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Kantanga-Ngudjolo Chronicle #9: Witness 250: “Mathieu Ngudjolo was our leader”

Please find Katanga and Ngudjolo Chronicle #9, which was originally published on the Aegis Trust website.  The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The Prosecution has called its third witness, a former soldier who fought at Bogoro within the ranks of the Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (FNI), the Lendu armed group allegedly led by Mathieu Ngudjolo. Today, he is in the same room as the man he says was his leader.  This is clearly very disturbing for him.

After psychological assessment, the Victims and Witness Unit decides that this particular witness is vulnerable and suggests that the Chamber grant special protective measures.  Any visual contact between the witness and Mathieu Ngudjolo is to be avoided and a psychologist will now accompany him when he is answering questions. With a pseudonym and his voice and image distorted, Witness 250 begins his testimony.

“Mr. Witness, let me refer you to a specific point which will be the point of departure for your testimony. I’m referring to the 9th of August, 2002, in Bunia, after the fall of the Lopondo government… Where were you?” asks Eric MacDonald.

The Prosecutor is talking about a time when armed conflict swept across the Ituri territory.  It involved several organised armed groups including the UPC and the Ngiti and Lendu militias, the FNI and the FRPI. In August 2002, the UPC took over the town of Bunia. Non-Hema residents were displaced and fled. Amongst them was Mathieu Ngudjolo, of Lendu ethnicity, and Witness 250, who was a student at the time. Both fled the same direction, towards the village of Zumbe in the Ezekere groupement.

Witness 250 explains how the insecurity spread into the Zumbe area.  The situation led the local leaders to organise defence groups.  “At the start it was done individually. It could be a mother. It could be a child. Everybody organized themselves in their own way to defend that place,” says Witness 250.  “Who were you defending yourselves against at that time?” asks the Prosecutor. “They were soldiers from the UPC,” says the witness. He is talking about the UPC, made up mainly of people from the Hema community.

Witness 250 explains how a military structure gradually developed and how Mathieu Ngudjolo began to consolidate his authority over Lendu fighters in the Zumbe area.  “Our group became more structured and mature, there was one leader. His objective was to bring order to the group. When we became a serious group, it was Ngudjolo who was our leader, Mathieu Ngudjolo….He was he elected by the displaced population. At the beginning, he was a nurse.” Mathieu Ngudjolo was born in the Likoni locality of the Ezekere groupement where he allegedly settled and became involved with Lendu combatants after the UPC´s takeover of Bunia in August 2002. According to the Prosecution, at the time Lubanga´s men took control of Bunia, Mathieu Ngudjolo was working as a nurse in Bunia and Zumbe.

As the witness said, when Ngudjolo became leader, different military camps were created in the Bedu-Ezekere area – in Lagura, Kambutso, Adile and in the very centre of Zumbe. “Who was in charge of the soldiers who were at Zumbe?” asks Mr. MacDonald. “At the time, Mathieu Ngudjolo was the highest ranking military officer in charge of them. He was the leader of the fighters of the Bedu-Ezekere groupement,” says the witness.

The Prosecution wants to show that from late 2002 until the joint FNI/FRPI attack on Bogoro on 24 February 2003, Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga were the chief commanders of their forces.  They want to prove that both leaders are criminally responsible for the crimes committed “to wipe out” Bogoro, “a common plan devised by the accused and other commanders.”

“Bogoro, it was a kind of fortress,” remembers Witness 250. “It was said, ‘if you are strong come and attack Bogoro.'” The UPC presence in the village was overwhelming. “The number of soldiers was higher than the number of trees,” he says.  Lubanga´s men had set up a military camp in the centre of the village at the Bogoro Institute. But according to the Prosecution, the plan was to destroy not only the UPC camp but the whole village.

Germain Katanga, alleged commander of the Force de Résistance Patriotique en Ituri (FRPI), and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, alleged former leader of the Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (FNI), are accused of three crimes against humanity (murder, sexual slavery and rape) and seven war crimes (using children under the age of 15 to take an active part in hostilities; deliberately directing an attack on a civilian population as such; willful killing; destruction of property; pillaging; sexual slavery and rape). The Prosecution submits that these crimes were committed during and in the aftermath of the assault on Bogoro village on 24 February 2003 as part of a widespread and systematic attack carried out jointly by the FNI and the FRPI against the Hema population in Ituri.