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Haitian Children Search For Their UN Peacekeeper Fathers


JACMEL, Haiti — One evening last November, Jui opened Google Translate on her iPad and began drafting her first-ever message to her father.

“Hello, Dad,” she typed in Creole, the words appearing in Spanish on the right side of the screen. “I’m the daughter you abandoned.”

The 9-year-old told the United Nations peacekeeper from Uruguay who left her when she was barely out of the hospital that she harbored no hatred but was only searching for the answer to a single question: What did we do for you to treat us this way?

Nine months later, she keeps checking Facebook Messenger for a response from her father, Hector Dilamar Silva Borges.

His absence has hovered over her young life. For three years, she and her mother, Phanie, waited for their child support case to move through Haiti’s courts. Then in December, more than two years after the UN confirmed Borges is Jui’s father through a DNA test, a judge issued an unprecedented ruling, ordering him to pay $3,590 per month, a landmark decision with the potential to impact families around the country with similar cases.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Jui and her mother, Phanie

UN peacekeepers fathered dozens of children while they were stationed in Haiti between 2004 and 2017, often with women they were providing money and food to — behavior UN policy “strongly discouraged” because of the “inherently unequal power dynamics.” Initially deployed in response to a coup attempt and the ousting of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, their force grew following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. But none stayed long, and when their rotations ended, they abandoned their babies, leaving behind a generation of children born into a nation struggling to rebuild, with limited access to food, schooling, and healthcare.

Calls for the UN to dispatch new peacekeepers echoed across the world after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse threatened to send the country into turmoil — and before a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the southern coast in August, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying entire towns.

For some of the women in Haiti still seeking support from the peacekeepers who swept in a decade ago, the possibility of a new influx of them triggered resentment. All but one of their claims for child support from UN peacekeepers have stalled in Haiti’s courts. Lawyers representing the women said the UN and the peacekeepers’ home nations are withholding some of the documents needed to move forward, and that judges are reluctant to rule against an international institution or countries that are supplying Haiti with critical resources, including funding, training, and jobs that offer a path out of the country — or a handsome salary.

In response to questions for this story, a UN spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the organization has a zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse, and said it engages with local communities to encourage individuals to come forward if they have claims, including through the recent distribution of 6,000 flyers on the issue in Port-au-Prince. The spokesperson said that the ruling in favor of Jui was “very important” and that the UN was ready to cooperate further with national authorities.

Uruguay’s office in charge of overseeing peacekeeper training and liaising with the UN, the Uruguayan National System in Support of Peace Operations, told BuzzFeed News that it has not received a notification about the ruling against Borges and that the country’s judicial system “does not permit in absentia convictions.”

The law firm representing Phanie and Jui, Port-au-Prince-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, initiated child support claims from UN peacekeepers on behalf of nine other families in 2017. It’s unclear how many such cases remain pending in Haiti’s courts.

“I had crossed my fingers to get this ruling because if there’s one, we will get more,” said Mario Joseph, the firm’s managing attorney. “It will open doors in other courts.”

Yet even that hope was limited. As of August, eight months after the ruling, Jui and Phanie have yet to receive a single dollar from Borges, who remains an active member of the Uruguayan navy and did not respond to a request for comment.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

A United Nations soldier keeps watch as earthquake survivors gather outside a food distribution point Feb. 8, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Since 1948, the signature blue helmets of UN peacekeepers have become common sights at the scenes of devastation and turmoil around the world. Those who don the organization’s uniform are typically members of their home nation’s military, which the UN reimburses with a fee for every person it enlists. Presenting themselves as an independent force that feeds the hungry and intervenes in genocides, peacekeepers developed credibility in most of the world as something of a moral compass for the global age. But evidence of abuse on several missions in recent years has tarnished their reputation, perhaps nowhere more than in Haiti, where peacekeepers were in charge of building shelters and distributing food after the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, killed more than a quarter-million people and flattened much the country.

