BANGUI, Central African Republic — The peacekeepers motioned to the teenage girl weaving through the sprawling camp in the baking afternoon sun selling bananas from a plate atop her head. Soon their real intentions were clear: They yanked her inside their tent and began unbuttoning their pants.
Just 16 years old, she cried and pleaded with them to let her go, telling them she was menstruating in hopes it would dissuade them. Then three men gang-raped her one by one. As she trembled on the ground afterward in fear, they laughed and ate the bananas on her plate. Then they shouted at her to leave.
The attack she alleges happened that day did not kill her, but the torment and stigma that followed just might, she says. A few of her peers saw what happened and it wasn't long before the taunts began, unspeakably cruel even when coming from the mouths of children. They still call her "Miss Sangaris," a reference to the name of the French peacekeeping mission that implies she is the soldiers' girlfriend.
She has never reported to any authorities what happened to her that day — even the very sight of another peacekeeper walking by sends her stomach into knots, she says.
"I want to be anywhere but here, to go someplace where no one knows me and I can start over," she says softly, looking down at her folded hands.
As the U.N. and various countries come under growing criticism for sexual abuse by peacekeepers, the stories of survivors in the M'Poko camp at Bangui's airport and other camps in Central African Republic suggest the problem could be far larger than previously known. Such survivors have never been interviewed by authorities, because of the hesitancy of victims to come forward and the lack of resources for canvassing throughout the country.
The U.N. alone has already reported it is now investigating more than 100 cases here in Central African Republic, where violence exploded in late 2013. Peacekeepers from France, who are not part of the U.N. mission here, and other soldiers from a now repatriated European mission also are facing accusations of sexual misconduct.
The numbers are expected to grow. Two girls from M'Poko who had never been interviewed talked to The Associated Press about their rapes, and several volunteers recounted the ordeals of seven other children. Similar allegations have emerged from other remote towns, where peacekeepers were supposed to protect civilians from sectarian fighting between Christian and Muslim militias. Some are allegations of violent sexual assault while many others involve instances of sex in exchange for food and money in this desperately poor country.
The victims of sexual abuse have little recourse. Nearly all the survivors still live at the very site of their trauma: Few have received any ongoing medical care for post-traumatic stress or sexually transmitted infections. Most cannot identify their attackers, and even if they could, many of the men already have moved on to other assignments outside of Central African Republic.
For example, the 16-year-old who described being gang-raped inside the airport camp could only say her attackers spoke French and were Caucasian. In addition to the French force, other French soldiers were among the European mission serving at the time. She is anonymous because The Associated Press does not name minors who survive sexual violence.
In cases where girls and women became pregnant, paternity testing can help to identify an attacker. Otherwise the allegations are often coming months later, and with few corroborating witnesses. There are no rape kits or physical evidence preserved. Investigators so far have relied on witness statements, and in one case a line-up, which advocates criticized as harmful to the child involved.
"The victim has very little support, very little access to trauma counseling and even less support in terms of access to justice," said Yasmin Sooka, a member of the independent review panel that has studied the U.N.'s response to the allegations of sexual abuse in Central African Republic.
At a rare hearing in the U.S. Senate last week, lawmakers threatened to withhold funding both for the U.N. and for countries that fail to hold their soldiers accountable. The United States is the biggest donor to the U.N.'s peacekeeping operations.
Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. and its entities are working to refer victims quickly to service providers and give them the assistance they need. He added that he hopes more victims are coming forward because they now feel safe in doing so. Dozens of girls and women are being interviewed in Central African Republic's remote Kemo prefecture.
"We expect the number of potential victims in Kemo prefecture to fluctuate as the investigation process moves forward, testimonies are cross-checked and facts ascertained," he said.
France also has launched judicial investigations into the allegations against its troops.
"We must investigate and if it's proven, convict those who are responsible," said a French top diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak publicly on the issue. "It's very important because it's the reputation of the French military —not only in CAR— that is at stake."
EUFOR, a European force that helped guard the area around the airport until a year ago, said it has a "zero tolerance policy" and is working to investigate cases, although the nationalities of some soldiers are still unclear.
Questions of reparations and damages must also be addressed as most of the victims live in "extremely destitute situations," Sooka said. The U.N. has spoken of creating a trust fund, although Sooka noted that it would not include claims of compensation for victims.
While the U.N. has identified cases of suspected abuse in many peacekeeping missions, the numbers are particularly alarming in Central African Republic. Some blame the speed with which existing regional peacekeepers were "re-hatted" into a U.N. mission without thorough vetting. Peacekeepers also have been living in too close contact with the people they are supposed to protect in a country where impunity has long reigned.
The M'Poko airport camp sprang up in a matter of hours, after Christian militia fighters launched an attack in December 2013 against the Muslim rebels in power that sparked months of brutal sectarian violence.
First a few hundred, then a few thousand ran to the grounds by the runway. With time the camp became more permanent, tarps replaced with scrap metal. Now it has its own markets and barber shops, even its own polling station on election day.
Parents here struggle to eke out a living: Most lost everything when rebel fighters burned Christian homes to the ground. Youngsters often try to help their families by scrounging through trash for things to resell or reuse.
One 12-year-old girl recounts with little emotion the afternoon she and her younger brother went looking for plastic containers in the heaps of refuse, looking for things to sell in exchange for money to buy food. They beamed when a peacekeeper offered them a piece of bread. But then she says she was snatched and raped by another man inside the peacekeepers' tent as her terrified brother stood outside.
She eventually was treated at a clinic in the camp, she says, where she was given antibiotics for syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease.
Now 14, the girl wearing a T-shirt decorated with a ballerina slipper is back in school and loves to study math. Her true passion though is her faith, and her greatest fear is that her rape may prevent her from becoming a nun.
"I don't know if I can still become a sister now that I'm no longer a virgin," she says.
She thinks it's easier for her to move on than it is for some people, since no one knows what happened that day except her family and the health worker. Her mind churns though when she thinks about the man who raped her that day, about him now back in Europe and her still living here in the camp.
"Every time I think about what he has done, how he got away with it and will never be punished," she says, "it really hurts inside."
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.