Inside her grandmother’s home, 30 kilometres outside Phnom Penh, Sor Zamel knelt before a woman’s photograph propped up on an altar, engulfed by an incense haze. As she finished her Buddhist prayer, she included a final request: “Please show me a way to find my father.”
That was in 2016, when Zamel, who is now in her late 20s, was visiting her native village of Sdao Konleng in Cambodia’s Kandal Province, hoping to learn more about the man responsible for bringing her into the world. She was a child when her mother died, leaving little information about him.
Even today, all she knows is that she resembles the Ghanian United Nations peacekeeper who left Cambodia shortly after her birth in the early 1990s. The exact year of the man’s repatriation and Zamel’s birthday, like many aspects of her biography, are unclear. Her family identification document, or family book, says she was born in 1990, but that is almost certainly incorrect. Mistakes on official documents, especially dates of birth, are common in Cambodia. Zamel’s given name on her ID card is “Untac”—the acronym for the UN mission that brought her father to Cambodia and lasted from 1992 to 1993.
Zamel never attended school and went straight to work as a child, washing motorbikes at first. With a crown of curls, dark skin and features likely inherited from her father, she suffered discrimination and teasing for looking different from many Cambodians.
“Some people don’t believe I am Cambodian,” Zamel says.
“I want to see my dad’s face. Even if I only see him once, I’ll be happy with my life.”
As a teenager, she discovered her true gender identity, and a relative who did not accept her identity as a transwoman started to beat her regularly. To avoid the violence, Zamel fled to Phnom Penh and pursued modeling and acting. She later started performing in drag shows at the capital’s Classic Club, where clad in a corset and sequins she’d bring down the house to the sounds of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”.
But by 2016, the reserved entertainer, who had once lit up the stage, had fallen on hard times. Aside from occasional TV appearances, where she was the butt of racist jokes, jobs hardly came her way.
Feeling alone and abandoned, she turned to the surviving relatives from her mother’s side for clues about her father.
“I want to see my dad’s face,” she said that afternoon at her grandmother’s house in Sdao Konleng, her head buried in her arms. “Even if I only see him once, I’ll be happy with my life.”
UNTAC’s “Unacceptable Activities”
This October marks 30 years since the signing of the peace treaty that officially ended years of war and paved the way for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Decades on, a little-known legacy of its peacekeeping mission shows the lasting impacts of UN interventions, especially for some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable.
UN peacekeeping forces around the world comprise a patchwork of troops and police from UN member states, deployed to conflict-torn countries to facilitate a transition to peace. Although they wear their various national uniforms, they have two insignia in common: a pale blue helmet or beret. The UN says both have become symbols of hope ever since the UN’s first peacekeeping mission in the Middle East in 1948.
Though recent sexual abuse and exploitation scandals involving peackeepers in Haiti and the Central African Republic have tarnished that image, misconduct by the “blue helmets” is nothing new. Neither is the phenomenon of so-called peace babies—a term coined during the 1999 to 2010 UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo to describe children born to peacekeepers and local women they were assigned to protect. But births of “peace babies” date back at least to the early 1990s.
By 1993, the number of sex workers in Cambodia rose from 6,000 prior to the mission to more than 25,000—among them underage girls.
UNTAC remains one of the UN’s most ambitious and complex peacekeeping interventions. In some respects, it was a resounding success: it brought 20,000 military, police and civilian personnel from over 100 countries to Cambodia, and from March 1992 to September 1993, it effectively ran the country.
The blue helmets had a sweeping mandate and the unprecedented task of organising the first democratic election after the Khmer Rouge genocide—no small feat in a nation still reeling from the atrocities and years of diplomatic isolation. Their other responsibilities included supervising disarmament and the ceasefire between warring factions and repatriating thousands of Cambodian refugees from Thai border camps.
But the mission also made history for its treatment of women and girls as allegations exposed rampant abuse, harassment and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers, including paying for the services of sex workers, which is now prohibited under UN rules.
One year into UNTAC’s mission, the Sunday Times compared the Cambodian public’s criticisms of the foreign peacekeeping forces to Britons’ criticisms of US soldiers during the Second World War: “overpaid, oversexed and over here”.
