The French defence minister called the French military operation in the Central African Republic (CAR) a “success”. But when the forces of Operation Sangaris pulled out of the country in October 2016, they left in their wake numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault, some involving minors. In at least one case, a child may have been born of this abuse. And while the French judicial system is taking its time to investigate these accusations, the list of victims is growing.
There was worldwide outcry when British newspaper The Guardian published a United Nations internal report in April 2015 alleging that French soldiers had raped or assaulted refugee children near the Mpoko camp for internally displaced persons in Bangui.
Photo: Justine Brabant
The French military operation, which was launched on December 5 2013, was meant to protect thousands of civilians displaced by the bloody conflict raging in France’s former colony. A power struggle between rival militias had descended into brutal sectarian violence.
These allegations of abuse were a public relations nightmare for the French government and Operation Sangaris, which had already suffered criticism. So, when a leaked UN memorandum in 2016 shed doubts on the whole affair, the Sangaris commanders must have been overjoyed.
Just three weeks before the official end of Operation Sangaris — set for October 31 2016 — an internal UN memo was leaked to the press. It cast doubt on accusations of rape levelled against international troops in the CAR, suggesting that victims “may have been given financial incentives to testify”.
It didn’t matter that the memo focused on the alleged abuse carried out by UN peacekeepers of Gabonese and Burundian origin, not the French. Nor did it matter that the memo didn’t call into question the accusations that French soldiers had raped underage children near the Mpoko camp. Nor did it matter that these “financial incentives” almost certainly refer to aid given to victims by humanitarian organisations. The seeds of doubt had been planted.
The French defence minister took the opportunity to denounce what he called the “casual way” in which the UN Children’s Fund had treated the accusations and accused Unicef of “not verifying the testimonies” it had gathered.
There are few doubts left, however, for anyone who takes the trouble to pursue the investigation as far as the town of Boda. Located 190km outside Bangui, Boda is a small mining town surrounded by diamond mining operations. The road there is fairly well maintained, perhaps unsurprisingly, as it weaves through the home region of the first president and founding father of the CAR, Barthélemy Boganda, as well as the country’s self-proclaimed emperor, Jean-Bédel Bokassa.
Boda’s busiest street is a straight ribbon of pounded earth that branches off from a large roundabout. Groups of motorcycle taxis are stationed there, near the old Total petrol station, which has been turned into a bar. When night falls, diamond diggers leave their mining sites and crowd into the small space, where they convert any lucky finds into beers. It’s here, in this faraway spot in a small patch of tropical forest, that proof exists of a French soldier’s sexual assault on a minor.
The Pazoukou family lives here in a home built of fired bricks. The entrance is barred by a door without a lock. In the courtyard, little Elie plays, brightening the home with his rambunctiousness. He is one year and five months old and amuses himself by throwing his breakfast porridge. He is light-skinned. The neighbours call him “the Frenchman”.
$23 for sexual favours
When French forces with Operation Sangaris arrived in Boda in February 2014, they set up their base right in the centre of town. They were there to halt bloodshed between the Anti-Balaka — a militia claiming to be the Christian “defenders” of the town — and “self-defence” groups made up mostly of Muslims. The conflict in Boda reflected what was happening all across the CAR — hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by these clashes. In Boda, fighting between these two groups had already claimed hundreds of victims.
Shortly after the arrival of the French soldiers in Boda, teenager Noella Pazoukou set up a small stall across from the base and started selling tomatoes to the “Sangaris”. Tight braids pull Noella’s hair back neatly, exposing her childlike face.
Photo: Justine Brabant
One day in 2014, a French soldier noticed her. The soldier contacted an intermediary, a young man from the neighbourhood named Alban. Through Alban, the soldier apparently sent Noella a message: he started with a few tender words, then asked the girl to meet him at 6pm that night. The teenager accepted his proposition.
“He brought me to a little house in their camp. We slept together. It was my first time. Afterwards, he gave me 15 000 francs CFA [about $23]. But on my way home, a group of Anti-Balaka men on patrol confiscated it,” Noella recounted in a hesitant voice.
She speaks in Sango, her native language. Noella doesn’t speak French; she didn’t finish primary school. When she was only seven years old, Noella contracted meningitis. For a long time, she couldn’t speak. She still has trouble hearing.
Investigation and activism project Zero Impunity met with Noella in October 2016. She unveiled her story piece by piece.
“We met again, in the same place and we had another sexual relation,” she continued. “Then, one day, he left with his team. I haven’t heard anything from him since.”
Teen was likely underage
In early October 2014, the French soldiers stationed in Boda were replaced by UN peacekeepers with the Minusca peacekeeping operation. The French soldiers who had been stationed there returned to France.
Meanwhile, the conflict in the CAR raged on, soon catching up with Noella and her family. Noella, her mother and her seven siblings fled their family home in Boda when the violence reached boiling point.
“Massacres were taking place in Boda, so we fled to the bush,” Noella remembered. “I was already pregnant by then. When we got back to our home, I told my mother that I wasn’t feeling well.”
