Children joined Thomas Lubanga’s militia to avenge the murders of family and friends, a witness told prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) this week.
“They had just arrived from their homes,” explained the unnamed witness, identified as a former soldier in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) who also trained young recruits.
“Many had lost their parents [in attacks on their villages] … and joined the army in order to get vengeance.”
The witness said that he trained children as young as 14 to use weapons at the UPC’s training centre in the village of Mandro, about 19 kilometres outside the Ituri town of Bunia.
Many of the younger child soldiers made their own toys and played marbles when they weren’t learning to shoot, he added.
“They were always on the ground playing little games,” said the witness. “You could see that they were children.”
Lubanga is charged with recruiting, conscripting, and using child soldiers, defined as fighters under the age of 15, in the ethnic conflicts that raged in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during 2002 and 2003.
The witness said the young soldiers in training included girls as well as boys,
“I did not see big girls in Mandro [training camp], only little girls,” he explained. “It was these girls who were doing the cooking for everyone.”
The witness said he knew that the girls were young because they liked to make braids with long blades of grass. “A person who does this is someone who has not reached an age of maturity,” he said.
When prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva pressed to him to explain how he could tell the girls’ ages, the witness said that he was a father.
“As a parent and a man of experience, you can determine someone’s age from their appearance and their actions and behaviors,” he explained. “In my opinion I didn’t find any girl who was aged 17.”
The witness also said he saw Lubanga deliver a morale-boosting speech to recruits at the Mandro camp, where the accused vowed to transform the DRC.
“[Lubanga] simply asked the men to be calm, and said the [Union of Congolese Patriots] wanted peace and that we were going to remake our country,” he said. “It would be a new and young country.”
Children in the camp were also present during Lubanga’s speech, said the witness, and they sang songs in Swahili to raise their spirits and prepare for battle.
However, Lubanga was not directly involved in military operations, he said.
“The president didn’t have any role in operations because he wasn’t soldier,” said the witness. “He would stay in his residence and wait for reports [from his main staff].”
When Sachdeva pressed the issue, the witness reiterated that Lubanga wasn’t a “military man”.
“He would not be present where there was shooting amongst soldiers,” he said.