Even as aftershocks continued to rumble, some peacekeepers began trading food for sex in the tent cities that sprang up to house the hundreds of thousands of displaced families and in the areas around the UN bases.

“I tried to point fingers as much as I could and sound the alarm,” said Lina AbiRafeh, a women’s rights activist who coordinated the UN gender-based violence response following the 2010 earthquake. She received reports of abuse and exploitation frequently and “acted on each report, through every channel available” but UN officials didn’t take them seriously or investigate them in a timely manner, she said.

Abuse and exploitation became common. Peacekeepers began “going to the beach, acting like tourists, drinking, chasing girls,” according to a study published last year by Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. Two of the study’s authors, Sabine Lee and Susan Bartels, oversaw a 2017 survey of approximately 2,500 Haitians. Of those, 265 said they had a child with a UN peacekeeper or knew of someone who did. Nearly half of the UN peacekeepers reported in the survey were from Uruguay and Brazil.

Of the 120 reports of sexual abuse or exploitation the UN says it has received in Haiti since 2007, it has opened 88 investigations and sent home 41 uniformed personnel, according to the organization’s database. Of those, 12 have spent an undisclosed amount of time in jail in their home countries, nine have been kicked out of their country’s military, and two have faced financial sanctions at home.

The problem of peacekeepers sexually abusing or exploiting local women is not unique to Haiti — there have been 1,143 allegations since 2007, across at least a dozen countries, according to the database. But Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, has endured multiple scandals, including a sex ring in which more than 130 peacekeepers from Sri Lanka exploited nine Haitian children, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. It wasn’t until 2015 that the UN began requiring peacekeepers’ home countries to certify that deployed military personnel had no prior allegations of human rights violations, according to the UN spokesperson.

And it’s not just the UN: In 2011, senior staff at Oxfam GB failed to act on reports of its aid workers sexually abusing Haitian girls as young as 12. Several American missionaries have been jailed for sexually abusing children in Haiti.

The private struggles of the families abandoned by UN peacekeepers take place against the larger struggles of a nation that has suffered a seemingly unending string of tragedies.

Rose Mina Joseph, then 16, met Julio Cesar Posse, a 35-year-old marine from Uruguay, at a beach party in the southwestern seaside town of Port-Salut a few months after the 2010 earthquake. Posse pressured Rose Mina into sex, she said.

“I didn’t have an understanding of what I was doing,” said Rose Mina during an interview at her home this month. Under Haitian law at the time, it was considered statutory rape.

Shortly after, Rose Mina realized she was pregnant, and within months of her son Anderson’s birth, Posse returned home. Rose Mina depended on relatives to feed her newborn. Once, Posse gave her about $100 via a Western Union–like service. It was, she said, the only time he sent help.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Rose Mina Joseph and her son, Anderson Joseph

Posse was a member of the Uruguayan navy until 2018, navy spokesperson Alejandro Chucarro told BuzzFeed News. Carina de los Santos, legal adviser at the Uruguayan National System in Support of Peace Operations, said “severe sanctions restricting his freedom” were imposed on Posse, but that his withdrawal from the navy was unrelated to his paternity case in Haiti. She did not specify what the sanctions entailed. Posse did not respond to a request for comment.

Though the 2010 earthquake brought a range of international organizations to Haiti, their impact was often underwhelming, and at times damaging.

While Anderson was still breastfeeding, cholera, introduced by Nepalese UN peacekeepers via a sewage leak at one of their bases, became an epidemic, killing at least 10,000 people and making more than 800,000 ill. At the same time, international donations for reconstruction efforts began evaporating with no explanation: With the half a billion dollars the American Red Cross raised, it built only six homes, according to an investigation by ProPublica. A highly touted $300 million industrial park inaugurated by the Clintons and Sean Penn under-delivered, creating few jobs and drawing fewer tenants. Meanwhile, the Haitian government embezzled much of a $2 billion loan from Venezuela meant to be invested in education, health and social initiatives, and infrastructure, embroiling one administration after another in graft scandals.