Noella’s father died when she was still a child. Her mother, Solange Pazoukou, tries to support her family by selling koko leaves and grilled caterpillars, considered a tasty delicacy.
When Noella told her mother that she was pregnant by a French soldier, Solange was shocked. She didn’t fully believe her daughter until the baby was born and she saw his pale, almost white skin. In August 2015, four months after Elie was born, Solange filed a complaint with the CAR authorities after “hearing a programme on the radio about sexual abuse”.
The Paris prosecutor’s office confirmed that an investigation into Solange’s complaint for “rape committed by a person misusing his position of authority” began in September 2015. Though there is no evidence for the use of force or violence during the sexual encounter, the French soldier who impregnated Noella could be held liable for sexual assault of a minor over the age of 15 by a person misusing his position of authority and for violating strict military regulations.
Noella does not have identity papers, but it is very likely that she was a minor — under the age of 18 — when the sexual encounter occurred. Though French investigators initially concluded that she was 17 at the time, Noella’s mother says that the girl was only 16 — a claim supported by Olivier Mbombo Mossito, the Boda public prosecutor.
Photo: Justine Brabant
Wheels of justice turn slowly
The Pazoukou family will never see this case tried in their own country. On December 18 2013, after Operation Sangaris was deployed, the French and CAR governments signed an agreement stating that any French soldier found guilty of crimes or offences during the mission would be judged in a French court.
The responsibility for investigating complaints against French soldiers taking part in foreign operations falls to specially trained provosts, a branch of the gendarmerie (a French military force) responsible for policing within the armed forces.
Though Noella’s case was referred to the Paris prosecutor’s office in September 2015, the office took eight months to contact CAR authorities with a request for international mutual legal assistance.
The official document requested a hearing with “all witnesses who may be able to provide evidence about the facts or their circumstances” of the case. However, five more months would go by before the French military police would reach Boda, where they would ask Noella to identify her child’s father from photographs.
The timeline has not worked in the Pazoukou family’s favour. The main witness, Alban, who was supposedly the intermediary who facilitated the arrangement between the soldier and Noella, left Boda for Bangui. The time that had elapsed also made it harder for Noella, who was asked to identify a man she had last seen two years before and who, in total, she only saw twice.
No DNA test carried out
The UN memo, leaked in October 2016, that suggested that CAR victims may have been given financial incentives for testifying against international troops focused attention on the credibility of the testimonies of minors. But paradoxically, the Boda case, which was the only case where material proof — the existence of a child — could prove that abuse had occurred, seemed to get very little attention, including from the provosts responsible for investigating the case.
At the time of his encounter with Noella, the French soldier had a shaved head. However, some of the men in the photos shown to Noella had much longer hair, which she found confusing.
Although the French investigators did meet little Elie, they did not carry out a DNA test on him. Instead, they asked the Pazoukou family what the child’s blood type was. Noella didn’t know.
Why did the investigators take so long to get to Boda and interview Noella? If two sources close to the investigation are to be believed, it was down to a transportation problem. The gendarmes had to wait for several months before Operation Sangaris could spare a helicopter to take them to Boda. But when questioned about the slow pace of the investigation, the French defence minister responded only that “the ministry is fully co-operating with judicial authorities”.
This situation calls into question the independence of the provosts meant to investigate charges against French soldiers abroad. This special branch of the French gendarmerie is dependent on logistical and financial support from the military to carry out their investigations.
Photo: Justine Brabant
“The provosts depend on the armed forces with whom they are deployed [for financial support, transport, security, human resources and so on]. They do have some support from the French military police [who provide the provosts’ weapons as well as forensic support], but the provosts still depend heavily on the armed forces,” said Sandrine Guillon, the vice-prosecutor responsible for criminal cases involving members of the military at the high court of Paris.
“And if limited military resources are needed for the military mission itself, that is always going to be given priority over an investigation being carried out by the provosts.”
As the Sangaris operation neared its October end date, soldiers and equipment were being withdrawn from the CAR. According to Guillon, this is the reason the investigation proceeded so slowly. Indeed, now that Operation Sangaris has ended, it is unclear whether helicopters will still fly to Boda.
Waves of accusations
By the end of October 2016, the Paris prosecutor’s office had registered more than a dozen accusations of rape and sexual assault carried out by soldiers from Operation Sangaris, alongside the complaint filed by Noella and her family.
Since April 2015, when The Guardian first made public a UN internal report detailing accusations that French soldiers had abused four children (which the victims said took the form of a trade of money or food for oral sex), the list of complaints has only grown. The Paris prosecutor’s office doesn’t want to “make a formal declaration” of the number of accusations, preferring to “think in terms of the number of investigations closed, and not to forecast”.
After the first wave of accusations from children in the Mpoko camp in Bangui, in 2016 the judicial system received a report from Unicef documenting about 100 rapes committed in the Dékoa region. The report focused primarily on abuse allegedly carried out by UN peacekeepers from Gabon and Burundi, but also mentioned French forces.
