The rapid rise of accused Congolese leader Thomas Lubanga within the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and his role in the group’s militia were revealed this week in his trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Lubanga started as a bean seller at a market in the Ituri regional center of Bunia in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the first witness to testify following the court’s three week break.
Because he was educated and articulate, Lubanga became a spokesman for the ethnic Hema militia and then ultimately leader of the UPC, the witness said.
Prosecutors also presented the court with more than 80 documents they said showed Lubanga’s overarching authority in the UPC.
Some of the documents related to the organization’s structure and were apparently written when the group controlled Bunia and other parts of Ituri in 2002 and early 2003.
According to prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva, the documents included several letters addressed to, “His excellency, the president of the UPC, Thomas Lubanga,” along with others written by Lubanga in that capacity.
In one document, Lubanga apparently notified someone about employment in the UPC, which showed an “efficient structure and organisation” in the group, with mechanisms for making appointments and promotions, Sachdeva said.
The documents included a letter by Bosco Ntaganda, the former deputy chief of staff of the UPC’s militia, who has been indicted by the ICC on charges similar to those of Lubanga, but remains free in the DRC.
The prosecution said the letter showed that Lubanga had authority in the UPC and the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), the UPC’s militia.
The documents also showed that Lubanga was aware of the militia’s activities in the area controlled by the UPC, prosecutors said.
Earlier in the week, an unidentified former political leader in Ituri told the court that Lubanga became spokesman for the Hema because he was educated.
“He is the one who could express himself. The others weren’t educated,” he said. “Thomas had even started learning German… he was more intellectual than the others.”
Prosecutor Nicole Samson asked the witness if it was hard for the population to accept Lubanga since he did not have military experience.
The witness said: “We had no reason to reject Lubanga, because we were in an ethnic organisation and we needed someone who could speak in the name of the organisation.”
The witness, who was not identified, also said Uganda trained hundreds of Congolese soldiers, including children, who later served in Lubanga’s militia.
He said Uganda provided financial support to the UPC, some of it being cash received by Lubanga.
The Ugandan army played a big role in stoking the ethnic conflicts in the region, the witness said, which set members of Lubanga’s Hema ethnic group against the Lendu.
The ethnic conflict was sparked by a rich family in Bunia that tried to drive the Lendu from their land, he said.
The witness, who recalled seeing a village near Libi on fire as early as 1999, said the Savo family contacted Ugandan forces in the region at the time. “The (Ugandan) commander present gave his authorization and asked his soldiers to remove (Lendu) forcefully,” he said.
“It’s the Savo family at the origin of the conflict with the support of Ugandans who started burning Lendu houses,” he said. “The Lendu fled to the bush, but after six months they came back.”
When the Lendu returned, they were armed, and this was when the ethnic conflict escalated. Responding to the Lendu attacks, the Hemas then formed armed militias such as Lubanga’s UPC, the witness said.
Under questioning by Jean Chrysostome Mulamba, a legal representative for victims at the trial, the witness said the UPC collected taxes on goods entering the region, collected dues in markets and got contributions from traders to support its political and military actions.
Meanwhile, Serge Kilo Ngabu, a former social worker in the Ituri region controlled by UPC, testified that Lubanga led the group and it had hundreds of child soldiers, some less than nine-years-old. Some were girls, he said.
Ngabu worked with 130 former child soldiers whom Uganda had returned to Bunia from the Kyankwanzi military training camp in Uganda. This was after UN had complained of their training, he said.
As an employee of SOS Grand Lacs, a non-governmental agency funded by the UN, Ngabu said it was difficult to convince some parents to take back their children who had returned from the militia training.
“Some children said, ‘I would like to go back to the military because at home I am not welcome’,” Ngabu explained.
As a result, most children who returned from Uganda re-joined the military after Lubanga’s group wrestled control of the region from the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).
By November 2002, all but “seven or eight” of the returnees were serving in UPC,” Ngabu said. “Those children were sought after because they were supporters of the Hema group.”