VALERIE was just 14 when she says she was raped by a French peacekeeper working for the United Nations.
“He’d pass when I was selling bananas,” she says. “He told me he loved me and took me to a hotel. The first time he gave me $2. The second time it was $5. Another time, $15.
“I was young. I felt very bad because he was my father’s age. There were others. Lots of us were looking for him. None of us ever found him.”
The French logistics manager who allegedly raped her was helping to run the UN operation in the Congolese city of Goma – the site of one the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world.
Valerie’s case sounds uniquely terrible, but the truth is that there are thousands more who say they too were the victims of sex crimes by UN peacekeepers.
Drafted from soldiers in each member state’s national army, peacekeepers are the troops sent in by the UN to bring order and stability to the most war-torn corners of the globe.
‘No accountability for rape’
However, UN peacekeepers have been dogged by over 1,700 separate sex crime accusations in the past 15 years.
While there has been condemnation of high-profile abuse cases, there are fears that sexual violence against children has become endemic in areas where peacekeepers are supposed to be the ones enforcing the law.
Despite the high number of reported cases (and the many more which are thought to go unreported) only 53 uniformed peacekeepers have ever been sent to jail for sexual offences.
It’s an outrage reminiscent of the ongoing charity abuse scandal, only with an ever greater scale and an ever deeper sense of depravity on behalf of the abusers.
And, as a new Channel 4 documentary reveals, decades of alleged abuse have resulted in victims being abandoned without justice while the perpetrators walk free.
Top UN official Anthony Bambury resigned in protest after a series of alleged abuse cases came to his attention.
“The reality is that today there is no guarantee of criminal accountability for someone who commits rape inside a UN peacekeeping mission,” he says in the doc.
This will sound familiar to young Valerie, who is thought to be a victim of Didier Bourget, the only civilian peacekeeper to ever be jailed for sex crimes while working overseas for the UN.
In 2004, Bourguet caught in a sting and found to have paid go-betweens to provide young girls for him to have sex with.
‘They were starving so it was easy’
He was charged with rape of 20 girls, but a French judge said there was only evidence to convict of raping 2 minors.
Now a free man, living homeless in a wood in the South of France, he admits on camera to having sex with “about 20 or 25” children in the Congo.
“Because we had money it was easy,” he says on a new documentary. “We just had to give money or buy something. They were starving so it was easy.
“The children were 15, 14, 16. Everybody knew that some of the UN civilian staff had intercourse with young ladies for money.”
At the time, the UN promised Bourguet’s victims that they would find and support them.
But nobody ever spoke to Valerie about her ordeal.
Horror in central Africa
Peacekeepers are not immune to prosecution, and they are accountable to the laws of their home country while they are on overseas missions.
However, there’s no internal UN justice system which can bring charges against them, leading to confusion and often inaction when they are accused of committing crimes in far-flung parts of the globe.
Sex abuse claims against peacekeepers have been levelled from all corners of the developing world, but the heart of Africa has been shown to be the focal point of much of the violence.
As well as troops in the Congo, peacekeepers in the Central African Republic have also been accused of unspeakable atrocities – but, unlike Bourguet, few have been brought to justice.
The country was nearly torn apart by a civil war in 2013 and, fearing a genocide by one of the militia factions, the UN sent in its peacekeepers – often called Blue Berets on account of the uniform.
Around 500,000 residents in the capital, Bangui, were made homeless, and lived in a makeshift tent city, which UN forces were tasked with policing.
Among the residents under their protection was Daniella, a refugee who was just ten when a group of peacekeepers raped her.
“We didn’t have food so I was sent off to the market,” she explains. “On the way down to the market they called me over to give me some water.
“They grabbed me and took me inside the house. They took off my clothes, threw me down, had sex with me and told me to go.”
Daniella, whose identity has been protected, didn’t know who to tell at first.
But after an investigation, it later emerged that her alleged tormentors were French peacekeepers, drafted in to protect people just like her.
Children and authority abused
Alexis was 15 when she says she also fell victim to French soldiers in the city, who offered her and other children leftovers in return for performing sex acts on them.
“They’d ask when there were no adults around,” she says.
