BUKAVU, Congo - One evening four months ago, a soft-spoken 18-year-old named Aziza was selling bananas in the market here when some U.N. peacekeepers summoned her to their car. Aziza went over thinking they wanted to buy fruit, but was persuaded to engage in a different kind of transaction.
"They offered me love," she said, in the colloquial French spoken in this former Belgian colony. And money - just $5, but more than she would make in a month at the market. "It was done in the car, in the dark," she said. "I didn't have the strength to refuse."
Those words became a refrain in her story, one of many that now dog the U.N. mission here. The next time Aziza met with the peacekeepers, two of them insisted on having sex with her simultaneously. They beat her when she refused to do the things they showed her on pornographic videos. Her mother found out what had happened when Aziza had to go to the hospital with an infection and threw her out of the house. Desperate, she went back to the foreigners several more times.
"I don't know whether they are normal or not," said Aziza, who did not want to use her full name out of shame. "I wonder whether all white people are like that."
Certainly some, even many, U.N. peacekeepers and civilian officers in this war-troubled region were. Aziza's story and at least 150 other tales of sexual abuse in Congo have come to light in recent months, shocking an institution that considers itself an agency of mercy.
The shock has inspired action toward an overhaul of the U.N.'s 16 peacekeeping missions around the world. In Congo, home to the largest operation - with about 11,000 soldiers and 1,200 civilians - the allegations point to nearly all of the major peacekeeping contingents. But they also involve senior civilian officials, including a top security officer, a chief on the U.N. special envoy's staff and an internal oversight investigator.
The charges range from rape to exploitation - sex for a bottle of water or a military ration - to "relationships" or solicitations that are marked by a severe imbalance in power. One case, involving a French U.N. staffer who took digital pictures of underage girls, has caused concern that it could become "the U.N.'s Abu Ghraib" if the photos get out.
Charges of sexual abuse have haunted U.N. peacekeepers for years, most notably during operations in Cambodia, the Balkans and Liberia in the 1990s. The cases in Congo, however, may mark a tipping point.
Two years after the first charges were made, top U.N. officials have finally denounced the problem openly and vowed to punish those involved.
Last month, Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the issue publicly for the first time.
"I am afraid there is clear evidence that acts of gross misconduct have taken place. This is a shameful thing for the United Nations to have to say, and I am absolutely outraged by it," Annan said while attending a summit in neighboring Tanzania. He said that he had "zero tolerance" for sexual exploitation and abuse. "We cannot rest until we have rooted out all such practices ... and we must make sure that those involved are held fully accountable."
It is pain upon pain for the victims here. A five-year war dragged in the armies of five nations and left at least 2 million people dead from starvation and disease. The fighting officially ended in 2003 but lingers on in Congo's border towns. So does the suffering of the people who have been targeted by soldiers on all sides of the conflict.
The people of Bukavu, a deceptively bucolic town with lush rolling hills on the edge of a shimmering lake, cheered when U.N. soldiers arrived several years ago to protect a fragile peace. The elation didn't last.
"I have to tell you, because of the misery here, anyone who has some dollars can have anybody do anything," said Idesbald Byabuze, a law professor at the Catholic University of Bukavu who was one of the first to publicly denounce the U.N. peacekeepers' behavior almost two years ago. "But we have very strong values here. People have never accepted what has happened with our girls."
In the shattered postwar economy, a nurse makes about $2.50 a month, and a teacher earns about $4. That makes the promise of $5 - or even $1 - for a sexual act bitterly tempting.
Among the cases reported in Bukavu is that of a 13-year-old girl who was raped by an African cook who worked at the peacekeepers' base. Her family threw her out when she became pregnant, and she and her baby are shunned by the community.
In another, an 18-year-old woman said that she and her little brother were walking down the road when three South American peacekeepers dragged her into the darkness of nearby trees and all three raped her.
Yet another woman described how she agreed to go home with an Asian engineer, but when they got there, she was gang-raped so brutally by a group of his buddies that a condom had lodged inside her and had to be medically extracted.
"We only know about some of these women because they had to go to the hospital or had babies," said Judithe Registre, the head of the Bukavu office of Women for Women International, a group that helps victimized women rejoin their communities. "How many more do we not know about?"
Jean-Marie Guehenno, undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, said he has been trying to battle the problem since he arrived at the U.N. four years ago: "I have seen a problem with every national contingent."
He declined to discuss specific countries, but other sources said that the most allegations have centered on Uruguayans, Moroccans and South Africans, in numbers that reflect the proportion of each nation's troops. Soldiers from Pakistan, Tunisia and Nepal are also implicated.
"We must convince them that it is not only the good name of the U.N. that is at stake, but also the reputation of their countries if they don't take action," Guehenno said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.