By 1993, the number of sex workers in Cambodia rose from 6,000 prior to the mission to more than 25,000—among them underage girls—while peacekeepers were accused of unleashing an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Years later, their behaviour was immortalised in a local museum depicting the country’s culture and history. Inside, a wax figure of a male UN peacekeeper sporting the signature blue beret embraced a figure of a female sex worker.
UN peacekeepers showed little respect for women, according to an internal UNTAC report from September 1992. “Perhaps because many UNTAC personnel only have contact with Khmer (and Vietnamese) women through prostitution, there is a tendency on the part of some personnel to treat all women as though they were prostitutes. This includes grabbing women on the street, making inappropriate gestures and remarks and physically following or chasing women travelling in public,” the document says.
The lack of women in high-level positions in UNTAC was noticed by staff, civil society members and the public, who in 1992 published an open letter to the mission leadership in the Phnom Penh Post expressing concerns about male UNTAC personnel’s “inappropriate behaviour” toward women, including sexual harassment.
Veteran women’s rights activist Ros Sopheap remembers how an UNTAC soldier harassed her when she worked as an interpreter for an election observer—one of the very few women working for the mission. The man, whose name and nationality Sopheap did not feel comfortable disclosing, followed her around the polling station.
“He always wanted to talk to me, and I just talk because I can practice my English,” she says. “Later, he gave me some money—US$20. At the time, I can’t remember if I took it or not. Maybe I took one time.”
“I think some UNTAC kids have lost confidence because they don’t have a family. That’s why they don’t know how to go on.”
After the ballot, he showed up at her home in Phnom Penh and tried coaxing her into coming to his hotel. To get rid of him, Sopheap told the soldier she’d come by later but never did. “I didn’t feel comfortable when he kept asking me again and again,” Sopheap says.
When aid workers complained about peacekeepers visiting a red-light district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, UNTAC head and Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi quipped: “Boys will be boys.” Management then instructed UN personnel not to park cars in front of brothels and to swap uniforms for plain clothes. The UN also shipped 800,000 condoms to the country in an effort to thwart the spread of HIV.
In 2017, Akashi acknowledged that “there were violations of rules and principles”.
“All UN missions are subject to some unacceptable activities, and they are at the same time asked to do their very, very best to observe a code of good behaviour,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes, they fail, and that’s too bad, and they have to be corrected.”
The UN launched a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual exploitation and abuse in 2003. But in the early 1990s, it had little means to curb the purchasing of sexual services by staff in Cambodia, and according to a report by UN Research Institute for Social Development, training for incoming UNTAC staff and military personnel on cultural sensitivity and HIV/AIDS education was not “considered a priority”. A community relations officer was brought in one year into the 18-month mission to facilitate, among other things, sexual abuse complaints.
When aid workers complained about peacekeepers visiting a red-light district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, head of UNTAC Yasushi Akashi quipped: “Boys will be boys.”
Today, UN rules prohibit the exchange of money, employment or goods for sex. Sexual relations between UN personnel—including peacekeepers—and those the organisation serves are “strongly discouraged” because “they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics”.
Many sexual relationships, experts say, culminated in “fake marriages” with unwitting Cambodian and Vietnamese women, who were abandoned by their husbands as soon as the mission was over and the men were repatriated to their home countries.
These women were frequently left alone in a staunchly conservative country to suffer the stigma of having had sex outside of marriage.
“They were often ostracised from their families and communities, making it difficult to build new relationships and find work,” writes Hayley Lopes in a 2013 paper on sexual violence and exploitation of women by peacekeepers.
How Many Peace Babies?
Pen Visa, known as Mr. Black—a moniker he took on to spite those who discriminate against him due to his dark skin—says his biological mother gave him up to his adoptive mother when he was 3 years old, after his father, an UNTAC soldier, was repatriated in 1993.
“I have also a brother, but my brother has white skin,” he says.
Visa considers himself a fortunate outlier. Of course, he says, he wants to know if he looks like his father, but having grown up in a nurturing household, he is content with who he has become. Today, as CEO of Black Corp, a company that sells skin whitening creams, Visa lives comfortably in the capital with his wife and two daughters.
“For my life, it’s very lucky because I have my adoptive mom to support me. The other UNTAC children—yes I met six UNTAC, like me—they have different situations,” he says. “I think some UNTAC kids have lost confidence because they don’t have a family. That’s why they don’t know how to go on.”
