The young girl approached the patrol of peacekeepers at noon on another hot day in Dekoa, a remote town in the Central African Republic countryside. She had walked into town from her makeshift home in the bush to sell cassava to displaced people living in a Catholic church. In the middle of a war zone, the UN troops were the last people she thought would cause her harm.
She was wrong.
A peacekeeper with a Burundian patch on his arm beckoned the girl over and told her he wanted to have sex. She refused and said she was too young. He didn’t listen. While another Burundian soldier stood idly by, the man pinned her down and raped her. When he was finished, he thrust a biscuit into her hand and waved her away.
“It was the first time I had sex with a man and it was by force,” recalled the girl, whose name has been withheld to protect her identity. “I was scared.”
The year was 2014, the girl was just 15 years old, and her story would become part of a wave of more than 150 sexual abuse allegations made against UN peacekeepers deployed in this small, dusty town between 2014 and 2015.
The victims came forward to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in CAR, known by its French acronym, MINUSCA, in April 2016, a year after another sexual abuse scandal involving French peacekeepers in CAR’s capital Bangui made headlines around the world.
“The international community doesn’t work very well for the population, but I have no power to complain.”
The UN says it began investigating the allegations in Dekoa, which received less media attention, shortly afterwards, as well as supporting the women through UN agencies and partner NGOs.
But two years on, IRIN’s reporting reveals stark gaps in victim assistance, a flawed investigation that triggered an internal UN review, and new allegations from women who have not previously come forward out of fear they would be stigmatised. Today, all of the victim’s cases remain “pending”, according to the UN’s database of victims.
Since the Dekoa allegations, the UN has tried to improve its response to sexual abuse allegations by appointing Victims’ Rights Advocates in CAR and elsewhere, setting up a Trust Fund, and introducing a system that enables victims to report cases to members of their local community.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently introduced a “new approach” aimed at rooting out sexual abuse from within the organisation’s ranks. But IRIN’s reporting suggests there is still a long way to go in terms of providing support and justice to victims.
Years after she says she was abused, the young girl raped by the Burundian peacekeeper sat under the shade of a grass-weaved hut in a black skirt, flip flops, and a faded t-shirt, picking off strips of straw from the roof and arranging them on her lap. While media attention has long since faded, for her a slow, largely silent struggle for justice, assistance, and social acceptance has continued.
It is two years since she last went to school. After she was raped, her parents said she had become an adult and stopped paying the fees. The $35 she received two years ago from UNICEF wasn’t enough to keep her in class. She says she deals with the same taunts every day (“People call me the ‘Burundi wife”) from the local community. There is no counsellor or therapist to help her.
“The international community doesn’t work very well for the population,” she said softly. “But I have no power to complain.”
Patchy support and botched investigations
In press releases, the UN and partner NGOs say they provide wide-ranging support to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA), including monetary assistance and medical, psychosocial, and legal help.
In Dekoa, IRIN interviewed 11 alleged victims of sexual abuse, four of whom came forward for the first time and seven who MINUSCA confirmed it was aware of and supporting.
Of the seven, none said they had received regular, individual counselling and just one of the women – who are now aged between 15 and 23 – said she had received support for school fees.
IRIN has also found that a catalogue of errors was committed during the original investigation into the Dekoa allegations.
Two women who claimed to have been raped by Gabonese troops said they were looking after the children of those rapes on their own (the UN disputes the paternity in these cases). Without exception, every woman said they felt abandoned.
IRIN has also found that a catalogue of errors was committed during the original investigation into the Dekoa allegations, which began in mid-2016 and was conducted by Gabonese and Burundian investigators together with the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS).
The probe, which remains unfinished, was supposed to identify victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. But a former UN investigator with first-hand knowledge of the Dekoa investigation said DNA evidence was mishandled and interviews were conducted in ways that may have jeopardised the wellbeing of victims and adversely impacted their cases.
The errors were so serious that a secondary inquiry into the investigation was commissioned by OIOS director Ben Swanson, who had overall responsibility for the UN’s part in the Dekoa investigatory mission.
