Young female recruits were frequently raped by commanders in Thomas Lubanga’s militia, a former soldier in the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, told the court this week.
“I used to see women who were taken by force,” said the witness, who trained young recruits at the Mandro centre, not far from the Ituri city of Bunia. “That is what I saw.”
Several of those women were young girls who subsequently became pregnant by their commanders, the witness said.
“[The commanders] took girls and would get them pregnant, and then these girls had to leave the camp and go [back] to the village,” said the witness, who testified in Swahili with face and voice distortion.
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 was one of many who have spoken about the rape of young female recruits. The girls, he said, had no choice but to comply with the commanders.
“You had to obey orders whether you wanted to or not,” the witness explained. “The recruits weren’t considered human beings, so if someone – a girl – was taken by a commander…this had to be accepted.”
Some of the impregnated girls were as young as 14 or 15-years-old, the witness estimated.
He also spoke of seeing children that age, both boys and girls, fight in battles to control Mongbwalu, a northern Ituri town known for its gold mines.
“Do you know if children used their weapons?” asked prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva.
“When you are participating in a fight, you have to fight,” responded the witness. “[The children] used weapons.”
The UPC did not win that initial battle in Mongbwalu, the witness said. After the militia returned to its Bunia headquarters, the witness said he overheard high-ranking UPC officials, including Lubanga, discuss a second attack on the town.
“What was Thomas saying at the meeting?” asked Sachdeva.
“All they kept saying was Mongbwalu,” replied the witness, who added that he was instructed to stand guard outside the room where the meeting took place.
Two days later, the witness said, the UPC traveled back to Mongbwalu to fight again. The militia was successful this time, he said, and soldiers pillaged the area for a full week afterwards.
During the cross-examination, defence attorneys questioned the witness on why he repeatedly hid his weapon after leaving the UPC.
“If you were caught with your weapon, they would take it from you and you would be arrested,” the witness told Marc Desalliers, one of Lubanga’s lawyers.
The witness did not explain during open session how or why he left the UPC. But after leaving the militia, he decided to bury his weapon and get rid of his uniform.
“I put [the uniform] in a plastic bag and then I threw it away [into a river],” the witness said.
When pressed to explain why he did not also throw out his weapon, the witness responded that a weapon was a “precious item that must be kept”.
“Your weapon was buried for two years, is that correct?” asked Desalliers.
“Yes, because whenever I moved, I would take my weapon with me,” the witness said. “I would wrap it up and hide it underground.”
Eventually, the witness said, he exchanged his weapon for money and clothing, apparently with a non-governmental organisation in the Ituri region.
Meanwhile, the court learned this week that an earlier witness, who had provided a false statement to prosecutors, could return.
Catherine Mabille, Lubanga’s lead defence attorney, told judges that a new statement had been obtained from Witness 15, and he could be available to the court by June 30.
It remains unclear, however, whether the prosecution will call Witness 15 back to the stand.
In a surprise interruption to the proceedings this week, Lubanga stood up in court and complained about a person seated in the public gallery.
“I’m having difficulties with the attitude of someone in the public and I feel he wants to make a drawing of me,” Lubanga told presiding judge Adrian Fulford. “I have found it impossible to concentrate from the very beginning.”
“I can see that this is extremely disturbing for you,” said Judge Fulford, who then ordered the person in the gallery to immediately stop what he was doing.