By Justine Brabant and Leïla Miñano. This article is part of a series on sexual violence in armed conflicts, commissioned and published by Zero Impunity.
The French military could not have dreamed of better timing. Just three weeks before the official end to Operation Sangaris– set for October 31, 2016– a UN internal memorandum was leaked to the press. This memo cast doubt on accusations of rape levied against international troops in the Central African Republic, suggesting that victims “may have been given financial incentives to testify”.
There was worldwide outcry when the British newspaper, The Guardian, first published a UN internal report in April 2015 revealing that French soldiers had raped or assaulted refugee children near the Mpoko IDP camp in Bangui. 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 PR nightmare for the French government and Operation Sangaris, which had already suffered criticism. So, when the leaked UN memo in 2016 shed doubts on the whole affair, the Sangaris commanders must have been overjoyed.
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 IDP 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 Defense Minister took the opportunity to denounce what he called the “casual way” that UNICEF had treated the accusations and accused the UN children’s organization of “not verifying the testimonies” that 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 190 kilometers (118 miles) 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 Central African Republic, Barthélémy Boganda, as well as the self-proclaimed emperor Jean-Bedel 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 gas 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 in a home built of fired bricks, about 200 metres (650 feet) from the Total-station-turned-bar. 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, five months old and amuses himself by throwing his breakfast porridge. He is light skinned. The neighbours call him “the Frenchman”.
When French forces with the Sangaris Operation 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-defense” groups made up mostly of Muslims. The conflict in Boda reflected what was happening all across the Central African Republic– hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by these clashes. In Boda, fighting between these two groups had already resulted in hundreds of victims.
Shortly after the arrival of the French soldiers in Boda, teenage 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 child-like face. One day, in the summer of 2014, a French soldier noticed her. The soldier contacted an intermediary, a young man from the neighborhood named Alban.
Through Alban, the soldier 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 elementary school. When she was only seven years old, Noella contracted meningitis. For a long time, she couldn’t speak. She still has trouble hearing. Zero Impunity met with Noella on October 13 and 14, 2016. She unveiled her story piece by piece, getting up often to tend the fire in the porch that serves as a kitchen. “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.”
In early October 2014, the French soldiers stationed in Boda were replaced by UN peacekeepers with MINUSCA, the multidimensional United Nations peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic. 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 in the Central African Republic.
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 Pazoukou filed a complaint with the Central African 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 on September 4, 2015. Though there is no evidence of use of force or violence during the sexual encounter, the French soldier who impregnated Noella Pazoukou could be held liable for sexual assault of a minor over the age of 15 by a person misusing his position of authority (Article 227-27 of the Penal Code), and for violating strict military regulations. Noella does not have ID 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 public prosecutor of Boda.
The Pazoukou family will never see this case tried in their own country. On December 18, 2013– several days after Operation Sangaris was deployed, the French and Central African 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 with jurisdiction in civil law enforcement) 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 Central African authorities with a request for international mutual legal assistance, which Zero Impunity examined. 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 a series of photographs.
The timeline has not worked in the Pazoukou family’s favor. The main witness, Alban, who was supposedly the intermediary who facilitated the arrangement between the soldier and Noella, left Boda for Bangui. The time passed also made it harder for Noella, who was asked to identify, from a series of photos, a man who she last saw two years ago and who, in total, she only saw twice.
The UN memo, leaked in October 2016, that suggested that Central African victims may have been given financial incentives for testifying against international troops, focused media and political attention on the question of 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. While 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. However, when questioned about the slow pace of the investigation, the French Minister of Defense responded only that “the ministry is fully cooperating 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.
“The provosts depend on the armed forces with whom they are deployed [for financial support, transport, security, human resources, etc]. 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 the vice-prosecutor responsible for criminal cases involving members of the military at the High Court of Paris, Sandrine Guillon.
“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, both soldiers and equipment were being withdrawn from the Central African Republic. According to the magistrate, Sandrine Guillon, this is the reason that the investigation proceeded so slowly. Indeed, now that Operation Sangaris ended in October, it is unclear whether helicopters will still fly to Boda.
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 IDP camp in Bangui, the judicial system received (in 2016) a report from UNICEF documenting about a hundred rapes committed in the Dékoa region, in the centre of the country. 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 Central African investigators, who identified and interviewed about a dozen victims related to the Mpoko incidents (though not all of these incidents involved French soldiers), said Lieutenant Kossi, who led the Central African gendarmerie’s department of research and investigation at that time. Zero Impunity met Kossi on October 18, in Bangui.
Even more recently, a Central African humanitarian organization filed another complaint reporting a gang rape allegedly carried out by French forces near Pont Jackson, in Bangui.