Out of sight, out of mind
It takes around five hours to drive to Dekoa from Bangui: two on one of the few paved roads outside the capital; three on a short but bone-crunching dirt road that cuts through the forest and past dozens of tiny villages.
Inside this unassuming, mid-size town almost everybody seems to know a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of UN peacekeepers. During the four-month investigation that began in mid-2016, more than 150 women were identified as potential victims and 41 peacekeepers from Gabon and Burundi were identified as suspects. Allegations were also made in Dekoa against French peacekeepers deployed on a separate mission called Sangaris.
The Dekoa allegations came a year after another sexual abuse scandal involving peacekeepers in CAR hit the headlines. In April 2015, an internal UN report was handed to the Guardian newspaper by an American advocacy group, AIDS-Free World, whose
Code Blue Campaign aims to end impunity for peacekeeper sex abuse. It contained allegations that children as young as nine had been raped and sodomised by French Sangaris soldiers.
The alleged abuse took place in a camp for internally displaced people at Bangui M’Poko airport between December 2013 and June 2014. The soldiers had been deployed to protect civilians after a predominantly Muslim alliance of rebels from northern CAR, called the Séléka, ousted then-president Francois Bozizé and triggered a brutal civil conflict that is still reverberating today.
Instead of acting on the allegations, an independent review in December 2015 found that the UN passed the issue “from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility”. The review, led by a Canadian judge, highlighted “unconscionable delays” in providing the children with basic medical care, psychological support, shelter, food, and protection.
IRIN also found problems with victim assistance in Bangui after interviewing three young women aged 18-20 who said they were being supported by UNICEF but described infrequent contact with the agency’s staff and a lack of psychosocial support. The women said they had been enrolled in different vocational training programmes over the past year but none were in school and their programmes had all finished.
“I have got nothing,” said one, who was living in her grandmother’s small two-bedroom house, just a stone’s throw from the site of the now closed displacement camp where she said she had been raped.
In PK12, a district of Bangui, IRIN met with the director of a local NGO, Yamacuir, that supports 12 young victims abused by international forces. The director, Paulin Baifo, said its contract with an international NGO had ended last year and it was unable to pay for the children’s school fees, forcing many to drop out.
Monthly food packages and other material support had also stopped. The NGO was so short of cash Baifo said its staff were selling coal at a local market to pay the bills. Baifo said he had raised the issue with UNICEF at a recent meeting, but “they have done nothing”.
“We don’t have the means to support the children at the moment,” he said.
UNICEF said it had no partnership with Yamacuir but would “look into” IRIN’s findings.
Interviewees also expressed disappointment in the decision not to bring charges against Sangaris troops. The decision came even though many victims had provided detailed descriptions of the men who abused them.
One teenage girl who said she was raped by a French soldier in Bangui when she was 14 said her abuser was tall, muscular, and had a tattoo that began on his neck and snaked down his arm.
“Justice is important,” she said, “But there is nobody to support me so that it can be served.”
In Dekoa as in Bangui, it was again at a displacement camp that peacekeepers targeted many of their victims.
A second alleged Dekoa victim told IRIN she met a Gabonese peacekeeper at a checkpoint at the entrance to the camp and began what she described as an “official relationship”.
“‘We have come to protect the population, but I need to have a woman and I have fallen in love with you,’” she recalled him saying.
The peacekeeper offered her $7 to rent a house 50 metres away from his base. “I had regular breakfast and food every day thanks to him,” she said.
The relationship continued for four months until the soldier told her he was returning to Gabon. By that stage, she said, she was visibly pregnant with his child. The soldier told her he would send money to support the baby. But when she tried to contact him after he left, the line never connected.
Left alone with the child, she turned to UNICEF, which was tasked with providing victim assistance and did so in partnership with local NGOs. After registering her name and taking her details, she said she was given a one-off payment of around $35, a kit with sugar, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a plastic jerrycan, and a one-off group counselling session with around 30 other women.
None of it was sufficient. She spent the $35 almost immediately on a trip to Bangui for her uncle’s funeral. The sugar and hygiene kit lasted just a few weeks. Even the group counselling session wasn’t enough to make sure “we don’t make the same mistakes again”, she said.
