Some recruits in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) training camps were just five years old, according to a witness in the continuing trial of accused Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga.
The witness told judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague that the UPC leadership thought such young recruits made good soldiers and spies.
Parents gave their children to the UPC militia because the group’s ethnic Hema leaders said they wanted to drive foreigners from the Ituri region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The witness said he saw children being trained at the Bunia headquarters of the UPC, where Lubanga had his offices.
When asked by ICC prosecuting attorney Olivia Struyven to estimate the ages of the children being trained, the witness said, “From five right up to adult age.”
His identity protected, the witness explained how the UPC leaders treated the children to make them tough soldiers.
“I was shocked to see a child aged five in a training center,” said the witness. “I found this particularly disturbing. I asked [Richard] Lonema what that child was doing there.”
Lonema was acting president of UPC when Lubanga was away from Ituri, he said.
“He said if they get [children] early, they are going to grow up as real soldiers,” recalled the witness. “He said it is children like that who are informers on the streets.”
After being trained, the children could be deployed on the streets to sell water or groundnuts while working as UPC spies, he said.
According to the witness, at any one time there were about 100 trainees in each of the UPC camps. “Out of 100 recruits, those who were 15 and under were easily 30 percent,” he said.
Errant recruits were routinely punished, he said, and this included being whipped or forced to do strenuous exercises over a long period of time.
On one occasion, when the witness was in the UPC headquarters office of a man he called Mr. A, he and others witnessed the punishment of a child who was calling out his mother’s name.
“Apparently this child was angry, [and] had just been punished,” said the witness. “The reaction of those with me, and especially Mr. A and his colleagues, was to say, ‘that is good, he is going to grow up as a true soldier’.”
The instructor who punished the recruit told the boy that he was not behaving like a soldier.
“This particularly affected me,” said the witness. “A child crying, calling out [for] his mother…. Mr. A and his colleagues, they felt no remorse, no pity for this child undergoing this punishment.”
Although officials from the United Nations mission in Congo (MONUC) visited the UPC headquarters in Bunia, they did not have access to the training area, he said. But officers of the Ugandan army regularly did.
According to the witness, when the UPC took control of Bunia in August 2002, Lubanga was in the Congo capital, Kinshasa, and Lonema was the acting president.
Lonema told him that Lubanga had called to congratulate him on seizing Bunia, he said.
When asked by Judge Adrian Fulford about Lonema’s duties as acting president, the witness said, “He supervised all activities of the army.”
The witness also explained that Lubanga named himself the group’s minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the UPC.
“So [Lubanga] was the political leader of the army,” explained the witness. “That is, that there was no other person above him to command the army.”
This week, the witness was accused by Lubanga’s lawyer, Catherine Mabille, of providing hearsay to the court when he discussed the training of child soldiers and the UPC leadership.
The witness countered that he had direct contact with political and military authorities in Ituri, as well as the Ugandan army which was also in the region.
Mabille also objected to some of the questioning, saying the prosecutors were leading the witness and had “put five leading questions [to the witness that] practically contain the answer”.
Judge Fulford ruled that the defense’s objection was appropriate.
The court heard testimony regarding the roles Rwanda and Uganda played in the Ituri conflict when a witness said the UPC received arms from Rwanda after supplies from Uganda became unavailable.
The witness said that Lubanga had told him “Uganda was playing hide and seek,” which forced the UPC to turn to Rwanda for weapons.
“Uganda didn’t want to openly supply a sufficient quantity of weapons to UPC, so they had to go and get them elsewhere,” said the witness.
In addition, the witness said the Ugandan army started training Congolese in 1999, including children, at the Rwampara training camp in Ituri, while some were taken to Uganda for training.