When interviewed, the 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, age seven and nine, as well as a 13-year-old girl. Doctors at this NGO wrote medical reports after seeing the child victims. These files include proof of sexual violence as well as markings suggesting that one of the victims had been tied up.
The French Minister of Defense itself even seemed to admit that rape and sexual abuse had been carried out by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. In an email exchange on December 20, 2016, the minister 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.” The minister did not answer when asked how many instances of abuse had been proven.
Are the cases that reached the Paris prosecutor’s office just the tip of the iceberg? Both documents and testimonies, gathered in the Central African Republic and in France (from former participants in Operation Sangaris), indicate that French soldiers did negotiate sexual favors 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 Mpoko IDP camp) landed on the desk of the Minister of Defense in July 2014. This would indicate that high-ranking officials were aware of the behavior of their subordinates.
On August 3, 2014, eight months after Operation Sangaris started, several high-ranking French officials in Bangui wrote to General L., an officer working in a corps of official inspectors under the Minister of Defense 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 IDP camp. Zero Impunity consulted these internal army documents, entitled “Reports concerning the protection of the force”. Several non-commissioned 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. They said it was impossible to avoid “theft and intrusions”.
A master corporal asked if the entrance to the airport could be reinforced by barbed wire because “people could enter without being inspected at the checkpoint, which renders the work of the armed forces essentially useless.” He added: “The refugee camp [Editor’s note: which is right next to the military camp] should be better secured because it is the cause of numerous problems including refugees who ask soldiers for their rations. It also makes it easy for a prostitution ring to infiltrate the camp and operate late at night.”
A colonel added: “This proximity with the locals has contributed to the development of easy access to alcohol, drugs and prostitution.” A sergeant demanded that officials “increase preventative measures against the ongoing prostitution, whose existence could be used against the force.” He also mentioned that they had been having problems with “the use of children to interrupt the work of sentinels and patrols.” Another non-commissioned officer reported that soldiers were having problems controlling “prostitution taking place at nightfall at both the entry to the checkpoint and the APOD [Air Point of Debarquement, military jargon probably referring to a place used at one time as a landing strip]”. So, what measures were taken by the operation’s leadership after all these reports were filed? When asked, the Minister of Defence didn’t respond to this question but said “France is putting into action a strict “zero tolerance” policy about exploitation and sexual abuse.”
There is more evidence which also supports the theory that people were moving in and out of the camp, unchecked. The Minister of Defense declassified several documents [once classified as “defense secrets”] 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 was deployed for 11 months in the Central African Republic (between 2013 and 2014) saw many instances the toxic mix of poverty-driven prostitution and abuse of authority. The first time that 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”. Jules didn’t say if the person involved was a child or an adult.
Another time, one of Jules’ fellow soldiers– who had used the services of a prostitute– had to be repatriated for medical reasons (probably in order to get antiretroviral drugs.) Reason: the condom supposedly broke. On another occasion, Jules was told that a Central African woman had been selling sexual favors 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. ‘F**k! 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.
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. These accusations implicated the MINUSCA peacekeeping forces, the MISCA peacekeeping forces [from the African Union] and Sangaris,” recalled one of three investigators on the Commission, the Mauritanian lawyer Fatimata M’Baye, who spoke with Zero Impunity. “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 they 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, they 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 the Minister of Defense 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 of Defense did not respond to the request.
Considering the reticence of the Sangaris leadership when faced with the queries of the UN commission, could it be imagined that they wanted the provost to be the first to hear what they had to say? Zero Impunity read the official report (dated May 5, 2015) summarizing the investigation carried out by the provost, which makes this theory doubtful. Questioned by the provosts between August 2 and 9, 2014, two French officers– one posted with the European forces EUFOR, and the other with the 152th Colmar regiment– said that they were “stunned by the accusations” of rape.
They were shocked that this was able to occur because of “the physical proximity of their men”, which meant that “acts of this nature would have been extremely hard to carry out discreetly and, consequently, would have required the complicity of many people.”
These statements are all the more surprising when you know that, at the same time, on August 3, several of their subordinates were submitting reports to army inspectors in Paris about the porosity of the camp, the serious problem with prostitution and the presence of children near guard posts and patrols. Considering that these reports were written by soldiers under the command of these two officers, it is hard to believe that they were truly ignorant to the situation.
However, the responses of the high-ranking Sangaris officers seemed to convince the provosts who were conducting the investigation. In their summary, the provosts concluded that “on the ground, there was little of the privacy conducive to sexual encounters”.
* First names were changed in order to protect the identity of the sources
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