Today, the young woman ekes out a living selling a locally brewed alcohol at Dekoa’s central market. It takes her a week to prepare a single batch that she then sells for $7. It’s not enough to buy daily food and clothes for her child, let alone for her to return to school.
“At first I thought we would register and receive support,” she said. “But it didn’t come.”
Swanson, the UN’s top investigator, disputes some of the women’s accounts. He told IRIN that DNA testing “on around 20 victims and their children” has shown “with a high degree of confidence, that the soldiers identified were not the fathers of the children they were alleged to be.” These DNA results have not been made public.
Every victim IRIN spoke to described a similar lack of support. A third woman, aged 23, said she was raped by a Gabonese peacekeeper one evening back in 2014. After he had finished, she said he gave her around $2 and said “come back tomorrow and we will discuss”. She met the man early the next morning and engaged in “consensual sex” on three further occasions because she needed the money.
She made no eye contact and barely took a breath as she raced through her story. She said she wants to move away from her family to escape stigmatisation – “everyone calls me the Gabonese wife” – but needs money to start a business. She said she was currently at school but on the cusp of dropping out because her father had not paid this year’s fees. Worst of all, she said she is in almost the same financial position that led her into the relationship with the man who raped her.
“If I had more money it would help me forget and it would mean I would not have to consider trading sex for money,” she said.
Some of the most disturbing allegations from Dekoa involved French troops working separately to the UN. According to information leaked to AIDS-Free World, four girls were allegedly tied up and forced to have sex with a dog by a Sangaris military commander in 2014. Each girl was given the equivalent of $9 and released.
IRIN established that at least two of the girls involved were forced to relocate to other parts of the company to escape stigmatisation. One of the girls was reported to have been labelled the “Sangaris dog” by members of the local community.
Such stigmatisation appears to have kept a number of women from reporting cases of abuse by Sangaris troops. Four said they were speaking of their experiences for the first time in interviews with IRIN. These new alleged victims, aged between 21 and 32, provided names and physical appearances of the soldiers.
One woman, aged 30, described beginning a relationship with a Sangaris soldier involved in military logistics. She said she met him two or three times a week over a six-month period at the Sangaris base, receiving between $2 and $10 each time. She said he promised her a passport so that she could travel to meet him in France, but then left without saying goodbye.
When NGOs began registering people’s names for distributing aid, the woman said she was too ashamed to come forward and did not consider what had happened to her as sexual abuse or exploitation. Now, she said she has begun to think differently.
“I was living as a refugee and I had no money,” she said. “This is why he abused me.”
Another victim, now aged 21, said she met a clean-shaven 18-year-old Sangaris soldier on three separate occasions during his deployment. She said they met in an abandoned house close to the Sangaris camp. The man would bring a mat for the floor and food packs for her to sell on at the displacement camp. With her father absent and her 27-year-old sister recently deceased, he offered a crucial lifeline.
“There was nobody to support me,” she said.
Like the first women – and several others interviewed by IRIN – the 21-year-old said she had been too afraid to come forward when the NGOs began registering names.
“They call you ‘women of Sangaris’,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen to me.”
IRIN shared the names of women who had given their consent to the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Team in Bangui, which said it would investigate their allegations.
In a statement to IRIN, UNICEF said it provides “recurrent distributions” of hygiene kits and other non-food items to sexual abuse victims in Dekoa and confirmed a one-off cash payment of between 10,000 to 20,000 CFA, or $20-$35, was provided to victims in June and July 2016.
“We continue to improve our programming with partners to provide appropriate assistance to victims,” a spokesperson said.
UNICEF added that “Dekoa is one of the hardest to reach places in the Central African Republic”, and that “the security situation is very volatile”.
Dekoa has experienced bouts of insecurity. Currently, though, it is free from armed groups. IRIN reached the town by taxi from Bangui in under five hours, on a road controlled by the UN and national gendarmerie.
“A failure of management”
In peacekeeping missions, responsibility for investigating and prosecuting suspects of sexual abuse lies with the country that contributes the troops. Last year, the UN secretary-general recommended member states take six months to complete their investigations.
