- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

MONROVIA, Liberia Destitute and alone in a vast refugee camp, Massa Rogger, 15, believed her problems were solved the day a builder on a relief organization's payroll asked her to be his girlfriend. But one week after she gave birth to his child, he left her.

Miss Rogger's experience seems far from unusual, according to a report this year by the U.N. refugee agency and Save the Children (UK) alleging widespread sexual abuse in refugee camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

After years of war, women and girls inside and outside the camps often have no option but to trade sex for food, plastic sheeting or a bar of soap.

Miss Rogger was 12 when fighting broke out in the Sierra Leone town where she was living with her aunt and uncle. The three fled over the border, but once in Liberia, Miss Rogger was abandoned.

She followed a group of refugees to the capital, Monrovia, where a mother of two took her in at a camp. But when Miss Rogger turned 14, the woman said she must fend for herself.

Miss Rogger struggled by on odd jobs such as cooking and washing clothes for about a year, then met a Liberian construction worker hired by a relief organization to build houses and latrines at her camp. The man, 10 years older than she, promised her food, clothing and a home of her own in the city.

The apartment never materialized, but for more than a year he brought her food and small amounts of money until she became pregnant and refused to have an abortion. At 17, she became a single mother.

"I accepted him because I didn't have no one to help me," she said softly, tears welling up in her eyes. "He was my first boyfriend."

Miss Rogger's friends all young women left on their own in their teens described similar experiences with men who worked at the camp or came there to trade goods and services with the refugees.

Mariama Kallon, 22, said she has been sleeping with different men since her boyfriend of eight years walked out on her last year. These relationships usually last a couple of weeks. But sometimes the man stays just one night, leaving her a "gift" of as little as five Liberian dollars worth 10 cents in U.S. money.

"I never wanted to live that life," she said, taking a break from washing clothes outside the hut she shares with her sister. "Apart from relationships, there is no other way to survive."

Investigators for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children said they heard many similar tales from women and children as young as 13 who felt they had no option but to trade sex for food, money and services.

The allegations have been leveled against 67 men from 40 groups. They cannot be independently verified, but the two organizations said the number of complaints left no doubt the problem is serious in all three countries.

The report doesn't identify any offenders because the investigation is continuing. But no international worker has been implicated.

The most frequent exploiters are said to be locally hired men working for U.N. or private relief organizations particularly in Liberia, where they are among the few with disposable income in a country where unemployment hovers around 75 percent.

But other men were also found to have used positions of trust and power to win sexual favors from refugees, including peacekeepers, refugee leaders, teachers and local businessmen.

When Musu Mohai applied for a high school scholarship for refugees, she said she was approached by one of the teachers on the interviewing committee who asked her to be his girlfriend.

"I said I didn't want to be his friend, and I never got that scholarship," the 18-year-old said bitterly.

As jobs are scarce, some parents turn a blind eye when their daughters find much older boyfriends who can help. Many families don't consider these girls to be children, coming from cultures in which marriage takes place as young as 15.


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