In 2016, as Anderson prepared to enter kindergarten, Hurricane Matthew barrelled into Haiti, killing at least 1,000 people and destroying 30,000 houses along the southern coast — including his family’s. They were forced to move to a small hut along an unpaved road, a single room with cinder block walls and a corrugated tin roof.

In recent months, as Anderson finished fourth grade and the country navigated the aftermath of the president’s assassination, crime has risen sharply, as gangs have taken control of key transportation routes in and out of Port-au-Prince, forcing thousands of people to move elsewhere.

“Every day gets harder,” Rose Mina said in an interview this month, as she sat on the bed she and her son shared, wiping the sweat off his forehead as he napped beside her.

The only object linking him to his father — a photograph of Posse — lies tucked away in a suitcase in a corner of the room. She said she only takes it out when Anderson asks where his father is.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Becheline Appoliner, the mother of Dominic Antonio Cortez, whose father was a UN peacekeeper from Argentina

The newborns became toddlers, and the toddlers school children. Soon, they began asking questions.

Where is my father? Why don’t I look like the other kids?

Dominic Antonio Cortez’s tawny skin and the 2-inch-high nest of curls on his head stood out in stark contrast to the darker complexion and buzz cuts of the other boys in the neighborhood. At school, he said, classmates whispered about him behind his back and taunted him to his face, disparagingly calling him “Little Minustah,” after the name of the UN’s mission to Haiti: MINUSTAH.

“The teachers don’t like me,” he said. “Other children don’t want me in the school.”

The 9-year-old said he prefers to be at home, where he sleeps on a thin mattress he shares with his two siblings in the living room and often goes to bed with an empty stomach.

In a fit of anger, Dominic recently accused his mother, Becheline Appoliner, of preventing him from finding his father, and threatened to harm himself. The boy says he wants to be a UN peacekeeper when he grows up.

In 2011, Appoliner met Argentine peacekeeper Marcelo Cortez as she walked to a local market in Port-au-Prince, and he invited her out to Jet Set, a nightclub popular with foreigners, she said. Soon, he was spending time with her family and sleeping over in their home. When she told him she was pregnant, Appoliner remembers him being happy, but just two months later, when his rotation ended, he left Haiti and soon after, blocked her on Facebook. Cortez did not respond to a request for comment.

When Dominic was 3 months old, Appoliner said she went to one of the UN offices in Port-au-Prince, desperate for some financial help. They took down her information, but they did not follow up until Dominic was 7 years old, according to Appoliner.

An acquaintance living near her in 2016, aware that she was no longer able to put Dominic’s older brother through school, suggested she reach out to a certain lawyer who might be able to help.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Mario Joseph, a human rights lawyer and managing director of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux

Soon, Appoliner found herself sitting across from Mario Joseph in his office, in an unmarked building along one of the capital city’s narrow, winding streets. By then, Joseph, along with the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, had grown accustomed to fighting the UN: They had filed a class action lawsuit in a US federal court on behalf of victims of the cholera epidemic, a case they lost when the court upheld the UN’s immunity from damages.

Joseph, 58, has worked some of the country’s most emblematic human rights cases, representing victims of the Raboteau massacre and of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. He grew up in a house with no electricity or running water and believes many of the injustices committed in Haiti are a result of racism and imperialism, endemic not just among the outsiders who interfere in the country, but within the Haitian government as well.

He took Appoliner’s case and began putting together a file for Cortez. In August 2016, Joseph’s law firm sent legal notifications to MINUSTAH informing them that they planned to file child support suits and requesting information on the alleged fathers, including about any investigations related to paternity cases by the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Unit and the results of DNA tests, some of which had been submitted to the organization as early as 2014. The response, said Joseph, was opaque and incomplete. They did not provide details on internal investigations into the claimants’ cases or certification that the peacekeepers’ immunity did not prevent these cases from moving forward in Haitian courts.

In December 2017, Joseph filed claims on behalf of 10 women in courts across Haiti.

“They say they’re promoting human rights, yet they’re violating ours,” Joseph said of the UN.

