Two weeks after recanting his testimony, a former child soldier took the stand again this week and told prosecutors that he was forced to train and fight in defendant Thomas Lubanga’s militia.
“We would jump over bodies,” he said of one battle. “We had killed a lot of people.”
The witness said he was in fifth grade and about 11 years-old at the time.
Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford allowed the boy to tell his story without interruptions by the prosecution or defense. Unnecessary court officers were removed from the court and the witness was shielded from defendant Lubanga’s direct view.
Lubanga, however, watched the witness on his computer screen, and remained stone faced throughout the boy’s testimony.
Lubanga is the former president of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) political party and its military arm, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FLPC).
Lubanga is charged with recruiting, conscripting, and using child soldiers under the age of 15 to fight in the ethnic conflicts that raged in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo during 2002 and 2003.
The former child soldier remained nameless until Tuesday, when he was given the pseudonym “Dieumerci,” which means “thank God” in French. As he delivered his testimony in Swahili, his face and voice were digitally distorted to those watching from the public gallery.
Dieumerci described a day in late 2002 when he and of his five friends were kidnapped on their way home from school by UPC soldiers.
“[The soldiers] said, ‘You, children, we’re going to take you,'” he said. “If anyone tried to talk, they were beaten.”
The beatings worsened once they arrived at the camp, he said. The recruits were struck with wooden sticks for even the most minor of offenses, including sickness or exhaustion, he said. They were also beaten if they could not complete a training exercise, misplaced their weapon, or tried to escape.
“Sometimes [recruits] were beaten by three people at the same time,” he said. “If [you] screamed, they beat you harder.”
The blows were such that it scarred the witness’s legs and feet, he said, and photographs of the scarring were tendered as evidence.
Dieumerci described the poor living conditions in the camp, including cramped sleeping quarters exposing them to the rain.
“They didn’t care whether we had enough to eat or not,” he added.
Dieumerci said that all the recruits in the camp, including young children, were trained to use heavy weapons and eventually given military uniforms.
He described several battles, in particular an ambush of a Catholic mission.
“We went to the mission and killed those there, also the priests,” he said. “We cut their mouths off and destroyed their faces.”
The witness remained with the militia, he said, until his father managed to find him at a market in a nearby town. The father and son returned to Bunia and settled there, but Dieumerci later was caught by soldiers in Lubanga’s militia while he was visiting relatives.
The soldiers considered him a deserter and beat him. “To beat people is their work,” Dieumerci said.
He was kept as a prisoner in yet another training camp until his father was able to pay for his freedom. After that, he went through a demobilization process with a humanitarian aid group.
At the end of his nearly one-hour statement, Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked how he felt on the day he recanted his testimony in court.
“A lot of things went through my mind,” he replied. “I got angry and I wasn’t able [to testify].”
A representative of victims in the case, Luc Walleyn, asked the witness about the mental and physical consequences of his experience.
“The weapon I used impaired my sight…and I have pain in my ears,” the witness said. “What is more, I’m still uneducated.”
In the cross-examination, defense lawyer Marc DeSalliers questioned details of the witness’s testimony.
DeSalliers asked about the “exact spot” where the witness was reunited with his father.
“It’s difficult to give you the exact address,” the young man said, adding that the events happened several years ago.
DeSalliers also asked why at the time, the other UPC recruits let him go with his father and didn’t tell the commanders.
“The same thing could happen to them,” Dieumerci said. “They could meet their family and I wouldn’t intervene.”
The witness’s testimony followed that of his father, who told the court about his son’s kidnapping and military conscription on Monday.
After Dieumerci’s testimony, a former high-ranking political official in the UPC took the stand.
The official’s appearance provoked a strong reaction from Lubanga, who was visibly shaken and abruptly walked out of the courtroom.
The unnamed witness told the court that Lubanga personally used child soldiers as bodyguards.
“As president he had bodyguards. There were adults, but also young persons serving as bodyguards,” the man said. His exact role in the UPC was not disclosed.
“When you have a young person as a bodyguard, he doesn’t have anyone (else) to look after. That’s why we preferred [children].”