first emerged 13 years ago – and where the promised reforms have most clearly fallen short. Of the 2,000 sexual abuse and exploitation complaints made against the U.N. worldwide over the past 12 years, the AP found that more than 700 occurred in Congo, where the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping force costs a staggering $1 billion a year.

The AP even found a girl who was raped by two peacekeepers; she gave birth to two babies by the time she was 14.

With rare exception, the victims interviewed by the AP got no help. Instead, many are banished from their families for having mixed-race children – who also are shunned, becoming a second generation of victims.

To this day, the violence continues: Congo already accounts for nearly one-third of the 43 allegations made so far in 2017.

William L. Swing was in charge of the Congo mission between May 2003 and January 2008, a period when abuse allegations swelled in a country that has been torn by dictatorship, civil war and unrest for the last half century.

“I take full responsibility for what happened,” Swing told the AP last week. “I knew at the time the buck stopped with me.”

Swing said the U.N. at times made it clear he should be relieved of his duties. Instead, he was named the head of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. Now, he sits on a new task force appointed to tackle the problem yet again, and he insists that the mistakes made during the early years of the mission have taught lessons that could shape new reforms.

“You can never make someone who has been sexually violated whole,” Swing said. “But you can give them a sense that the organization is trying to make them whole.”

But the AP found that victims of car accidents involving U.N. vehicles are more likely to receive compensation than victims of rape. Why? Because those injuries were inflicted during the course of the U.N. worker’s “official duties.”

Although the U.N. has substantiated at least 41 cases of paternity worldwide since 2010, it can only cite one instance in which a paternity payment was made, according to records of allegations online. The AP has independently confirmed a second paternity payment to a Haitian woman earlier this year.

Justice is even more elusive, because the cases get referred to the alleged perpetrators’ home countries. The AP found that even after a U.N. investigation discovered a three-year child sex ring involving Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti, Sri Lanka prosecuted no one .

And yet at this week’s yearly U.N. gathering in New York, Sri Lanka was named to the U.N.’s “circle of leadership” for the next reform effort.

Reform efforts have been hampered by poor record-keeping.

The U.N. had no record of the 14-year-old orphan who was raped on the day the top U.N. delegation visited. Officials did find another case with similar details, but said it was “unsubstantiated” at the time because the girl identified the wrong foreigner in a photo lineup. They did not know what became of the orphan.

But in just three days last month, the AP found a woman whose story closely matched Zeid’s. She was inebriated and living in poverty, the daughter born as a result of the assault now cared for by relatives. The victim, now 27, said she received no help from the U.N. after her child was born. A friend and two relatives confirmed her story.

Now, the adoptive mother of that child of rape, Dorcas Zawadi, refuses to allow the girl near U.N. bases.

“The peacekeepers try to distract the girls with cookies, candy and milk to rape them,” she told the AP.


Every time 8-year-old Michael sees a pale-skinned man, he cries out, “Daddy, Daddy, it’s my Daddy!”

Michael has never met his father. He only knows that the man was a foreigner from one of the U.N. peacekeeping missions that have been in Congo since his mother was a little girl.

“When my son sees the white men, he always wants to embrace them,” said his mother, Blandine. Like the nine other sexual abuse victims interviewed in eastern Congo, she asked that only her first name be used because of what she has endured.

Blandine remembers going down to look at the lineup in hopes of identifying the man who raped her, a peacekeeper she said came from Morocco. But the U.N. said it had no record of her name, although its documents from that period have yet to be added to a public database. Some data is still being reconciled, and the results of her allegation may be included there, the U.N. said.

When repeatedly questioned by the AP, the Moroccan government refused to say how many of its peacekeepers had been accused of abuse or sexual exploitation, or if it had confirmed any of the paternity claims made by women.

Blandine has spared her son the story of his father: a peacekeeper who threw her to the ground and raped her as a teenager. But the quiet boy with the furrowed brow is nonetheless paying the price.

Like his mother, the boy is shunned by villagers, left to play only with the other children of peacekeepers. The mothers baby-sit for one another, sharing responsibilities and the reality of being effectively sentenced to a lifetime of poverty from a single, violent moment in their youth.

Although these girls were victims of abuse and exploitation, their children still carry the stigma of an out-of-wedlock birth. And even though their fathers have not claimed paternity or helped at all financially, in the eyes of the community they too are muzungus — a Swahili word used to describe white people.

The women interviewed in northeast Congo were upset about not being able to finish school or find husbands, with one fearing that a man would never love her children. One thing they all want is financial help to raise their children.

The key to that is establishing paternity, which is elusive for most now that their attackers have long since gone home to their own countries.