A UN spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the organization has provided “documentation and information to the mothers as well as to the national authorities of Haiti,” and that 31 Haitian women and 36 children are receiving assistance that “varies in accordance to their individual needs” and includes funds for the upcoming school year.

The foreign ministry, which is the entity that corresponds directly with the UN, has kept Joseph on the sidelines, he said, including holding meetings with the women without having their lawyers present. Claude Joseph, who initially took over as prime minister after Moïse’s assassination and is now serving as foreign minister, declined an interview request from BuzzFeed News.

The women’s cases have largely stalled in their respective courts. Mario Joseph thinks part of the problem is that judges are reluctant to rule against the UN or its member countries because many of them have received training from the UN or are hoping to get a job there one day.

During an interview, Bernard Saint-Vil, dean of the Court of First Instance in Port-au-Prince, initially said the fear of reprisals by the UN “may also be a factor” in the delay of these cases but then backtracked, saying judges must apply the law. Sitting in his office a few blocks from the National Palace, which was partially destroyed during the 2010 earthquake and never rebuilt, Saint-Vil clarified that pressure for the cases to move forward needs to come from the foreign ministry.

After nearly four years, only one judge — in the case of Jui — has issued a favorable judgment for a woman filing a child support claim against a UN peacekeeper. But because it is nearly impossible to enforce the ruling in Uruguay, Joseph said that all he can do now is tell other UN member countries about the ruling in hopes they increase diplomatic pressure.

Some of the women try to track down their children’s fathers themselves. On Feb. 8, 2020, Appoliner wrote to Cortez’s son, Jorge, on Facebook Messenger: “I’m an 8-year-old child. I want to meet Marcelo Antonio Cortez, my father.”

The following day, Jorge wrote back: “What do I have to do with this? Find him and write [to] him.”

A few weeks later, Appoliner messaged him again. “Your father had a child with me, look at the photo,” and attached a photo of Dominic. The following month, Jorge responded: “I spoke to him and he says you’re lying.”

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Appoliner’s text exchange with Jorge, Cortez’s son

Appoliner holds on to whatever hope she can. In her purse, she carries an old, weathered business card belonging to Carla Pessanha Loque, a former senior victims’ rights officer at the UN, even though she can’t remember the last time Pessanha picked up her call. Still, “I feel like it’s a support,” she said.

By early August, she was behind on rent and on the verge of getting evicted.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

The view from Omese’s apartment of Jalousie, known in the capital of Port-au-Prince for the painted homes of an overcrowded shantytown on the mountainside

Above the hills in Port-au-Prince, Jalousie looks vibrant.

The slum — nestled in the middle of Petionville, an upscale neighborhood where many diplomats live in villas hidden behind tall concrete walls — was painted by the government with pastel greens, purples, and pinks in 2013 as an attempt to improve the view for the wealthy surroundings. But behind the bright walls, little was done to improve sanitation, introduce running water, or provide more electricity for residents.

In a small, blue hut on one of Jalousie’s steeply sloping streets, Omése Théodore lives with her three children, each fathered by a different UN peacekeeper, she said.

In 2009, Théodore was studying communications in college and taking care of her first child, a son she says is from a Cameroonian peacekeeper who had recently left the country. When the earthquake hit, she lost her home and was forced to sleep on the street for a month.

With unemployment rates hovering above 50% and a toddler to raise, Théodore began “looking for someone else to help me with my child” with money for food and school. She found a Rwandan peacekeeper who offered her money “and a little something for the kid.” When he found out she was pregnant with his child, shortly after, he urged her to get an abortion, which is illegal in Haiti. A few months later and six months into her pregnancy, his rotation ended and he went home, said Théodore.

The following year, Théodore met another peacekeeper, from Benin. She became pregnant, he ordered her to abort, and she refused. This time, he threatened to shoot her, she said.