Other than a handful of testimonies and anecdotal evidence, there is no reliable data on how many children UN peacekeepers fathered while stationed in Cambodia. The UN website monitoring sexual misconduct only dates back to 2007, so there is no indication of the number of sexual exploitation and abuse cases in Cambodia during the UNTAC years.
A spokesperson for the UN’s Department of Peace Operations says “there was no central repository” for sexual exploitation and abuse complaints in Cambodia at the time.
The UN does not know how many children were fathered by peacekeepers in Cambodia, the spokesperson says, adding that paternity claims are a “priority concern” for the organisation, and the UN is working with nations to address pending claims, regardless of the timing of the pregnancy or birth, by collecting DNA samples and coordinating with national judicial authorities.
A 2001 paper published by the Norway-based War and Children Identity Project cites an Australian TV documentary that estimated that UN personnel fathered up to 25,000 children in Cambodia between 1992 and 1997.
“It wouldn’t just be hard to believe, but it would certainly be significantly, significantly more than in other contexts,” Sabine Lee, professor of modern history at the UK’s University of Birmingham, says about the estimate.
Lee conducted a survey in Haiti in 2017 with fellow academic Susan Bartels probing women’s and children’s experiences of the UN peacekeeping mission stationed on the island nation between 2004 and 2017. Out of 2,541 interviewees, 265 told stories that mentioned children fathered by UN peacekeepers—about one in 10—showing how common the phenomenon was.
Reliable statistics, Lee says, are the prerequisite for devising meaningful solutions and UN programmes tackling gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers.
“The United Nations appears to be very interested in being part of the solution, but without data within the United Nations itself, it’s going to be very difficult for the voices wanting to push the issue to really be heard,” she says.
Lee and Bartels’s research was a response, Lee adds, “to a lot of people telling us we can’t do anything in terms of programming if we don’t have data”.
Tracking the Ghana Battalion
Though there are gaping holes in the story, with key characters missing, family accounts have helped paint a fuller picture of what happened between Zamel’s parents.
Her mother, an industrious, petite woman named Sarem, worked in the capital in the early 1990s as a cleaner at the Ponleu Pich Kolab Sor Hotel—“shiny diamond white rose”, in Khmer—which has since shuttered. There she met a UN peacekeeper who stayed at the hotel with a group of fellow Ghanians.
Their relationship allegedly lasted about a year, according to Zamel’s sister. The man left days after Zamel was born.
“He called my sister and asked her to bring the kid so he can see [her] before he gets on his flight,” Sor Samon, Zamel’s aunt, said during the 2016 visit to Sdao Konleng Village. “She went the day after, but he had already flown away.”
Only the peacekeeper’s Cambodian interpreter, who acted as a liaison between the two, has knowledge of the man’s personal details, but the interpreter’s whereabouts are unknown.
“Call the man [a relative of the hotel owner] and ask for the translator’s phone number,” Samon implored her niece. “Tell him it was when the translator worked with your mom. He will know.”
“Note the number down and call him. It is [about] your future,” she added.
Zamel never made the call. Her older sister, Sor Sarom, is the only family member who met the purported father when visiting the Ponleu Pich Kolab Sor Hotel as a child.
“He called my sister and asked her to bring the kid so he can see [her] before he gets on his flight. …She went the day after, but he had already flown away.”
Based on the woman’s description of the hotel building, Stanley Brian Alloh, a retired former officer from the first UNTAC Ghana Battalion in Phnom Penh, says “that might be where we stayed” for two months in 1991. He was deployed with some 50 soldiers ahead of the mission launch to lay the groundwork for incoming troops and later manage the ceasefire between warring factions, including the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front and the new Cambodian government. His battalion left Cambodia some time in 1992.
“I want to state that it was really not an issue because we stayed there barely over a year,” he says in reference to children potentially being fathered by his men. “There was a rumour that one or two had kids, but it was not authentic—it was not out. So you cannot put your finger on such a thing.”
A Landmark Ruling in Haiti
The dearth of actionable information hasn’t only hampered Zamel’s quest to find her father. At least three other peace babies, now in their late 20s, have searched for their fathers—allegedly nationals of Algeria, the United States and Cameroon—with few clues to go on.
