The trial of Congolese war crimes accused Thomas Lubanga this week focused on the atrocities which fighters of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) meted out on civilians and child soldiers, and also saw one of the participating victims who gave evidence asking for reparations.
According to the testimony of two participating victims, UPC militiamen abducted several children under the age of 15, some of them grabbed from a school which the fighters turned into a military base. The sexual violence against girl soldiers, cruel punishment of children under military training, and torture of civilians, were among the chilling brutalities the two recounted. Both of the victims said Lubanga was the head of UPC.
A former child soldier, who said he was abducted by UPC fighters and conscripted into the militia group, on Thursday told the trial presided over by Judge Adrian Fulford that there were a number of children – both boys and girls – at UPC training centres, and that some of them got killed in battle. He also said UPC commanders had sexual relations with girl soldiers who could have been 13 or 14 years of age.
He said there were men and girls at the UPC camp where he underwent training. “The girls were soldiers at the same time wives of the commanders,” he said. Asked by prosecutor Nicole Samson whether girls and male recruits were treated the same way, he replied: “The beautiful girls were not treated in the same way as the boys. But the other girls were treated the same way the boys were.” The beautiful girls were also taught to handle weapons and to be soldiers.
The former child soldier said UPC commanders ordered him to take them to the homes of rich people in his village, and to find for them young beautiful girls. He found three girls whom UPC commanders took them away but he did not know what they did with the girls.
Recalling a battle he took part in early in 2003 as a UPC fighter, he said: “That day people were killed. I saw people dying beside me. They were like flies. Even the friends we were with they were dead. The commanders were dying too. It was very terrible.” This battle took place at Bogoro in Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he said. He also talked about the hardships in training, relating that they were often flogged for no reason, and sometimes ate beans mixed with sand instead of salt. One time when he developed diarrhea, he chewed on charcoal until he felt better.
He told court that UPC fighters who escaped from the battlefront were executed once captured. They would be tied against a tree, their faces blindfolded, then soldiers standing 15 or 20 meters away would shoot the offender until they were sure he was dead.
“They would keeping shooting until they saw your body fall into tiny pieces,” he said, adding that he witnessed such executions. In the battlefield, a fighter could get shot by a colleague if they thought one was fleeing the frontline.
He also related how before going to battle commanders gave fighters cannabis and a liquid served in a calabash in the shape of a human skull. “We drunk it and didn’t have any fear… we headed for the enemy even if you saw your brother die.”
The week started off with the testimony of a former schoolmaster, who said UPC militia hit him with gun butts when he tried to stop them from abducting his pupils from a school in Mahagi in eastern DRC. He was the first participating victim to give evidence at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He said beatings he received from the UPC militia have deformed his face, and that he suffers from mental problems as a result of those beatings. He lost the school too, he said.
He said the reason he was testifying was to inform the world about the crimes committed against his people by a militia group Lubanga is alleged to have led, and to ask for reparations for his village. The witness added that in his opinion, the charges which Lubanga faces – enlisting, conscripting, and using child soldiers – are “insignificant” compared to what the people of his village underwent. “There were murders, killings, sexual slavery, and sexual violence,” recounted the unnamed witness.
Joseph Keta, the legal counsel for the victim, asked him why he chose to testify despite the risks involved in such a move. The witness said he considered it an opportunity to tell the international court about the grave offences committed in his village in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo during 2003, as UPC militia fought against the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) group.
Both witnesses had their faces and voices distorted in transmissions of court proceedings so as to protect their identities. Victims’ lawyers say that once the judges understand the circumstances of how the children joined armed conflict, and the suffering they and other victims underwent, these elements can then be taken into account if Lubanga is convicted and reparations for victims are determined.
Luc Walleyn, one of the legal representatives of the victims, said in an interview with the Lubanga trial website: “it is important for the communities who are following the trial to hear the voices of those victims and to understand that these young people who were in that group are not to be considered as criminals but as victims.”
There are 103 victims participating in the trial. Prior to this week their legal representatives have always attended court hearings and questioned some of the witnesses called by the prosecution. Additionally, mid last year they applied – unsuccessfully – for the court to bring additional charges of sexual crimes and inhumane treatment against Lubanga. These roles have hitherto not been played by victims in international tribunals.
According to the Rome Statute which founded the ICC, it is possible to have individual as well as collective rehabilitative reparations, although some legal experts reckon that the court will have to make additional elaborations on the reparations issue beyond what is stipulated in the Rome Statute.