Questions were raised this week about Thomas Lubanga’s control over the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia, following testimony that as the group’s president, his role was largely political, not military.
Lubanga is on trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of conscripting and using children to fight in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002-2003.
A former UPC soldier referred to as Witness 17 told ICC judges that he never saw Lubanga issue commands to UPC soldiers. Instead, that was done by former UPC Chief of Staff Floribert Kisembo.
He further stated that Kisembo was the person who “knows everything” when it came to military affairs, and that “the army almost belonged to him.”
When asked by defense lawyer Catherine Mabille to explain, Witness 17 said, “I noticed in the UPC, Kisembo’s influence was great in the army, especially in relation to commander Thomas (Lubanga).
“In the army we felt the influence of Kisembo. He was very influential. Nobody talked about the influence of (Lubanga).”
Witness 17 told the court that Lubanga was a political figure within the UPC and that, “the army was slightly not within his purview.” He said he had only seen Lubanga once in military fatigues, and that he had been surprised by the sight.
“(Lubanga) was a political figure. We called him president,” the witness said. “It was true he could put on a military uniform, like camouflage, if his security was in danger, but in Bunia this was not usual. We were not used to it.”
Witness 17 also told the court that Lubanga may not have seen child soldiers when he visited a training camp in Bunia called “Epo.”
Lubanga arrived in a vehicle, which identified him as a high-ranking UPC official, and soldiers guarded the approaches to the camp to ensure Lubanga’s safety, the witness said.
“To receive a person like the president, one often greets them with respect, but this wasn’t done on this occasion. There were no troops to meet him. It is not probable that there were child soldiers there. I don’t think it is likely he saw any child soldiers.”
Further raising doubts about Lubanga’s role, on Friday Lubanga’s defense presented various videos that portrayed Lubanga as urging peace between the ethnic groups in the Ituri region.
“If you want us to be respected in the international community, we must act in the spirit of peace […],” Lubanga stated, then suggested that outsiders were instigating conflict in the region.
“The people who came here have begun to divide us, but we grew up here. We didn’t know what ethnic group our neighbors are from,” Lubanga said. “Let’s build peace amongst ourselves,” Lubanga continued. “If you are a Hema or a Lendu, it doesn’t matter what ethnic group you are from.”
A video shown to another witness whose identity was also protected depicted a Bunia official, Mileo Misaka, speaking at a rally to support the UPC.
In it, Misaka frequently mentions that children are in the UPC militia and are fighting for their people.
“Our march today shows the support we provide to our children who work night and day,” Misaka states in the video. “I am referring to the UPC. We congratulate them. They are giving their blood for us to be able to live in peace and calm.
“That is why we congratulate them. They have been giving their bodies and their lives for the president,” Misaka said in the video.
The witness was then shown another video of UPC commander Eric Mbabazi addressing crowds in Bunia.
“Our young people enlisted in the army in order to seek change,” Mbabazi states in the video. “We want to bring peace and protect the civilian population. We will tell the population of Ituri to support us.
“Young people are sacrificing themselves. They have a lot of problems – they do not have a salary. We are trying to find a solution” commander Mbabazi said in the video.
Prosecutor Olivia Struyven asked the witness to explain the kind of support that was being sought.
“So, if I understand well, he is referring to the fact the population should support the army so the (Ugandan army) leaves, and the UPC can control the territory,” the witness replied.
The UPC wanted people to provide food and money to the soldiers, he said.
“We know that soldiers have to eat, and there was assistance given to them by traders and people of good will,” said the witness.
While UPC supporters tried to help the militia fighters, one witness described the difficult circumstance under which the child soldiers lived.
UPC commander Kisembo organized the kadogos – the Swahili word for child soldiers – into a special unit, the witness said.
“It was raining continuously,” the witness 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 witness said discipline was a common part of UPC life, and that kadogos were sometimes 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 … a child must get terribly hungry in a situation like that.”
The prosecution has 31 witnesses due to testify in the Lubanga trial, and roughly half of them have already taken the stand since the trial began in late January this year.
The trial continues on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.