But two years after the investigation began in Dekoa, according to the UN’s public database, all cases remain pending.
When IRIN visited the town in March, Gabonese investigators were back in the field, sitting on the grounds of Dekoa’s Catholic church, dressed in military fatigues in the prickly heat.
MINUSCA’s spokesman Vladimir Monteiro said they had returned “to complete the national investigation, following further exchanges regarding evidence that needed to be gathered.”
Asked what had happened in the intervening two years, the UN’s top official in CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, blamed “administrative delays” in both Gabon and Burundi.
“There was no proper follow-up by national authorities,” he said. “When you ask why we are facing delays, you find things are falling into the administrative cracks.”
But a senior UN investigator posted to CAR during the Dekoa inquiry and involved in the 2016 investigation told IRIN the probe was hampered by delays, sudden changes of leadership, and inappropriate questioning by Gabonese and Burundian investigators, which may have harmed victims’ cases by compromising the accuracy of their testimonies.
The source – who has since left the UN but did not want to be named – said the investigation was “painfully slow” to get off the ground. Repeated requests for resources and logistical support from MINUSCA’s senior leadership were listened to but not acted on.
“There was no proper follow-up by national authorities.”
When the investigation did get going, the source said a former London Metropolitan Police officer with no experience in CAR was suddenly sent by Swanson to Dekoa to lead the inquiry. The former police officer was given just a few days to prepare, while candidates who had been working on the case for months were sidelined.
“Swanson said: ‘we will run this like a Metropolitan Police investigation’”, the ex-investigator recalled. “But Dekoa was not a London borough.”
Swabs taken from women and soldiers involved in paternity claims were also handled incorrectly and had to be redone after lab tests were unable to extract DNA, likely delaying the investigation even further.
UN staff quickly became concerned about the work of Burundian and Gabonese investigators, whom IRIN’s source said had no training in how to interview traumatised sexual abuse victims.
A UN manual on interviewing survivors of trauma makes clear the importance of “empathy”, “rapport”, and avoiding “retraumatisation”. But in Dekoa women and young girls were aggressively cross-examined by the Burundian and Gabonese who were, said the former investigator, “trying to protect their country’s reputations”.
“Without open questions and empathy you simply won’t get an accurate account of the event,” the former investigator said. “This is what research [in how to interview trauma victims] shows.”
UN staff working alongside the Gabonese and Burundian officials should have protected victims and intervened more quickly, said IRIN’s source.
“Some would say, ‘this is not appropriate’, but others would just let it continue,” the former investigator said, adding that OIOS leadership in New York failed to communicate how important it was to monitor the conduct and questioning of Gabonese and Burundian investigators.
“It was a failure of management.”
Asked whether these errors had prompted a secondary investigation, Swanson confirmed to IRIN the existence of a recently completed review document. He said the report has since been used to train other UN staff on the “lessons drawn” from Dekoa. The report has not been made public and has not been seen by IRIN.
“I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public,” Swanson said in a telephone interview.
Swanson confirmed “shortfalls” in the “quality of interviewing by national investigators and some of our own interviewers”, as well as problems with DNA evidence on “2-3 swabs”. He admitted his “own management of the operation could have been better” but did not accept that the overall investigation was flawed.
“This revisionist approach which seeks to rubbish [our investigators’ work in Dekoa] and attack OIOS is as repulsive as it is unwelcome,” Swanson said, adding that further delays in the investigation are the responsibility of Gabon and Burundi, not the UN.
“I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public.”
Monteiro, the MINUSCA spokesman, said the results of Gabon’s investigation are expected “soon” and that Burundi has submitted its investigative findings “but additional information has been requested”.
A spokesperson for the French prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, told IRIN that its own judicial investigation is ongoing in Dekoa but did not provide a timeline for completion or explain why it has taken so long.
Precedent suggests the delays and errors will weaken victims’ cases. Last January, a panel of French judges decided not to bring charges against the Sangaris troops deployed in Bangui, citing a lack of evidence and inconsistencies in testimony.
Emmanuel Daoud, a French lawyer who has been following the Sangaris case for the NGO ECPAT, which fights against sexual exploitation of children, said the investigation was badly managed, making the January dismissal “inevitable”. He said the children were subjected to multiple interviews “by different actors, at different times”.
