By Jesper Strudsholm
Kalemie, Democratic Republic of Congo - The United Nations truck to the biggest brothel in Kalemie departs every Saturday night at "21 hundred hours", as they say in the military. And soldiers they are, including South Africans, the men who descend from the white truck with official UN logos.
They then enter "Mon Jardin", an ostensible discotheque, but the real purpose of which is revealed by a half-naked woman on a huge wall painting. Her one hand fondles a breast while the other points to a curtain, barely hiding the courtyard behind which a number of small rooms are available for short-term lease. "Three dollar for une moment", says the receptionist in half English, half French.
Up to 45 UN soldiers, mainly Uruguayans, quickly link up with the available girls, some as young as 14 years. The whole operation is supposed to be over at "0100 hours". The weekly event is monitored by uniformed colleagues in an attempt to ensure that everything happens "in an orderly way", says a spokesperson for the UN force, Monuc.
Earlier this year, other UN soldiers in the town of Bunia were caught organising child prostitution. Others were buying sex for food from young rape victims in a camp for internally displaced people. A report about the scandal, allegedly featuring several South Africans, was scheduled for release in August but is still not out.
After the outcry in Bunia, the UN force in Kalemie has asked the owner of Mon Jardin to make sure that none of his girls are under 18.
But, when we visited on a recent, average Saturday night - at the height of the weekly UN invasion - it was no problem to find girls aged 14 and 15. One of them, 15-year old O, is an orphan who arrived in Kalemie during the war. The diminutive bosom under her red dress makes it impossible to ignore that you are dealing with a child.
"They come, they see me, they take me without asking my age," says O. She normally has sex two or three times on a Saturday night. On Wednesdays, she meets the soldiers on the beach at Lake Tanganyika. They will then bring her food that they have smuggled out from the base.
O left school because she ran out of money. Her dream is to save up enough for the costly journey to her home town of Lubumbashi. This is at least what she has told herself for the past ten months.
"I would never do it with locals. They don't pay enough. And I have heard that Congolese are very rough when they have sex," she says.
A 14-year old girl breaks down crying, when she reveals how she lost her virginity to a helicopter pilot from Ukraine. She shared the twenty dollars she was paid with her uncle, who got furious. She now only goes to Mon Jardin when her uncle is out of town.
Amini Ali Moumin, head of Monuc in Kalemie, says; "We don't allow people to go to a brothel. But we can't tell them not to go dance. If they then go through a back door, what can we do?" he asked, apparently referring to Mon Jardin.
Moumin would only be concerned, if the UN made prostitutes of girls who would otherwise not have been so inclined.
"If we enticed people because of financial benefits, it would be wrong," he tells me.
"But, according to the girls, that's exactly what's happening?" I reply.
"I don't buy that. These people would have gone into the market in any circumstances. The hunger is strong here." Moumin maintains Monuc has "zero tolerance" towards people who have sex with girls under 18 years of age.
The peacekeeping force has dismissed an entire Ukrainian helicopter crew who had sex with the same girl on the beach.
However, the weekly expedition to Mon Jardin will continue as long as the local population doesn't complain.
"If a law is broken, and no one reports it, is it then broken?" Moumin asks rhetorically.
Two young women, 22-year old M and 19-year old J, explain that prostitution was a job for slightly older women until the UN arrived.
"Now they are younger. Before, people found that very strange. Now some families accept it. Other families forbid their young girls to go. But the girls are stubborn. They say they don't have money for food and clothes. Life is difficult here," says M. She speaks about her clients as "partners" and seems to have accepted the Uruguayans as fellow sufferers in this poor town.
"The Uruguayans have less money than others. Russians and South Africans are more popular. But there you need an appointment," she says.
The Uruguayans earn about $50 dollars a month and typically pay $10 for the first night with a new girl.
"Next time he will pay five. If he wants to see me during the week, he will bring me some of his food," says M, whose duty roster follows Monuc's: The soldiers are only off every second Saturday. So she has a "partner" from each of the two teams.
The girls sell the smuggled food from Monuc's base to shops in Kalemie where it is bought by civilians employed by the UN.
"Where else in the world can you buy a kilo of vacuum-packed Brazilian coffee for less than two dollars," asks Monuc spokesperson Michel Bonnardeaux, who is strongly opposed to the happenings at Mon Jardin.
After we told Bonnardeaux about our experiences at the brothel, he brings up the issue at a high-level staff meeting. It is once again agreed to send a security officer to the owner of the nightclub to emphasise that no under-age girls will be accepted.
During my interview with Moumin I asked if the same security officers have never told him that the abuse continues. "Maybe they pay the security officers to keep quiet," he said, promising to check up on it.
"We don't want to ruin the reputation of Monuc. And the international community has made this a big issue."