"There are cases of rape by the U.N. But much more than that, there are many cases where girls negotiated obligation sex. In war, it is only soldiers who have money," said Petronila Vaweka, the district administrator of Ituri. "These girls have absolutely no way to make a living. This is their reality, and in some cases, the parents even push it."
Vaweka said she has considered starting a U.N. victims' association for young girls left with children, and in some cases venereal diseases or HIV/AIDS. U.N. officials expressed concern that poor, desperate girls would make up stories to claim cash. But so far, few have come forward at all because of the deep scorn involved.
Yvette, 14, said she was paid $1 by U.N. peacekeepers to have sex. "I'm sad about it. But I needed the dollars," she said. "Who will feed me?"
(Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
"We can try the compensation idea," Vaweka said. "But I want to know, can you have compensation for a wound in the heart?"
'So Much Abject Poverty'
Five years ago, more than 10,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops came to Congo to help end a six-nation war that had left over 3 million people dead. Contingents from Morocco, South Africa, India, Nepal and Bangladesh erected camps that looked quite posh to the Congolese. They had shiny trailers and roomy tents, satellite dishes, and kitchens and bathrooms with electricity and running water -- amenities rarely seen in the impoverished bush.
To Congolese girls living in squalid camps or squatting in abandoned buildings, the peacekeepers were wealthy men they wanted to know.
Even though the war officially ended in 2003, life in Congo remains violent and precarious, especially in the volatile Ituri region where seven militia groups are still fighting. In Bunia, the regional capital, people grab at any opportunity to survive. Orphaned boys sleep in filthy gutters. A medical student peddles dried meat to pay his school fees. Girls and women beg foreign workers to let them perform any chore -- washing laundry, polishing shoes, hauling water or providing sex -- for a few coins.
"Abuse always stems from an unbalanced power relationship. There is so much abject poverty here, and people come in with economic leverage. That's a recipe for this to happen if we don't have a specific policy," said Kemal Saiki, a spokesman for the U.N. mission, who was visiting Bunia from his base in the capital, Kinshasa.
But even after the United Nations established a curfew for its troops and a strict policy of non-fraternization with the local population, the girls have continued to linger outside the U.N. camps.
Chantal, 17, stood sullenly outside a Moroccan troop camp one recent evening, clutching a tray of bananas. She was hawking the fruit -- and her body -- to soldiers perched inside a lookout post. Her high heels sank into the dusty street; her skirt clung to her thin legs.
"To us they are the town's best employer," she said with a shrug. "I know everyone is saying it's bad. But why don't they come and give us jobs? Tell me, who will feed me?"
Earlier in the day, Moroccan soldiers inside the camp said any illicit behavior that might have taken place is now over. Moroccan officials recently fired two unit commanders and said they sent six soldiers home to be prosecuted after finding allegations against them to be credible.
There also have been tensions between the small group of soldiers who buy sex and the majority who don't, the peacekeepers said.
"As a human being, I feel there is too much poverty here, and maybe some people took advantage of that," said Lt. Charaf Arsalane, 23. "But I feel really affected by this. We are out here working hard, and a few people ruin the reputations of all. It has to stop completely, and that means turning away from some of the girls even if it's an innocent interaction."
Even so, Chantal and Yvette said that if they ran out of food, they would head back to the U.N. camps.