Rage grows in Central Africa over French troops in 'child rape' scandal

A file picture taken on Jan 19, 2014, shows a French soldier standing guard during an operation in Boali, some 100km north of Bangui. French prosecutors have opened an investigation into claims that French troops allegedly raped hungry children in ex
A file picture taken on Jan 19, 2014, shows a French soldier standing guard during an operation in Boali, some 100km north of Bangui. French prosecutors have opened an investigation into claims that French troops allegedly raped hungry children in exchange for food at M'Poko, a refugee camp at Bangui airport. -- PHOTO: AFP

M'POKO CAMP NEAR BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - Flimsy tents and filthy corrugated iron huts dot the landscape at M'Poko, the refugee camp at Bangui airport where French troops allegedly raped hungry children in exchange for food.

Many children in the desolate camp - home to more than 100,000 during the bloodiest days of the crisis in the the Central African Republic last year - were orphans, forced to fend for themselves for food and water.

Most displaced families living amid the abandoned planes in M'Poko had lost everything, fleeing inter-religious violence that peaked in early 2014.

The country had been ravaged by a conflict that took on an unprecedented religious dimension after a 2013 coup, pitting mainly Muslim rebels against Christian vigilantes.

French troops were deployed in December 2013 alongside a UN-mandated European Union and African Union peacekeeping missions, and have guarded the airport area ever since.

"There was a whole world that revolved not just around the French soldiers, but also the European force, especially at night-time," a UN diplomat in Bangui said on condition of anonymity.

A former camp resident, Elias Mboro Te Zogne, is convinced some of the displaced were exploited in exchange for food.

"Everyone knows there were groups of young women, especially, who took pleasure from being with the European troops based in the airport area, in exchange for biscuits or sardines," he said.

Many people living in M'Poko had lost their jobs because of the violence engulfing the landlocked country, while others' homes had been looted.

Fleeing to the airport camp, they settled in a surreal landscape, using the planes' wings for shade and to hang up their wet laundry to dry.

Hunger in M'Poko became so widespread that riots often broke out when food was distributed.

RAGE IN BANGUI

While France and the Central African Republic have both launched probes into the allegations, the verdict on the streets of the capital 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 peacekeepers 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.

According to a French judicial source, 14 soldiers dispatched to the chaos-ridden nation to restore order are now implicated in a probe into the alleged sexual abuse of several children there - the youngest just nine - who had begged for something to eat.

Soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea are also accused in a leaked UN report that implicates French troops.

Now that Bangui is mostly free from violence, the camp is to be 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.