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Hard Life for Child Soldiers

Child soldiers in Thomas Lubanga’s militia were organized into a special kadogo unit and endured hunger and whippings, a witness told the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.

The witness, a former soldier, said he fled fighting in Bunia, the main town in the Ituri region, along with two others he assumed to be child soldiers.

The child soldiers were poorly fed and ill-equipped, he said, and recalled that once when bomb fell near them, they ran. But one of them stumbled and lost his boots because they were too big.

When they reached a large Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) camp, the militia’s chief of staff, Floribert Kisembo, put the other two in a kadogo unit, a Swahili word that means child soldier.

The unit was created because the conditions were harsh and the children reportedly needed special protection, the witness said. But instead, members of the kadogo unit were treated more harshly that others in the militia.

“It was raining continuously,” he said. “There was no food, no medicine and they could hardly every wash. Their health was poor and getting worse. The chief of staff said he was going to take care of them. They were vulnerable.”

The kadogo unit contained nearly 40 people, he said, but they had no particular duties except being made to sing military songs, sad songs, and songs of victory and glory.

“We sang all the time,” the witness said. “It was a relief from pressure, the only way to alleviate the suffering.”

When prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva asked if the kadogos were punished, the witness said discipline was a common part of UPC life, and soldiers were often whipped or put in jails. Children were also whipped for disobedience.

“I remember once watching kadogos get whipped,” he told the court. “It was very easy to get depressed, and there were drugs everywhere. Someone told me that when the kadogos smoked cannabis, they became insubordinate and even threatened to shoot someone. These kadogos were made to lie on the ground, where they were whipped with ropes.”

Such punishment was delivered when kadogos tried to run away, he said. Sometimes the kadogos were allowed get food from nearby towns, but most often they were expected to stay in the camp, “even when there was very little food.”

“All the adults went to hunt or steal food,” he said, “but (kadogos) could not. I kept thinking that with such hollowness, a child must get terribly hungry in a situation like that.”

The trial continues tomorrow.


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