A constant criticism has been that the U.N. does not keep proper records, and even in the most updated data from 2010 onward, there are scant details on how cases have been resolved or why some were found to be unsubstantiated. The U.N. has yet to update its database with records before 2010, a period during which allegations were lumped into a wide variety of categories.

Even the number of cases is opaque. The United Nations doesn’t categorize abuse and exploitation allegations according to the number of victims. Last year, for example, there were 145 allegations but 311 known victims.

One of the reforms that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wants is a better reporting system.

The U.N. mission notes there have been considerable accomplishments, and nearly 300 peacekeepers have died in Congo working for the mission since 2001, including 28 in the Bunia area. Critics, though, say the U.N. is essentially enabling the troop-contributing countries to sweep cases under the rug even when children are involved.

Peter Gallo, a former investigator at the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services blames a bureaucratic, inefficient system for the enduring crisis.

“The U.N. system is essentially protecting the perpetrators of these crimes, and what is happening is that the U.N. is exploiting and is complicit in the exploitation of the very people that the organization was set up to protect.”


When it comes to justice or transparency, the U.N. is largely powerless to force troop contributing countries into action. As part of its investigation, the AP contacted nearly two dozen countries. None were willing to detail how many troops had been accused of such allegations and what their specific punishments had been, underscoring an overall lack of accountability.

Today, the U.N. says aid is provided to young girls and women even while they are awaiting paternity results. But that’s too little, too late for many young women in Congo like Bora, who was raped and exploited by two peacekeepers and bore their babies while she was still a child herself.

Bora was an 11-year-old victim, she didn’t know where to turn. She had no idea she could file a complaint after being raped by a peacekeeper who had offered her bread and a banana. As a result, there was no physical evidence that could have confirmed the rape.

“It was the first man who ever touched me,” she recalled.

She gave birth to a son she named John. Estranged from her family, she could no longer go to school.

Two years later, at 13, another peacekeeper took advantage of her. She once again got pregnant, and gave birth to a girl, Gloria. As she told an AP reporter what happened, she looked away at a concrete wall in a bare room, telling the story of her life as if it had happened to someone else.

Although she didn’t describe the second encounter as rape, peacekeepers are forbidden from sexual exploitation, and because she was underage, it also was statutory rape under Congolese law.

An uncle took custody of her children after seeing how the teen was struggling. At times, Bora has gone as long as a year without being able to visit.

On one recent trip, relatives put Gloria in her white communion dress for the occasion. Upon arrival, Bora inspected her daughter’s mouth to see just how many teeth she had. She fussed over how dry her cropped light hair had become. Moistening a tissue with her tongue, she wiped the dirt off her little boy’s face.

“I’ll never forget what happened to me,” she said. “It is lodged in my heart.”


More than a decade after the 2004 peacekeeper scandal surfaced, the cases continue. In the Congolese village of Mavivi, about a dozen women, half of whom were minors at the time, said that they had been impregnated by peacekeepers in recent years.

Among them is Noella, who sold bananas and mobile phone credit near the Tanzanians’ U.N. base after her parents could no longer afford her school fees.

Early one morning just days after her 15th birthday in December 2014, she said, a Tanzanian peacekeeper called out to her and offered her $20. She thought he wanted phone credit.

“A few minutes later, he threw himself on top of me and started to rape me,” she said. “I said nothing to my parents because I was afraid.”

In a rare move, she reported the rape and identified the peacekeeper she thought fathered her child. Tanzania went ahead and conducted DNA testing, but the test was not a match.

Young women only receive paternity payments if they can confirm their child’s father. In Mavivi, only three got positive test results. Even they have yet to receive money from the Tanzanian military, which refused to comment further.

With no proof of paternity, Noella was kicked out of her parents’ home. Now she struggles to raise her 2-year-old child on her own, and says she wants to look again at photos of the Tanzanians who were working in the area at the time.

The 14-year-old orphan who said she was raped iby a Pakistani peacekeeper a has gone without compensation since the 2004 attack. Pakistan says it has no record of a reported rape that year.

Friends and relatives say she soon began turning to alcohol to numb her pain. When her child was still a baby, a relative whisked her away out of fear she would harm her. Because the adoptive mother, Zawadi, had recently given birth, she even nursed the baby.

“She only knows me as her mother, and I love her as my own child,” Zawadi said. “When I die, she will receive the same inheritance as my other children. They know her as my biological child, even with her pale skin.”

When Zawadi rescued the child, she gave the girl a new name, a name she prayed would give the girl a better life despite the circumstances of how she came into the world.

She called her Hope.