Alleged rapes by French soldiers of boys in the Central African Republic from December 2013 to June 2014 were actually known by French officers in Bangui, the capital, as the sexual abuses occurred, says a new investigative report published by Mediapart, a well-respected independent French journal in Paris.
The article, written in French and published on Bastille Day, July 14, 2015, confirms other information that came to light in digital media in April 2015: that the rapes were committed by French soldiers near the Mpoko airport in Bangui, as documented in confidential reports written by at least one UN human-rights specialist in Bangui in spring 2014.
But the Mediapart article goes further, saying that European soldiers who were part of the overall peacekeeping contingent (not a UN operation) sent to stabilize the Central African Republic in December 2013 also raped girls during the six-month period and that French commanders in Bangui covered up the crimes going on under their watch.
One reason for the cover-up by the French military, the article says, is that it would open Pandora’s box to reveal other nefarious activities by French soldiers, including diamond smuggling, drug use and fraternizing with prostitutes.
The French government apparently learned of the UN reports of sex abuse by French soldiers around July 2014, when the documents were leaked to the French ambassador in Geneva, yet Mediapart and other publications suggest the French government knew much earlier.
The denunciations of sex abuse of the boys, the article reports, went up the chain of command to the UN office in Bangui in charge of monitoring human rights, which dealt with the claims at the end of April 2014, after a local nongovernment organization assisting street children notified the UN of the abuses. In May and June 2014, a human-rights and justice expert from the UN mission in Central African Republic, called Minusca, interviewed six boys, age 9 to 13 years old, with Unicef experts present. (The human-rights expert reported to the UN’s high commissioner for human rights in Geneva.)
The boys lived in the displaced persons camp set up at the Mpoko airport, temporary home to 100,000 refugees fleeing fighting between two warring militias, the anti-Balaka and the Seleka, which sent the country into a frenzy almost overnight in early December 2013.
The boys’ testimonies in the UN report are precise and concordant. As reported earlier, the boys, some orphans or living with their families, bartered for food from soldiers operating checkpoints at the entry to the French base, adjacent to the airport. (A log was kept by the military of who ran the checkpoints.)
The soldiers would take the boys to a tent nearby and demand fellatio. The soldiers sometimes made the boys watch a porn video on their cellphone to show them what they wanted them to do; at least one boy was sodomized. One reference in the UN report says that a soldier told a boy to “lick his bangala” (local term for penis). Every episode of sex abuse ends the same: the boys receive military rations and a bit of money and are told to stay quiet.
In the UN report, the victims describe a dozen aggressors by physical details, by nickname — Batman, Nico — or by function, like sniper on the airport roof. The Mediapart article quotes a French nongovernment organization director who worked in Bangui that the boys also helped get prostitutes for the soldiers, and multiple girls between 12 and 15 years old were raped by “European soldiers.”
The French nongovernment organization director also told Mediapart that when the head of a French troop unit in Bangui became aware of a soldier’s sex abuse of boys, he punched him in the face and the soldier had to be repatriated for medical care. The fisticuff most likely occurred in February or in March 2014, the article says.
Other sources quoted in the article, one associated with an international institution operating in Bangui and the other who worked for the UN human-rights office in Geneva, told Mediapart that the French command in Bangui was aware of the sex abuses well before July 2014.
The article describes hellish conditions for the French and other soldiers operating in Bangui, where the anti-Balaka and the Seleka militias started committing massacres in December 2013, resulting in the international community quickly dispatching a peacekeeping operation run by the French military to contain the violence. The operation, called Sangaris, after a native red butterfly, was haphazard at best and suffered low morale. The contingent had been thrown together quickly, resulting in poor logistics, preparation and purpose.
When the militias started fighting in December 2013, the Mpoko refugee camp grew rapidly, past its humanitarian capacity. Violence, murders and trafficking there were rampant.
The accusations of raping boys in the Central African Republic from December 2013 to June 2014 are not new: they were reported by media worldwide after first surfacing in The Guardian, which had obtained leaked documents from AIDS-Free World, a American-based nonprofit group that acts as a UN watchdog.
The story of the rapes roiled not only the French government but also the UN, whose experts in Bangui that had written the reports submitted them to their higher-ups in Geneva by July 2014. The reports were soon leaked by a UN human-rights official, Anders Kompass, to a French ambassador in Geneva. No prosecutions have been reported for the sex abuse crimes so far.
[This article was updated.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.