PORT-AU-PRINCE – In the ruins of a tropical hideaway where jetsetters once sipped rum under the Caribbean sun, the abandoned children tried to make a life for themselves. They begged and scavenged for food, but they never could scrape together enough to beat back the hunger, until the UN peacekeepers moved in a few blocks away.
The men who came from a far-away place and spoke a strange language offered the Haitian children cookies and other snacks. Sometimes they gave them a few dollars. But the price was high: The Sri Lankan peacekeepers wanted sex from girls and boys as young as 12.
“I did not even have breasts,” said a girl, known as V01 – Victim No. 1. She told UN investigators that over the next three years, from ages 12 to 15, she had sex with nearly 50 peacekeepers, including a “Commandant” who gave her 75 cents. Sometimes she slept in UN trucks on the base next to the decaying resort, whose once-glamorous buildings were being overtaken by jungle.
Justice for victims like V01 is rare. An Associated Press investigation of UN missions during the past 12 years found nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and other personnel around the world – signaling the crisis is much larger than previously known. More than 300 of the allegations involved children, the AP found, but only a fraction of the alleged perpetrators served jail time.
Legally, the UN is in a bind. It has no jurisdiction over peacekeepers, leaving punishment to the countries that contribute the troops.
Without agreement for widespread reform and accountability from the UN’s member states, solutions remain elusive.
Here in Haiti, at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal UN report obtained by the AP. In the wake of the report, 114 peacekeepers were sent home. None was ever imprisoned.
In March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced new measures to tackle sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers and other personnel.
“Let us declare in one voice: We will not tolerate anyone committing or condoning sexual exploitation and abuse. We will not let anyone cover up these crimes with the UN flag,” Guterres said.
But the proclamation had a depressingly familiar ring: More than a decade ago, the United Nations commissioned a report that promised to do much the same thing, yet most of the reforms never materialized.
For a full two years after those promises were made, the children in Haiti were passed around from soldier to soldier. And in the years since, peacekeepers have been accused of sexual abuse the world over.
In one particularly grim case in Haiti, a teenage boy said he was gang-raped in 2011 by Uruguayan peacekeepers who filmed the alleged assault on a cellphone. Dozens of Haitian women also say they were raped, and dozens more had what is euphemistically called “survival sex” in a country where most people live on less than $2.50 a day, the AP found.
Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph has been trying to get compensation for victims of a deadly cholera strain linked to Nepalese peacekeepers that killed an estimated 10,000 people. Now, he is also trying to get child support for about a dozen Haitian women left pregnant by peacekeepers.
“Imagine if the UN was going to the United States and raping children and bringing cholera,” Joseph said in Port-au-Prince. “Human rights aren’t just for rich white people.”
The Habitation Leclerc resort was once well known throughout Port-au-Prince as a lush refuge amid the capital’s grimy alleyways. During its heyday in the 1980s, celebrities like Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis would perch by the pool or stroll past the property’s Voodoo temple.
By 2004, the resort was a decrepit clutch of buildings, and several children, either orphaned or abandoned by their parents, were living in its ruins.
It was there that V01 met other victims, two girls referred to in the UN report as “V02” and “V03” and a young boy, “V08.” The boy initially supported them by occasionally bringing food from his aunt, but they were often hungry.
The peacekeepers had arrived that year as part of a new mission to help stabilize Haiti in the wake of President Jean-Bertrande Aristide’s ouster. The Sri Lankans, numbering about 900 troops, landed in a historically unstable country in the grip of scattered violence and kidnappings – and a broken government ill-suited to confront the chaos.
Some of the peacekeepers in the Sri Lankan contingent were based near the former resort.
In August 2007, the UN received complaints of “suspicious interactions” between Sri Lankan soldiers and Haitian children. UN investigators then interviewed nine victims, as well as witnesses, while the sex ring was still active.
V02, who was 16 when the UN team interviewed her, told them she had sex with a Sri Lankan commander at least three times, describing him as overweight with a moustache and a gold ring on his middle finger. She said he often showed her a picture of his wife. The peacekeepers also taught her some Sinhalese so she could understand and express sexual innuendo; the children even talked to one another in Sinhalese when UN investigators were interviewing them.
V03 identified 11 Sri Lankan troops through photographs, one of whom she said was a corporal with a “distinctive” bullet scar between his armpit and waist. V04, who was 14, said she had sex with the soldiers every day in exchange for money, cookies or juice.
During her interview with investigators, another young victim, V07, received a phone call from a Sri Lankan peacekeeper. She explained that the soldiers would pass along her number to incoming contingent members, who would then call her for sex.
The boy, V08, said he had sex with more than 20 Sri Lankans. Most would remove their name tags before taking him to UN military trucks, where he gave them oral sex or was sodomized by them.
Another boy, V09, was 15 when his encounters began. Over the course of three years, he said he had sex with more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers, averaging about four a day, investigators said.
Under Haitian law, having sex with someone under 18 is statutory rape. UN codes of conduct also prohibit exploitation.
“The evidence shows that from late 2004 to mid-October 2007, at least 134 military members of the current and previous Sri Lankan contingents sexually exploited and abused at least nine Haitian children,” the report said.
After the report was filed, 114 Sri Lanka peacekeepers were sent home, putting an end to the sex ring.
But the sexual exploitation visited upon Haiti’s people didn’t stop there.
Janila Jean said she was a 16-year-old virgin when a Brazilian peacekeeper lured her to a UN compound three years ago with a smear of peanut butter on bread, raped her at gunpoint and left her pregnant. She finds herself constantly in tears.
“Some days, I imagine strangling my daughter to death,” she said in an interview under the shadow of banana palms near the former Jacmel base.
With her were three other women who said they also were raped by peacekeepers. One of them sat on her heels, scraping coconut from its shell and into a large cauldron of water and corn, the barest of meals for the women and their small children.
The AP found that some 150 allegations of abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers and other personnel were reported in Haiti alone between 2004 and 2016, out of the worldwide total of nearly 2,000.