By KRISTA LARSON | Associated Press
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — The peacekeepers motioned to the teenage girl weaving through the sprawling camp in the baking afternoon sun selling bananas from a plate atop her head. Soon their real intentions were clear: They yanked her inside their tent and began unbuttoning their pants.
Just 16 years old, she cried and pleaded with them to let her go, telling them she was menstruating in hopes it would dissuade them. Then three men gang-raped her one by one. As she trembled on the ground afterward in fear, they laughed and ate the bananas on her plate. Then they shouted at her to leave.
The attack she alleges happened that day did not kill her, but the torment and stigma that followed just might, she says. A few of her peers saw what happened and it wasn’t long before the taunts began, unspeakably cruel even when coming from the mouths of children. They still call her “Miss Sangaris,” a reference to the name of the French peacekeeping mission that implies she is the soldiers’ girlfriend.
She has never reported to any authorities what happened to her that day — even the very sight of another peacekeeper walking by sends her stomach into knots, she says.
“I want to be anywhere but here, to go someplace where no one knows me and I can start over,” she says softly, looking down at her folded hands.
As the U.N. and various countries come under growing criticism for sexual abuse by peacekeepers, the stories of survivors in the M’Poko camp at Bangui’s airport and other camps in Central African Republic suggest the problem could be far larger than previously known. Such survivors have never been interviewed by authorities, because of the hesitancy of victims to come forward and the lack of resources for canvassing throughout the country.
The U.N. alone has already reported it is now investigating more than 100 cases here in Central African Republic, where violence exploded in late 2013. Peacekeepers from France, who are not part of the U.N. mission here, and other soldiers from a now repatriated European mission also are facing accusations of sexual misconduct.
The numbers are expected to grow. Two girls from M’Poko who had never been interviewed talked to The Associated Press about their rapes, and several volunteers recounted the ordeals of seven other children. Similar allegations have emerged from other remote towns, where peacekeepers were supposed to protect civilians from sectarian fighting between Christian and Muslim militias. Some are allegations of violent sexual assault while many others involve instances of sex in exchange for food and money in this desperately poor country.
The victims of sexual abuse have little recourse. Nearly all the survivors still live at the very site of their trauma: Few have received any ongoing medical care for post-traumatic stress or sexually transmitted infections. Most cannot identify their attackers, and even if they could, many of the men already have moved on to other assignments outside of Central African Republic.
For example, the 16-year-old who described being gang-raped inside the airport camp could only say her attackers spoke French and were Caucasian. In addition to the French force, other French soldiers were among the European mission serving at the time. She is anonymous because The Associated Press does not name minors who survive sexual violence.
In cases where girls and women became pregnant, paternity testing can help to identify an attacker. Otherwise the allegations are often coming months later, and with few corroborating witnesses. There are no rape kits or physical evidence preserved. Investigators so far have relied on witness statements, and in one case a line-up, which advocates criticized as harmful to the child involved.