“The lack of coordination between those actors led to many contradictions in the declarations of the children, and therefore to the insufficiency of the charges,” Daoud said.
To improve its record on sexual abuse, MINUSCA set up a new community outreach system last September. The system enables victims to report cases to members of their local community, who can then refer the issue to the UN. Victims can also report incidents using a toll-free number or email.
In Dekoa, IRIN spoke to two members of the community-based network, which was established in September last year: Gerard Moussa, from the ministry of social affairs, and local government official, Guy Mbetigaza. Both said the network lacked funds and that its volunteer staff had received insufficient training given the gravity of the task. They said they had attended two short workshops last September and November. Moussa said he was unsure about what counted as sexual violence.
“I need more sessions to understand this,” he said. “The subject is very complicated: in two three-hour sessions what are you going to learn?”
None of the victims interviewed by IRIN said they were aware of the network or knew which local community or administrative representative to contact if they were abused again. None had access to computers, and the majority did not have functioning mobiles phones.
The head of MINUSCA’s Conduct and Discipline team, Innocent Zahinda, told IRIN the unit had provided members of the network with 21 prepaid mobile phones and notebooks. He said the network had embarked on a public awareness campaign – putting up posters in the centre of town and going around in a vehicle announcing it on a megaphone – and added that the unit would conduct a follow-up assessment in Dekoa to “identify any gaps in their operation”.
Paula Donovan from the group AIDS-Free World said the UN’s approach to sexual abuse and exploitation victims is largely catered towards people who live in the capital, Bangui, and have relatively easy access to social and medical services.
“The UN says we'll have a hot-line, we're going to put up posters, we’ll refer you to the nearest psychologist for psychosocial support, we will ensure that you have immediate medical attention, a rape kit, that sort of thing,” Donovan said. “But the UN knows that those services are extremely rare in Bangui, and they are pretty much impossible to find in the country’s remote areas.”
In 2016, a Victim Assistance Trust Fund was established by the UN secretary-general to help address gaps in the provision of victim assistance. Its budget is currently $2 million, which is spent on sexual abuse and exploitation victims in projects based in CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia.
When asked how much had been spent in CAR to date and on which projects, a spokesperson for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations said they had not received funds until 2017 and that "the project's implementation” had not yet begun.
The budget of the Trust Fund includes voluntary donations from member states and payments withheld from UN personnel when sexual abuse allegations against them have been substantiated. But Donovan said “there is no direct compensation for the individual victim whose plight ended up channelling funds to the trust fund.”
“She may never see a dime,” Donovan said.
The UN has also created victims’ rights advocates to help raise the profile of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. But Donovan said they cannot be impartial advocates for victims' rights because they don't work for victims – they work for the UN, which also employs or contracts the alleged perpetrators.
“That's a glaring conflict of interest.”
Donovan also pointed out that the advocate in CAR, Natalie Ben Zakour Man, was assigned the role in addition to her regular job as child protection officer.
“Her caseload includes hundreds of victims of UN civilian and military personnel who are subject to dozens of different UN agency regulations and legal jurisdictions,” said Donovan. “The victim/advocate ratio alone tells us that equal access and adequate assistance for victims were never the UN's objectives."
While the number of abuse cases by peacekeepers has fallen since the 2016 Dekoa scandal erupted, most crimes still go unpunished, said Donovan, co-director of the group AIDS-Free World.
Donovan argued that the UN should not be involved in investigating its own staff and that reports of abuse “should be received and handled by independent, external, neutral parties, who are looking for justice rather than carrying any bias.”
Troop-contributing countries whose soldiers regularly commit sexual abuse, and whose investigators regularly conduct bogus investigations, “should no longer be contracted by the UN,” Donovan added.
With their abusers long gone and memories of dates and details fading, women interviewed by IRIN in Dekoa seemed to be setting conservative expectations.
“I am expecting support from the international community,” said a 26-year-old woman raped by a Burundian peacekeeper. “They are the ones who sent the troops that abused me. That would be justice.”
Read part 1
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.