Théodore went to the UN base in Port-au-Prince to ask for money for her children. The organization must provide “assistance and support addressing the medical, legal, psychological and social consequences directly arising from sexual exploitation and abuse” by UN personnel, according to a document from the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate. But Théodore and three other women told BuzzFeed News that they have only gotten limited and intermittent monetary support, including a one-time $1,500 housing stipend and about $660 for school every year.

Théodore said the organization only did DNA tests on two of her three sons, and that it has only released the results for one of those two. Through an Italy-based nonprofit, the UN sends money to help pay for her children’s food and schooling, but she said she hasn’t gotten any support since March. The UN told BuzzFeed News that it cannot address individual cases because of confidentiality issues.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Omése Theódore, with her children, Carl Michel Armand (left), Jacques Andre Theódore (center), and Jean Christ Theódore (right)

In recent years, the UN began to take steps to address the history of sexual exploitation among its ranks.

In 2019, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti organized a program in several cities in the country to raise awareness about sexual abuse perpetrated by its staff. Called “Theatre of the Oppressed,” it encouraged spectators to go onstage to offer solutions to the problem.

In 2020 — over a decade after Haitian women began reporting peacekeepers’ abuse — the UN approved a trust fund for survivors of sexual exploitation by its staff in Haiti. As of June, Uruguay and Brazil, the two countries with the most reports of sexual exploitation in Haiti, had not contributed any money.

The trust fund “is so poorly funded that it is an embarrassment to the UN,” said Paula Donovan, codirector of Code Blue Campaign, an organization that advocates for survivors of sexual abuse by UN personnel. She added that while the UN has encouraged troop-contributing countries to enforce child support legislation, it has stopped short of setting any requirements.

“It’s simply no longer standing in the way when women make paternity claims,” said Donovan.

The UN spokesperson said the organization calls “on those who fathered these children in Haiti to assume their individual parental responsibility toward them,” and that it has provided “several Haitian mothers with DNA test results.” The spokesperson added that the UN supports brokering agreements between the parents, though these are “not always possible as they depend on the cooperation of the father.”

Chucarro, the Uruguayan navy spokesperson, said the country adopted “a series of measures to implement the UN’s policy of zero tolerance on sexual abuse and exploitation” in 2003, and referred BuzzFeed News to the Uruguayan foreign ministry for answers to specific questions. The Uruguayan foreign ministry did not respond to a request for information.

During a recent afternoon, Théodore’s sons gathered in their living room, which was just big enough for two chairs, a dresser, and a small fridge. Jean Christ, 4, sat on his mother’s lap. Jacques Andre, who had just lost his third tooth, cheekily sang a song he heard on the radio. Eleven-year-old Carl Michel Armand held a sketchbook depicting the universe of “Macsi Puissant,” the superhero family he had created, giving each member a different power: one could make trees, another could put together robots, and a third one could muster enough electricity to power his house.

Whenever they were hungry, the three boys asked Théodore to search for their fathers.

The hip-height fridge was empty except for four tin containers filled with water.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Jui plays piano at her home.

The videos Jui posts on TikTok usually show her singing or dancing in front of a mural painted by her mother, Phanie. They come from a family of artists and art lovers. Paintings by some of Haiti’s most famous oil masters lie stacked against the walls of their home. Édith Piaf and jazz often plays in the background. Jui is learning to play the piano.

But she doesn’t fantasize about becoming an artist when she grows up. Recently, Jui decided that she wants to be a nurse.

She believes that when he’s older, Borges, her father, will one day fall ill, and she wants to be the one to bring him back to health. She dreams of the moment when she’s working a shift at the hospital, and she sees her dad’s name on the list of patients. She has it all planned: When that happens, she’ll ask to be his nurse, go out to buy him the medicine he needs, and then watch him feel ashamed that he did not help her.

For now, the A-student studies extra hard in her science class, making sure to memorize which medicinal herbs treat what disease and how best to administer them. She takes long walks with her uncle at a nearby garden, where he teaches her about which leaves can be used to brew healing teas.

Jui still possesses the one thing she has from Borges: the $120 he gave Phanie before he left a decade ago, tucked underneath her pillowcase. ●


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