A child protection specialist this week told the International Criminal Court that ICC fugitive Bosco Ntaganda executed a young recruit who tried to escape.
Christine Peduto, who worked for the United Nations Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), was testifying at the trial of Thomas Lubanga who is charged with recruiting children in the DRC province of Ituri. Ntaganda faces similar charges but remains at large in the DRC where he has been integrated into the national army.
Peduto said she interviewed a child who saw the “summary execution” by Ntaganda. Other children, she added, gave similar accounts.
The witness oversaw MONUC’s child protection office in the Ituri capital Bunia and worked with various NGOs to assist child soldiers who had been demobilised.
Peduto went to Lubanga’s home in the town of Bunia on May 30, 2003 to discuss the issue of forced enlistment and tactics employed by his militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).
“Contrary to the reaction of other armed groups I had previously met with, there was no indication [on Lubanga’s part] of any willingness to cooperate,” Peduto said. “There was no sign of open-mindedness or any willingness to actually discuss the matter.”
Peduto arrived in Bunia in May 2003, just after the Ugandan army had left and the UPC took control.
Peduto claimed that, as of 2004, 220 former soldiers under the age of 15 had been processed by MONUC’s Bunia office, 167 of which had at some point been associated with the UPC.
“To be perfectly clear, this proportion doesn’t mean there were more children in the UPC than in other groups,” she added. “We just had more access to [child soldiers in] the UPC because we were in Bunia.”
Peduto said that MONUC employees would try to determine a child’s age based on information obtained from the child, interviews with social workers, and to a lesser extent the appearance of the child.
There was, however, no way to precisely verify the age of a young recruit.
“Identity cards and documents are not very common in the Congo,” said Peduto “I never saw a child with an identity card in Ituri.”
“Did the child’s behavior or demeanor influence your assessment of their age?” asked prosecutor Julieta Solano McCausland.
“Well, when you evaluate a child it’s not just based on what they say but how they act,” Peduto responded. “I have seen cases of little children who began crying in my office. Most 18-year-olds wouldn’t do that.”
She recalled an incident where two very little boys were brought into her office, and the moment she started asking them questions, they burst into tears.
“They were so very afraid and frightened,” she said. “I remember holding the hand of the younger child to cross the street with him. He was so small … they [had been] with the UPC.”
Peduto said that she interviewed many child soldiers, and all but a few of the girls had been raped by commanders or other soldiers in the UPC.
It was not uncommon for the girls to become pregnant, she said, and many either had abortions or miscarried due to the poor living conditions in the training camps. Those who kept their babies were often rejected by the UPC, she explained, since they were no longer considered useful.
Peduto said that the youngest rape victim she interviewed was about 12-years-old.
“Some of the young girls portrayed this as a marriage,” she explained. “They would talk about their first legitimate relationship. That’s the way they perceived it.”
The girls only began to realize what was happening after they were given to multiple commanders, Peduto said.
“It dawned on them that it wasn’t a legitimate relationship with the first officer,” she said. “The [psychological and physical] state of the young girls was quite terrible, quite catastrophic.”
Peduto acknowledged that all of the child soldiers suffered severe and lasting trauma. Even those children who originally joined the UPC to avenge the deaths of family members were not proud of their actions, she said.
“They did not describe their experience as a victory,” she said. “Maybe they had gone to seek revenge, but they certainly did not find peace.”