Welcome to the Hotel Uvira: Such a Lovely Place…
Author: Victoria Fontan
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 08/23/2012
On a dark desert “highway”, nested between the Burundian border and a Pakistani MONUSO compound; Hotel Uvira is a magnificent beach resort. Its rooms are facing the beautiful Tanganika Lake, refreshed by a soft breeze cooling a radiant sun. At first, the spot appears to be the perfect place for a relaxing vacation, the only catch being that it is located in the Kivu Province of Congo, one of the most unstable regions of the country. Built only four months ago, Hotel Uvira was an immediate success among UN Peacekeepers. Its owner, Maître Ferdinand, a lawyer trained in Brussels, was amazed at the speed at which reservations came. After a few days, the grim reality dawned on him. The resort of his dreams, which he had saved for years to build, transformed itself overnight into a nightmare. The hotel became a prostitution hotspot, often involving teenage and underage girls.
Maître Ferdinand particularly despises his best clients, the Russian pilots of the UN fleet, whose airport is located only a few kilometers away from the hotel. At the weekends, he says, they come in the evenings, drink a lot of vodka, and receive their first “girls” late into the night. Maître Ferdinand says that they can hardly contain themselves when the girls arrive, often leaving their rooms half naked to receive them in the lobby. When he is there, and the young age of the “girls” is obvious, Maître Ferdinand knocks at the rooms’ doors, reminding the pilots that underage prostitution is illegal in Congo, and asking them to release the girls on the spot.
This grim scenario puts Maître Ferdinand in a very difficult situation. A Congolese himself, he resents how the UN comes into his country, supposedly to bring peace, but according to him, only to abuse its local population. After having witnessed four months of constant, systematic abuse, he is convinced that the UN is only in Congo to “serve its own sick needs.” Yet business is business, and when girls are over 18, there is nothing he can or wants to do.
How do the children make it to the hotel late at night?
Gerard, a doorman who speaks on condition of anonymity, asserts that they either come in bulk, by minibus, or are sent in one-by-one by Congolese intermediaries. After a few times, the girls become regulars, and the mobile phones that the peacekeepers give them allow for their company to be requested at any time, bypassing intermediaries.
Alice is also a regular sex worker at the Hotel Uvira, although she is 29. She has been doing this more than three years, and regularly meets MONUSCO staff, from all nationalities. Last year, she fell in love with a Pakistani soldier, but it all ended after he was sent home, unable to contain a drug addiction. Then there was another regular, from Japan, who refused to pay her several times. She tried to sue him through a local court, only for the prosecutor to take this as an opportunity to blackmail him into buying his case out for a few hundred dollars. Now Alice knows that there is no use trying to sue bad customers. The regular price for an encounter is between $20 and $30, yet she asserts that girls under 18 are regularly exploited for less than $3 per intercourse.
When I ask her what her children say about her activities, she tells me that she has a day job, and that they are not aware of what she really does for a living. Every morning, she works for a prominent US-based NGO, one for which my institution regularly works. I chuckle to myself when I hear their name being mentioned, and then I feel disgust. She is so badly paid as a cleaner, earning less than $100 per month, that she has to work as a prostitute to feed her children, all while white expatriates earn enormous salaries on the back of her suffering. The peace industry strikes again: does the only difference between it and the Russian pilots lay in the fact that Alice is over 18?
After visiting the nightclub where Alice picks her customers up, I return to my beloved Hotel Uvira, late at night. The parking lot is filled with UN SUVs. The Russians are there, watching porn in the hotel lobby to prepare themselves, waiting for their flesh to turn up. As I wake up early the next day, all the cars are gone, as if it had only been a sordid nightmare. Then Gerard comes back with disturbing tales of the former night, which according to him was very “busy.” He then says that there are two kinds of UN customers, the night owls, and the ones who use the hotel as their “home.” He gives the example of two Uruguayan UN officials who have resorted to pay for a room monthly, to be able to use it as a bachelor pad. I remember how former IMF boss Dominic Strauss-Khan had such a pad in Paris. How organized, refined, almost normal…
As I leave Uvira, I pass by villages that harbor a plethora of “peace building signs.” So many NGOs compete for a visible spot in villages on the main road, to ostensibly show the benefit of their presence in the region. Most of the signs address sexual violence in the region, a very lucrative business to be engaged in for international NGOs. In a way, it is much easier to “address” the sexual abuses committed by “savage” Congolese, than to acknowledge the sexual violence brought in with peacekeeping contingents. I dream that one day, I will return to Hotel Uvira and find a sign there, acknowledging how our peace industry is also part of the sexual violence “issue” in Uvira.
Victoria Fontan is the Director for Academic Development and Head of Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace, Costa Rica.