San Pattica, a Cambodian-Cameroonian child of an UNTAC peacekeeper, once rang the Cambodia office of the UN Development Programme seeking help. His call was registered in Kavich Neang’s 2013 documentary film Where I Go, about the young man’s search for his father.
“UNDP is a UN development organisation. Back then, UNTAC was separate. It didn’t deal with development,” the voice in the receiver said in response to Pattica’s questions about his father. “UNTAC is over and has been gone for a long time now. Regarding UNTAC, we don’t have any answers or documents.”
The UN has policies aimed at assisting those exploited by peacekeepers, and they are currently being tested in other parts of the world. The institution has received 360 paternity claims worldwide since 2010 from women who became pregnant as a result of sexual exploitation or abuse by peacekeepers, according to data on its website. Paternity has been established in just 30 cases. There is no publicly available data for UNTAC or UNAMIC, the Advance Mission in Cambodia, active from October 1991 to March 1992.
In 2017, the UN appointed its first Victims’ Rights Advocate in an effort to “put the rights of victims, their experiences, and their needs at the forefront of the UN’s fight against sexual exploitation and abuse”. Additionally, in countries that host UN peacekeeping missions, victims can contact a Field Victims’ Rights Advocate.
Ten Haitian women who had children with UN peacekeepers stationed in the Caribbean nation between 2004 and 2017 have taken the fathers to court. They filed paternity suits and are seeking child support. The UN is obliged to cooperate and facilitate the pursuit of such claims where a child was “born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse”.
In an email response to New Naratif, a UN spokesperson says the UN facilitates paternity and child support claims related to UN personnel “irrespective of whether they have resulted from sexual exploitation and abuse”.
The UN does not know how many children were fathered by peacekeepers in Cambodia.
Sandra Wisner, senior staff attorney at the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which is assisting with the Haitian women’s lawsuits, says the paternity cases range from sexual violence to exploitative relationships.
“We consider our cases to have occurred in circumstances of vulnerability that fall within the definition of sexual exploitation and abuse and are on a continuum with varying degrees of exploitation,” Wisner says.
In a landmark judgment last year, a Haitian court ruled in favor of one of the women, ordering a former Uruguayan peacekeeper to pay some US$4,300 per month in child support.
The Haitian women’s legal team has been trying to obtain peacekeepers’ IDs and commanders’ names from the UN—all indispensable for the proceedings—since August 2016, and only received DNA test results confirming paternity after years of advocacy. “The process from the beginning has been frustrated by the UN failing to comply with its obligations,” Wisner says.
Despite the hurdles awaiting those seeking answers and accountability once UN peacekeeping missions are over, the precedent-setting ruling has opened new possibilities for other women and children affected by sexual exploitation and abuse.
“Hopefully this will encourage similar cases around the world,” Wisner says.
The UN spokesperson refutes Wisner’s claims, saying the “UN has cooperated to facilitate the administration of justice in these cases, providing critical documentation and information to the mothers as well as to the relevant national authorities of Haiti”.
Asked about the kind of UN assistance Cambodian peace babies would qualify for, the spokesperson says “the UN will continue to receive and address any paternity claims brought forward concerning its personnel, independent of the timing of the incident leading to the birth of a child—or pregnancy”.
The UN is currently in the process of establishing an inter-agency community-based complaint mechanism in Cambodia, which “will include referral pathways for complaints between organizations and for providing assistance services to survivors”, the spokesperson says.
The mechanism is expected to launch in early 2022.
In 2017, Zamel was swept up in Cambodia’s war on drugs. She was arrested and charged with drug trafficking and sentenced to three years in prison. The authorities registered her according to the gender listed on her ID card, so at Phnom Penh’s CC1 prison—notorious for abuse and overcrowding—Zamel’s curls were shaved off, and she was shoved into a cell packed with some 70 men.
She was released last year, but recent events have changed her priorities and put a stop to her search for her father. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder than ever to find work.
“It’s time for me to think about myself right now—to solve my own problems. That’s what I need to do,” Zamel says. “I don’t care. I don’t want to spend time looking for him. I lost my confidence to find him.”
Additional reporting by Khan Sokummono, Chhit Kanika and Kourn Lyna