Word of the abuse spread to a UN human rights worker who interviewed six children, including four alleged victims, in May 2014.
Her report alleged that 14 French peacekeepers had been implicit in sexually assaulting the children, with four soldiers directly identifiable because of their tattoos and physical features.
The response from the UN was a deafening silence.
“The UN treated this as though it were another report from the field,” says Paula Donovan, who held senior positions within the UN for years.
Paula, who set up the charity Code Blue, which campaigns for more accountability for UN workers accused of sex crimes, adds that the report was just bounced between inboxes without anyone acting on it.
It took a leak to the media before the UN responded with an investigation – almost a year after the crimes happened.
Since the accused soldiers were French, it fell to French prosecutors to deliver justice to the perpetrators in central Africa.
However, after a three year investigation, judges threw out the charges against the four identified soldiers, claiming the children’s testimony was “inconsistent”.
Meanwhile, an investigation by the UN concluded that “abuses of authority” had allowed the damning report to be left without being acted on.
Peacekeepers leaving babies behind
When the town of Bambari was consumed by war in 2015, there were allegations that similar atrocities were being carried out.
Tens of thousands of civilians were left homeless and the UN was forced to send in an extra force of 800 Congolese peacekeepers to quell the violence.
That was despite the fact that the UN itself had recently condemned the Congolese army for carrying out sexual attacks on its own citizens.
After the soldiers drove the militia from Bambari, one of them repeatedly raped local girl Manda, who was just 11 at the time.
“I was going to the market,” she says. “Thats when he grabbed me by force. I don’t know why he chose me.
“After he had sex with me, he gave me money and told me not to talk about it.
“It was in the second month that I got pregnant. He didn’t do anything. Two weeks later a truck came and picked them up. They left. Gone for good.
“I called him twice. He said he’d come back for his child. The child is walking now and he still hasn’t come.”
It’s a similar story to that of Francine, who was 15 when she started working for a UN contractor as a housekeeper.
She soon learned that sex was part of the job and she fell pregnant. Francine never reported the abuse, and her son Alberto is now five years old.
He has never met his father, who Francine never heard from since.
Sadly, these cases are far from unique.
The UN has recorded 194 paternity claims against its peacekeepers since 2010, and the problem is so endemic that the UN set up a trust fund for children born to rape.
However, many local victims don’t know how to report crimes against them.
Complaints boxes can often be found outside UN bases, but often they are not labelled in the local language, so it’s unlikely that anyone living nearby will even know they exist.
Children drugged and assaulted
The Congolese peacekeeping force was expelled once these claims emerged, and 14 soldiers were tried for rape in 2016.
However, there have only been two hearings since, with the Congolese government happy to let the process linger while the accused wait behind bars.
Many of their alleged victims have not found justice, either, despite UN attempts to track down and provide support to victims.
And on the ground in the Central African Republic, rape is thought to be so endemic that the UN Force commander there has been forced to ban troops from socialising with locals at all while they’re off duty.
Lt. General Balla Keita says: “It’s difficult, but we have no other way out.
“We have very good people… we’ve got bad people. And we’ve got very bad people.”
Months later, another assault case in Bambari saw 17-year-old Mauicette drugged by Mauritanian Blue Berets, who handed her a spiked cup of tea as she walked past a checkpoint.
Doctors say she was raped and taken to hospital, and a condom wrapper was found near the scene of the alleged attack.
“When people passed me they’d start talking,” she says. “I was ashamed and didn’t want to go out. I am condemned to stay at home. “
The UN followed up on her case and interviewed her in the wake of the attack, but she’s heard nothing since.
The lack of action from the UN has sparked concern among campaigners, and in parts of the world peacekeepers have become as feared as the militias they are supposed to defend people from.
Channel 4 claims that, in many cases, troops have been left to carry out crimes with total impunity, while victims are abandoned in their misery.
And most alarmingly, as with the international charity scandal, the UN’s own atrocities reveal a dark tendency for the protectors of the most vulnerable to become indistinguishable their tormentors.
The UN Sex Abuse Scandal airs Wednesday at 10.30pm on Channel 4.