BUNIA, CONGO - The Congolese orphan girl haunts the U.N.’s top human rights official, even though more than a decade has passed since he heard her story.
It was a big day in this town in northeastern Congo: A top U.N. delegation was paying a high-profile visit. But it was also the day, the girl said, that a Pakistani peacekeeper raped her in front of her younger siblings.
“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.
If the U.N. sexual abuse crisis has an epicenter, it is Congo, where the overall scale of the scandal 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, 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.
To this day, the sexual violence continues: Congo already accounts for nearly one-third of the 43 allegations made worldwide so far in 2017.
A call for action
At the General Assembly on Monday, the U.N.’s new leader, Antonio Guterres, called on member states to take responsibility for peacekeepers who commit abuse and exploitation.
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 version of events. 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.
The adoptive mother of that child, 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.
Peter Gallo, a former investigator at the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight, 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.”
Even as the U.N. promises more reforms, that’s too little, too late for many young women in Congo like Bora, who was raped by two peacekeepers and bore their babies while she was still a child herself. Like the other women interviewed by AP, she asked that only her first name be used because of what she has endured.
Her first attacker approached her when she was an 11-year-old leaving primary school. He offered her bread and a banana, and then raped her.
“It was the first man who ever touched me,” she recalled. The rape left her pregnant, and she gave birth to a son.
Two years later, at 13, another peacekeeper took advantage of her. She once again got pregnant.
“I’ll never forget what happened to me,” Bora said. “It is lodged in my heart.”
The 14-year-old orphan who said she was raped in the camp in Bunia soon began turning to alcohol to numb her pain, friends and relatives say.
When the rape victim’s child was still a baby, a relative whisked her away out of fear her biological mother would harm her.
When the woman 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.