Former child soldiers in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the group which war crimes accused Thomas Lubanga is alleged to have led, this week recounted stories of torture, whippings and brutal punishments of boys and girls who served in the militia group.
Two former child soldiers told the Lubanga trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) how UPC fighters arrested them and subjected them to cruelty during training at the group’s military camps in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The two, who said they were students at the time of their abduction, told court president over by Judge Adrian Fulford that Lubanga was the head of UPC, and that UPC had child soldiers.
The two former child soldiers gave evidence in their capacity as victims who are participating in the trial. They testified separately, and like the first participating victim ever to appear at the trial, who gave evidence last week, their faces and voices were distorted in order to protect their identities.
The witnesses said there was routine torture of recruits in UPC’s camps. Punishments were meted out on recruits regardless of their age or gender.
“They punished us by putting us in holes and you had to keep standing,” one witness said on Friday. Sometimes the recruits were forced to roll in dirty water if they committed offences, he said. And they were whipped for failing to complete exercises during the rain.
The witnesses testified that UPC sent child soldiers to the battlefront, where some of them were killed. Both the witnesses who testified this week told court they were shot during battle.
Lubanga, whom the ICC says was the leader of UPC, is on trial for the war crimes of enlisting, conscripting and using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo during 2002 and 2003.
One of the victims testified that UPC fighters abducted him and took him to a prison and then to a camp where he underwent military training under brutal conditions. He subsequently took part in battle at Bogoro – in which he said many of his friends were killed – and then escaped from the militia group.
The second one said UPC fighters abducted him while he was returning home from school, and took him to their training camp near the town of Bule. He said neither his abductors nor his trainers ever asked his age.
Prosecutor Olivia Struyven asked the witness what the ages of the trainees he found at the camp were. He responded that he could not tell their ages but some were his age, others older. The witness did not say in public session what age he was but described himself as having been a child soldier. Much of the testimony by the two victims was given in private session.
Lubanga’s lawyer Marc Desalliers asked one of the victims whether he was indeed abducted in the second part of February 2003 as he had told court earlier.
“Today we are in 2010. It would be impossible for me to say whether it was at the end or the beginning [of the month],” he said. “That question seems to be difficult to me and I can’t give an answer, except an erroneous one.”
While questioning the witness about the terrain of Bogoro, the clothes which UPC’s rivals wore, and how UPC fighters traveled to the battlefront, Desalliers said, “if I suggest that UPC was never attacked by FNI [the militia group Front for National Integration] at the 2nd camp, would you change what you have said?”
The witness said he did not understand what the defense counsel was saying.
Desalliers then said he was putting it to the witness that UPC was never attacked at the camp where the witness had said he underwent training.
The witness replied that still he did not understand what Desalliers was talking about.
Judge Fulford intervened, advising the defense counsel that a more direct form of questioning would work better than “a slightly more baroque style of putting your case”.
“The rather formal procedure that certainly works when questioning bankers and financiers and such, formally putting your case, may work with witnesses of that [nature but] for those completely unused to trial proceedings of this nature, it is difficult to understand,” the judge said.
This witness could not recall the month and date he left the army, nor could he tell how long he spent with the UPC.
“We understand obviously that with questions about dates and ages particularly years ago you are not going to remember easily,” said Judge Fulford. “Don’t be embarrassed when this happens… obviously do your best and answer questions the best you can but take all the time you need to answer Mr Desalliers’s questions.”
Lubanga’s defense questioned the victims at length about the circumstances under which they joined UPC, how they got injured, whether there were child soldiers fighting with UPC and whether the victims actually fought in the battles they claimed to have been part of.