'I was 12 when I was raped by a Ugandan soldier'

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Obo street scene
Image caption,
Residents in Obo rely on the Ugandan army for their safety

Ugandan soldiers sent to the Central African Republic to hunt for rebels are facing accusations that they have been raping local women and girls.

A mother by the age of 13.

When I meet Eloise what strikes me is how incredibly small she is. Her arms are tiny and she's not very tall either.

The thought of a man - a soldier - raping her seems unimaginable.

But it's not only the trauma of sexual violence Eloise has to deal with - she has a nine-month-old baby to look after too.

We are not using her real name because she is a minor and also for her own protection from possible retaliation.

She says that when she was 12 a Ugandan soldier, deployed to protect her town, attacked her.

"My mother sent me to the market to buy something," she says. "On the way, a Ugandan soldier grabbed me. He dragged me to a nearby lodge [hotel] and raped me."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Uganda soldiers were sent to the CAR to hunt for Joseph Kony's LRA rebels

Uganda has about 2,500 soldiers stationed in the Central African Republic (CAR). The mission, which began in 2009, aims to hunt down Joseph Kony and members of his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

The rebel group has been accused of committing massacres, abductions, rape and acts of looting. Kony and his men started in Uganda but went on to wage their war across the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the CAR.

But now the Ugandan army is being accused of committing sexual crimes similar to those carried out by the group it's meant to be fighting.

At a secret location, we meet Marie. She is 14 years old and far more confident than Eloise.

She makes a similar allegation.

"I was going to the field to work and on my way, I was grabbed by a Ugandan. He was violent, he attacked me and he raped me. When I think about this, it hurts me. I didn't expect it at all.

"If I had a knife or machete I would have tried to attack him."

Most of the soldiers from the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), are stationed in Obo, in the far south-west of the CAR.

Dense forest and rivers surround it. But it's also a modern military town. During the day there's the constant sound of helicopters and planes taking off - soldiers coming in and going out, their supplies arriving.

A United States unit of about 100 military advisers is also based in the town, supporting the mission to find Kony.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
These Ugandan soldiers, not accused of any crimes, are shown on patrol in the Obo area

Uganda operates under an African Union mandate but other countries in the region affected by the LRA, which are meant to be part of the mission, hardly contribute troops because of conflicts back home.

Obo mayor Barthelemy Maickos says: "I'm thankful for the Ugandans being in our locality. If they were not here, Joseph Kony's men would be."

But, with all the allegations of wrongdoing, he wishes his own government would take up the responsibility of protecting its people.

The CAR has faced bouts of instability. The most recent began in 2012 when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew the government. To confront them a Christian/Animist group the anti-Balaka was formed. The country is divided and the United Nations stepped in to provide peacekeepers.

But some of these UN soldiers, as well as those from former colonial power France, have been accused of sexually abusing boys, girls and women.

In an effort to be more open about these crimes, the UN has investigated allegations against Ugandan soldiers in and around Obo.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, last July said his office had interviewed 18 women who said they had faced sexual violence and harassment by Ugandan soldiers. Fourteen cases of alleged rape, including cases involving victims who were minors at the time, were also reported, all in and around Obo.

Image caption,
Mayor Barthelemy Maickos says the legal system is failing Obo's residents

Several women and girls reported they had been taken from their villages by Ugandans and forced to become prostitutes or sex slaves, or to marry Ugandan soldiers, the statement said.

Mr Al Hussein called on Uganda to investigate the alleged crimes itself and ensure that, where evidence was sufficient, alleged perpetrators were brought to justice.

But the man charged with carrying out public prosecutions in Obo, Max Tina, told us he gets little co-operation from Uganda.

"We knew one case where a dog was used to rape a minor," he says. "When we started investigating, the Ugandan authorities decided to clean their tracks and repatriate those who committed this crime back to Uganda."

I put these allegations to Brig-Gen Richard Karemire, the Ugandan military spokesman, who says an investigation was carried out in Obo but no evidence was found.

"A team went on the ground and did a very good investigation and they never found anything really to implicate any UPDF individual for having perpetrated such crimes," he says.

I push him on the fact that such complaints have followed the Ugandan army when it's been deployed in Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He answers: "Allegations will always be there. What's important is that when there are allegations, when you investigate and find elements culpable, what do you do? Wherever we find any of our soldiers culpable we take action."

Maria Burnett, associate director at Human Rights Watch, sees the situation very differently.

"We have long-standing concerns about accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse committed by Ugandan soldiers during operations outside Uganda," she says.

"We have discussed our concerns with various officials over many years and each time there are commitments to investigate, mixed with denials that abuses have occurred."

I asked Eloise, still a child herself, what she hoped for her and her baby's future.

"I'm not thinking of anything for us, " she says. "I don't know - I'm not thinking of anything."

Already in a desperate situation, they have barely a fighting chance.