Most people in rural Congo are farmers, but they can no longer tend their fields because militiamen roam the countryside. As a result, food shortages are rampant. A study by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders found that clean water and food rations from international aid agencies were insufficient to meet the people's needs.
But Congo's suffering, the group said, has fallen low on the world's priority list. Last year, according to the International Rescue Committee, $188 million was spent on humanitarian aid in Congo. That amounted to just over $3 per person, compared to $89 per person in Sudan and $138 per person in Iraq the previous year.
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)
"The ugly fact is, many girls engaged in obligation sex when the war got really bad in 2003, and it was mainly with U.N. soldiers because they have the money," said Antoine Tambwe, a Congolese pediatrician at the International Red Cross hospital here.
Many girls told Tambwe they were "really sorry they did it, some even in U.N. cars, but they were too hungry," he said. "Sometimes they said many peacekeepers would have sex with one girl in the same night, and she would get one dollar from each. It's not rape, but it's close, because it's exploitation of children. This is really sad, but this is the truth."
'No Other Choice'
On a recent night, Yvette and her friend Francine, 16, sat side by side, giggling, on the veranda of an abandoned business. Swinging their legs back and forth and singing a Congolese song, they seemed like young girls anywhere.
But once they stopped singing, Francine seemed troubled.
She looks much younger than her age and speaks in a shy voice. When she sleeps, she said, she has a recurring nightmare. In the dream, she has been raped and finds herself in a graveyard where her uncle is buried.
"I am just standing there," Francine said. "I don't know why."
Francine's father died in the war, and she had to leave school after the fourth grade. After that her uncle protected her. One day in 2003, she went into the fields to collect food and was raped by a militiaman. Like Yvette, she was told she had been spoiled for marriage, but her uncle still treated her kindly.
Then the uncle was killed in an attack, and the nightmares started. Many families fled the region; Francine lost her mother in the confusion. After a time she came to Bunia because she heard that U.N. troops were guarding the town and that it was safe. At first she collected cassava roots and tried to sell them, but she made very little money.
Meanwhile she met and became friends with Yvette, whose mother was sick with typhoid and had run out of food. Yvette, she said, told her about another way to earn money. After that, she began having sex with peacekeepers.
"There was no other choice," Francine said, as Yvette laughed uncomfortably beside her.
One recent evening, Francine recounted, a deal was negotiated and she went into the Moroccan camp. There, she said, she had sex with one man, but the situation got out of control. Five more lined up and began to take her by force, she said.
"I feel bad about what I did. I don't want to go through that again," Francine said quietly.
After the incident, Yvette and Francine went to an aid group that works with the victims of sexual violence, but they did not reveal the full story.
"I was afraid of trouble, so I just told them about the rapes by militias. We never said anything about the U.N.," Yvette said.
The counseling helped a little. The girls liked being with others, and they learned a song that they found soothing to sing. In it, a boy asks for his inheritance and receives it. He goes abroad, has an affair with a girl and spends all the money. Then he returns home to face his father.
"Please, father," Francine and Yvette sang sweetly into the hot night air. "Please forgive me. I have undergone poverty, and I have lost my worth. Please accept me back."