Soldiers implicated in abuses have been sent back to India, but locals say prostitution remains rife at peacekeeping base.
By Taylor Toeka Kakala in Goma and Lisa Clifford in The Hague (AR No. 186, 12-Sep-08)
Although a group of Indian peacekeeping soldiers accused of sexual abuse in eastern Congo have returned home, allegations of misconduct continue to surround the battalion.
The United Nations confirmed last month that an internal investigation had uncovered credible evidence that members of an Indian unit stationed in North Kivu province “may have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse”.
A UN source said around 100 peacekeepers from India allegedly used children both to work for them and to hire Congolese girls for sex. The source said the children were used as domestic servants and to pimp for prostitutes, some as young as 12 or 13 years old.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said he was “deeply troubled” by the findings, and the Indian government promised a swift and thorough investigation.
Under the regular six-monthly troop rotation, the soldiers concerned left the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, in January but local women say their replacements are continuing to break UN rules.
Peacekeepers are strictly forbidden to socialise with local people, but Mapendo Polepole, a 28-year-old prostitute from Goma, who heads an organisation of women living with AIDS, told IWPR that Indian soldiers from the camp in central Goma are regular customers.
“They have sexual intercourse with us, without condoms, in their jeeps, during a patrol and in their camps,” she said, adding that the soldiers pay 20 US dollars for her services rather than the going rate of two dollars.
Peacekeepers are not allowed to seek entertainment outside the barracks or leave the camp after 6 pm. The UN says all personnel are made aware of the mission’s code of conduct and “no-go areas” before signing on – and their battalion commander is responsible for their actions while they are on a peacekeeping mission.
A UN official in New York admitted the regulations were sometimes hard to enforce. “No matter how many rules we have in place, there is always a way to go around them. It is so hard to monitor,” said the official.
Polepole says peacekeepers in Goma have continued to flout the regulations since the 100 peacekeepers left. Her allegations that prostitution was continuing on and around the Indian base were repeated by other sex workers in Goma.
Mado Kahindo, 24, says Indian peacekeepers still come to her home for sex. “They stop their patrolling jeep in front of my hut after midnight,” she said, adding they refuse to enter the house as they do not want to be faced with a prostitute’s children. “I have to come outside for sexual intercourse in their jeep.”
Feza Ramazani, 30, said she is among the many prostitutes who wait beside the road for the Indian soldiers as they pass by on their patrols. She says the sexual encounters can sometimes be rough. “Very often we get bruises on our breasts because of the way they touch them,” she said.
Polepole recalled an incident back in April when a sexual encounter with an Indian soldier turned violent.
“After the trick, he gave me 30 dollars before handing me over to his fellow soldiers who raped me in a chain,” said Polepole, who was injured after she protested that none of the men were using a condom.
An NGO worker told IWPR that sex without condoms is common practice for local prostitutes and their UN clients.
“Prostitutes tell us that the blue helmets insist on having sex without condoms,” said Zawadi Binti Sharif. She said that out of economic necessity, the women have little choice but to comply, “Poverty is a threat in our fight against AIDS.”
Nick Birnback, chief of the peacekeeping force’s public affairs section in New York, told IWPR that a “zero tolerance” policy was in place and any peacekeeper who broke the rules would be sent home.
“There is simply no excuse,” he said, adding that MONUC has recently increased foot and vehicle patrols to ensure soldiers are respecting the curfew.
In light of the problems, Birnback said the MONUC official responsible for military conduct and investigations is to be relocated from the capital Kinshasa to Goma. “Over 90 per cent of MONUC forces are in the east and so it would make sense for him to be much closer to the troops who are the source of disciplinary concern,” said Binback.
For those who want to complain, MONUC has set up a hotline where locals can report any wrongdoing by peacekeepers. Safe areas have also been established where Congolese can meet confidentially with UN officials.
However, Birnback admitted that these measures might not always be effective. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are aware of it – or they may be afraid to use it,” he said.
Polepole said she would not report the attack on her, as prior experience suggested there was no point. She said Congolese police believed women like her deserved this kind of treatment, and reporting incidents of sexual violence to the police was most likely to end in the arrest of the woman herself.
The Congo peacekeeping force has been beset with bad publicity in recent years, with 140 cases implicating soldiers in prostitution or sexual abuse recorded in 2004-06.
News that the Indian contingent was accused of abusing young girls came to light last month after an investigation by the UN’s Office of the Internal Oversight Services.
With no power to prosecute, the UN has handed details of the allegations to the Indian authorities, who are responsible for the troops they contribute to the peacekeeping mission, and will decide whether to pursue the case further.
UN troops from India and Pakistan have also been accused of smuggling gold and trading weapons with Congolese rebels.
Birnback says bad publicity of this kind is tremendously damaging to MONUC, the world’s largest peacekeeping force, with 18,500 troops deployed in Congo.
“Anyone who takes peacekeeping seriously is deeply disturbed when they hear about things like this,” he said, “UN peacekeepers have played a central role in the stabilisation of the DRC over the past several years. When the hard work and sacrifice of so many is overshadowed by the unacceptable actions of a few, it’s bad for the UN and bad for the people of the Congo.”
The Congolese wars have claimed millions of lives and have been marked by sexual violence on a massive scale.
A recent report from the Human Rights Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, the Payson Center at Tulane University and the International Centre for Transitional Justice found that almost 16 per cent of those surveyed in three eastern provinces – North and South Kivu and Ituri – had been sexually violated. Nearly 12 per cent of those were the victims of multiple assaults, the survey found.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court, ICC, has three Ituri rebel leaders in custody and an arrest warrant outstanding for a fourth man. Sexual violence charges feature in all but one of the cases – that of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who is accused of recruiting children to fight in the Ituri conflict.
Reports that the soldiers sent to Congo to protect civilians from the violence are themselves accused of sex crimes against children has angered many in the region.
Christine Musaidizi from the NGO Children’s Voice says extreme poverty makes minors particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
“The striking poverty of parents and the abdication of [responsibility] of the Congolese state is happening at the cost of children’s lives,” she said.