It is estimated that more than 30,000 child soldiers have been used in the DRC, girls and boys, since 1996 when the first war broke out in Uvira, South Kivu province, eastern DRC (former Zaire).
In Ituri, as in the Kivus, child soldiers were used by militias, rebel groups and the national army. Children were recruited either by force or voluntarily. Children were abducted during night or day, at school, church, homes, farms or at the lake.
They’re recruited as young as seven to fifteen years of age. They’re recruited and trained to carry out military tasks, to kill and cause violence/atrocities, even in their own villages. The use of marijuana is very common and in some cases, an obligation. Most of the time they sleep outside in the cold and don’t have enough to eat or to wear, and no treatment when they fall sick. The environment where they live, in the military camps, is a hostile environment to childhood, where they lack the parental affection that any child needs. The conditions under which these children live affects their future, and in many cases, the scars can’t be healed. Not only are children affected but also their families and the whole community. This also makes the reintegration of these children very, very difficult.
Lubanga, who is said to be the chief commander of the UPC (Union des Patriotes Congolais), an armed group based in Ituri that he formed in 2000, was first arrested by Congolese authorities in 2005 following an investigation into the killing of nine UN peacekeepers. He was imprisoned at Makala Prison in Kinshasa. He was then arrested and transferred to The Hague at the ICC in March 2006 and charged under article 8 of the Rome Statue with the war crimes of conscripting, enlisting and using children under 15 years of age in hostilities. (The DRC ratified the Rome Statute in 2002, and referred the DRC conflict for investigation by the ICC in March 2004). Two other fighters from the Ituri region, eastern DRC, are before the ICC: Germain Katanga, known as “Simba” (of the Front de Resistence Patriotique d’Ituri, FRPI) and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui (of the Front des Nationnalistes Integrationnistes, FNI).
The Lubanga trial is the first ever at the International Criminal Court, an institution which can prosecute individuals for crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The communities in the war-affected region of the eastern DRC are eager to see justice applied to them. The ICC bears responsibility to apply justice for the victims in the DRC, particularly former child soldiers and other children affected by armed conflict. In a country where impunity has been the rule and most of the leaders and war makers have been intouchable, eastern Congolese — especially Iturians who have seen their children abducted by armed groups for soldiering — can’t believe this is happening.
The Lubanga trial, which is set to start on Monday January 26, 2009, constitutes a huge achievement for the international community in ensuring protection of the most vulnerable population, mostly children and women. This is a victory for all the human rights organizations – local and international – who worked to make sure the ICC fulfils it mandate to protect children from crimes during conflict. It should be seen as relief for those children who have suffered from the conflict in which Lubanga is one of the main actors.
The Prosecutor believes he has enough evidence to prove that Thomas Lubanga is guilty – but Lubanga is presumed innocent until and unless guilt is established. He is defended by a team of lawyers. Ninety three victims have been selected in this case and are also represented by a lawyer. Plans for protective measures for 19 of the prosecution’s 34 witnesses have been put in place (it is not yet known how many witnesses will testify for the defense, or how many of those will have protective measures). The judges have ensured that all the conditions for a fair trial are met.
The real impact of the Lubanga trial will be seen if, in the field, children are no longer recruited. Even if it will be not easy to establish the correlation between the Lubanga trial and the decrease in the recruitment of child soldiers, it is still our hope that the ICC will be part of an effort to secure real and effective protection for children in the DRC and that peace is soon established in the region.
Bukeni Waruzi is the Program Coordinator for Africa and the Middle East at WITNESS, and the Contributor for the CICC on Child Soldiers and the International Criminal Court. Bukeni worked for over 10 years in the DRC on Disarmament, Demobilization and the Reintegration of Child Soldiers in South Kivu, Eastern DRC and produced advocacy videos on Child Soldiers in the DRC. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of WITNESS or partner organizations in the Lubangatrial.org project.