Several additional testimonies were also gathered by CAR investigators, who identified and interviewed about a dozen victims related to the Mpoko incidents (although not all of these incidents involved French soldiers).
Even more recently, a CAR humanitarian organisation filed another complaint reporting a gang rape allegedly carried out by French forces near Pont Jackson, in Bangui.
Signs of having been tied up
International medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) confirmed (with medical reports to support their statements) that they had notified the French judicial system about three new cases of rape of minors — a brother and sister aged seven and nine, as well as a 13-year-old girl. MSF doctors wrote medical reports after seeing the child victims. These files include proof of sexual violence as well as marks that suggest that one of the victims had been tied up.
The French defence ministry even seemed to admit that rape and sexual abuse had been carried out by French soldiers in the CAR. In an email exchange on December 20 2016, Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that, in this type of case, “each time that the facts were proven and the authors identified”, the “accused soldiers” were “moved far from the place where it had occurred” and underwent “disciplinary sanctions that could amount to the termination of contract”.
When asked, the minister did not answer how many instances of abuse had been proven.
Documents and testimonies gathered in the CAR and in France (from former participants in Operation Sangaris) indicate that French soldiers did indeed negotiate sexual favours from civilians, both adults and minors.
Some of these sexual encounters could one day be judged to be rape of minors or sexual abuse carried out by a person abusing his position of authority. Yet this “survival sex work” seemed to be tolerated by the military command in Bangui, even after the first wave of accusations of abuse (concerning the children in the Mpoko camp) landed on the desk of the defence minister in July 2014. This would indicate that high-ranking officials were aware of the behaviour of their subordinates.
French camp ‘a Swiss cheese’
On August 3 2014, eight months after Operation Sangaris started, several high-ranking French officials in Bangui wrote to an officer working in a corps of official inspectors under the defence ministry who are responsible for monitoring the army. These written reports detail problems related to the Sangaris camp that was located in close proximity to the Mpoko camp.
Zero Impunity had sight of these internal army documents, in which several noncommissioned officers and a colonel had all written to warn their commanders about what was going on in Mpoko.
These military men described the French camp as a real “Swiss cheese”, referring to the fact that it was easy to penetrate. A colonel added: “This proximity with the locals has contributed to the development of easy access to alcohol, drugs and prostitution.”
Other evidence also supports the theory that people were moving in and out of the camp unchecked. The defence minister declassified several documents for use in the criminal investigation. According to a source close to the case, the declassified documents included “a typed report describing the same problems” of porosity and prostitution.
Jules, an officer who did not want to be identified, was deployed for 11 months in the CAR between 2013 and 2014 and saw many instances of the toxic mix of poverty-driven prostitution and abuse of authority.
The first time he was aware of something like this happening was when a soldier (from another unit) who worked as a guard in the French camp in Bangui was discovered by one of his superiors having his penis “sucked through the fence”.
On another occasion, Jules was told that a Central African woman had been selling sexual favours performed by her daughter to the soldiers. “It was a combat section. [The soldiers involved] were kids — they were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the most,” Jules said.
Jules asked the soldiers’ commander if what he had heard was true.
“He was angry,” Jules remembered. “He responded: ‘Fuck! They are driving me crazy! I don’t know where that happened but, in theory, that’s what happened, yes.’”
Even though this incident was seemingly verified, it was never reported to the Paris prosecutor’s office.
How Sangaris snubbed UN commission of inquiry
In the same period, between April and November 2014, the UN Security Council mandated the creation of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic to investigate human rights violations.
The security council had received reports of “numerous allegations of rape and sexual abuse from both victims and NGOs [nongovernmental organisations]”, recalled one of three investigators on the commission, the Mauritanian lawyer Fatimata M’Baye, who spoke to Zero Impunity.
“These accusations implicated the Minusca peacekeeping forces, the Misca peacekeeping forces [from the African Union] and Sangaris,” she said.
“We were told that certain Sangaris forces had had sexual relations with minors, with underage girls.”
The investigators went “several times” to the Sangaris headquarters to “speak with the command”, according to M’Baye.
“One of the things we needed to know was which team was where,” she remembered. “But this information was blocked. It was a sensitive question and they didn’t want to talk about it with us. We understood that it wasn’t the first time that they had been accused.”
As it did not receive a response from Sangaris, the commission decided to refrain from publishing a “one-sided report” including only inculpatory evidence against the French forces. Instead, it decided to focus the report on accusations against other armed forces — namely, the UN and AU peacekeepers.
Despite this decision, the commission still slipped a small reference to the French forces into the final report, which was published on December 6 2014 — five months before The Guardian’s revelation: “The commission has received allegations of violations [of human rights and international humanitarian law] committed by forces from Misca, Minusca and Sangaris.”
The commission then cites “limited resources” as justification for the absence of investigation into accusations levied against the French forces in particular.
Zero Impunity contacted French Defence Minister Le Drian to confirm that these meetings with the UN commission had taken place and to ask for an explanation for this “blockage” described by M’Baye. The minister did not respond to the request.
This piece was produced by the Zero Impunity Project and syndicated by the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting