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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 04:48 GMT 05:48 UK
DR Congo's shameful sex secret
By Kate Holt
Eyevine photo agency

Faela is 13 and her son Joseph is just under six months old.

Bunia refugees and peacekeepers ( Kate Holt / eyevine)
The refugee camp is just metres from the peacekeepers' base
Sitting on the dusty ground in Bunia's largest camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP), with Joseph in her arms, she 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 explains.

"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."

Lawlessness

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 the rebel groups who devastated Ituri Province, in north-eastern DR Congo, during the last four-and-a-half years of conflict.

Every night the soldiers would come to our hut and make my sisters and I do it with them
Faela, Bunia camp resident

They are part of the UN peacekeeping force, Monuc, and are stationed next to the IDP camp in Bunia on UN orders.

Once a thriving trade town, these days Bunia increasingly resembles a frontier town from the Wild West. Its businesses are boarded up, and buildings are half derelict.

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.

Nightly rapes

It is in this semi-lawless situation that Bunia's IDP camp sprang to life - row upon row of tents, housing 15,000 people, who gathered there seeking UN protection.

"I came to this camp nearly six months ago when the fighting got bad in our village," Faela explains.

"Every night the [Congolese militia] 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 indeed, scared enough to leave the village where she had been born and begin the long walk through the jungle to the IDP camp, knowing she was pregnant by one of the fighters who raped her.

"I had Joseph in the forest," Faela says. "My father cannot help me any more - he is ashamed of me because I had this baby when I am not married."

Faela expected to be safe in the IDP camp, instead she discovered that the shame her father felt had followed her, and in the camp she was shunned and refused food.

Common problem

Faced with starvation and worried for her son, Faela, along with other girls in a similar predicament, turned to the Uruguayan and Moroccan Monuc soldiers stationed directly across from the camp.

"It is easy for us to get to the UN soldiers," Faela explains. "We climb through the fence when it is dark, sometimes once a night, sometimes more."

Bunia refugee mother and child ( Kate Holt / eyevine)
Many of the people at the camp went there seeking UN protection

Nor is Faela the only girl to tell such a story. During a five-day stay in the camp over 30 girls were interviewed, half of whom admitted to crossing the boundary into the UN.

They say that they too are unmarried with children and must seek help where they can.

"It is hard to get food sometimes, if you don't have a husband or someone to fight for you," says 15-year-old Maria.

"The UN soldiers help girls like me, they give us food and things if we go with them."

Lack of evidence

Dominique McAdams, the head of the UN in Bunia, admitted that 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."

Ms McAdams is not the only member of Monuc to be concerned about the behaviour of their soldiers in Bunia.

Last month the UN announced that it would launch a full investigation into abuse within the camp.

UN soldiers in Bunia
There are about 4,000 peacekeepers are in the Bunia area

Yet the gap between the intention to investigate and the reality of that investigation in Bunia remains large.

"I have requested evidence and proof on this matter, but I have not received anything from anyone," Ms McAdams said.

UN 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."

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 DR Congo and the girls are terrified of all military, foreign and local officials, making any formal investigation extremely difficult.

The names of the girls interviewed have been changed to protect their identities.




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