Exclusive: The aid worker who revealed the French army’s ‘sex abuse’ in Central Africa
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As Paris investigates a leaked UN report into the alleged sexual abuse of children by French soldiers stationed in the Central African Republic, FRANCE 24 speaks to the man who first alerted authorities to the horrifying claims.
Alexis Nguitté, who works at a child welfare centre in the M’Poko refugee camp at the outskirts of the capital Bangui, says he first heard the rumours of French troops allegedly raping hungry children in exchange for food at the start of 2014. He then began his own probe into the claims.
“I talked to the victims who wanted to tell their story,” he says, adding he then passed on the information to the UN.
“But after I alerted the UN mission, its human rights and justice department, and UNICEF, we had to conduct the interviews again,” he says, noting the testimonies were only gathered between May and June 2014, several months after he had first reported his findings.
In December 2013, French troops were deployed alongside a UN-mandated European Union and African Union peacekeeping missions at the Bangui airport, which is near the M’Poko refugee camp.
Earlier that year, the country had descended into sectarian chaos following a coup, pitting mainly Muslim rebels against Christian vigilantes.
Many of the children who fled the conflict and sought shelter in the camp – home to more than 100,000 during the bloodiest days of the crisis – were orphans, forced to fend for themselves and lacking both food and water.
Hunger in M'Poko became so widespread that riots often broke out when food was distributed.
According to a French judicial source, 14 soldiers who were dispatched to the nation to restore order could be implicated in the alleged sexual abuse of several children at the camp.
Soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea are also accused in the leaked report, which was revealed by The Guardian earlier this week.
“We took it case by case, respecting UN standards,” Nguitté said about the joint UN-UNICEF investigation.
“They got a list out for each child and asked me their age and what they had told me,” he said, adding the investigators would then double-check the information he gave them before crossing the names off their list.
Nguitté says that the only news he received of the investigation after August 2014 was what appeared in the Guardian last week.
Rage in Bangui
While France and the Central African Republic have both launched probes into the allegations, the verdict on the streets of Bangui is damning.
"I think it's unacceptable... to treat the children like that because they're hungry. They should have helped the children. It's completely inhuman," said Florentine Guinawiune, a mother in her late twenties.
The troops should have been helping, "not raping", said Ibrahim Ahamat, a member of a Central African Muslim association.
"Those who are supposed to protect us are behaving like rapists. They must be tracked down and brought to justice," said a young unemployed man, Judickael Kpengoulougna.
"Ever since the crisis broke out... Central Africans lost their right to be respected. Just giving children food to eat means they're going to get raped. This has to end," Kpengoulougna said, his voice quivering with rage.
Now that Bangui is mostly free from violence, the camp is to be shut down in the coming weeks.
While the 18,000 people still in the camp live in far from ideal circumstances, things are far better now than at the height of the fighting.
But for some, the scandal has raised questions about why the French contingent was deployed to begin with, echoing frequent claims that peacekeepers did not do enough to stop the violence.
"Sangaris (the French force) had brought us hope... We saluted it. Now we don't understand what's happening any more... Why didn't they stop the crisis, and (why did they) behave badly?" asked Jean-Louis Damoino, a student.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)