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Katanga-Ngudjolo Chronicle #13: Witness 268: “People were screaming, crying. They were being cut up with machetes”

Please find Katanga and Ngudjolo Chronicle #13, 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 calls a new witness, a resident of Bogoro who was present during the attack against the village in February 2003, an assault allegedly carried out by the forces of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo. “What happened on that day? We are listening to you.” Prosecutor Gilles Dutertre begins the examination of Witness 268.

The day of the battle, Witness 268 was woken up by the gun fire. His first instinct was to run away. “We all fled, also the soldiers, everyone was trying to find a hiding place. We wanted to go to the institute,” he said. At that time, the UPC, alledged led by Thomas Lubanga, had set up its military base in the centre of Bogoro, in a former Institute. “[It was] the place to go to take refuge [when] there was a war,” explains the witness. In case of any attack, the UPC soldiers would defend the Hema population.

Witness 268 took refuge in the bush. From his hiding place he heard how the entire village was whipped out.  “I heard noises from the centre; people were breaking the doors of houses [and] looting. The gun fire continued… people were screaming, crying. They were being cut up with machetes,” he recalls. Witness 268 was not far from the Hotel Lagora, a building close to the Institute. He was also able to hear cries there: “People were saying, ‘Forgive us, forgive us!’ They were setting the houses on fire.”

“What were the attackers saying?” asks the Prosecutor. “‘We are going to capture you with our hands,'” replies the witness. “They were speaking Kiswahili. I could understand them. They were Lendu.” For Witness 268, those words meant only one thing: “I understood they would kill us with machetes.”

Witness 268 assures the Court that he was able to recognise the Lendu and Nigiti amongst the fighters by the languages they used. “I do not speak those languages but if a Lendu speaks I know that he is a Lendu and the same for the Ngiti.” He also saw a familiar face amongst the soldiers. According to the witness’s account, the Lendu fighters were armed with rifles, arrows and spears, and wore civilian clothes and Ugandan military uniforms.

In the evening, when the gun fire ceased, Witness 268 left his hiding place to return home. At that moment, he was arrested by soldiers. “Five fighters took me to the camp at the [Bogoro] Institute, where the UPC camp was,” says the witness. “Who stopped you?” asks the Prosecutor. “They were Lendu.  I recognised them by the way they were speaking. They were speaking Swahili; the Swahili is mixed with the dialect Lendu/Ngiti,” says Witness 268. “They asked me, ‘What is your tribe?’ and I said, ‘I am Hema’.”

Witness 268 spent the night at the Bogoro Institute. He was tied up in a classroom full of dead bodies. “What did you see when you entered the room?” asks the Prosecutor. “I saw other people who had been also stopped, and bodies… people had been cut up with machetes.  I cannot estimate the number. There were many dead bodies… men, women and children.  Many more women and children.” The corpses had machete marks on the legs, head and neck. Witness 268 saw bullets wounds too. Amongst the bodies he was able to recognise a woman: “Oriet. She was born in Bogoro; she was Hema,” says the witness. She had injuries to her legs and knees. “She was struck with a machete.”

The next morning, Witness 268 was taken from the classroom to see the leader of the fighters who had taken over the village. According to the witness, this man was armed and dressed in military uniform, similar to the uniform of the Ugandans. “He was Lendu,” says Witness 268. “I was able to know that he was Lendu by the way he spoke Swahili.” The leader wanted to know where the other community members were hiding. “They accompanied me to see the other persons who were hiding, to say a message they dictated to me. I had to announce in my language to the people hidden that the war was ended. I spoke in Hema,” he says. Asked by the Prosecutor about what would have happened if he would have brought the people out from their hiding place, he replies: “They would have killed us.”

Before concluding the examination, Prosecutor Gilles Dutertre shows the witness a video excerpt recorded in 2007. The film leads the viewer into an empty building. Only a set of rudimentary wood benches fills the room. The camera zooms in on the walls, riddled with bullet holes. Witness 268 recognises this place: “It is the Bogoro Institute.”

The legal representative of the victims had requested authorisation to put some questions to the witness. Mr. Jean Louis Gilissen, who represents child soldiers who participated in the attack on Bogoro, wants to clarify certain answers given by the witness to the Prosecution´s questions.

Witness 268 tells the court that in the assault on Bogoro, he saw a lot of children amongst the fighters. They were carrying arrows and spears. The youngest holding a weapon could be eight or ten years old. “They were smashing the houses.” “Did you see young children arresting civilians and killing?” asks Mr. Jean Louis Gilissen. “No, I simply heard noises. I could not see them. I heard voices of young children. Those who were pillaging were making a lot of noise,” replies the witness.

Witness 268 explains that the perpetrators played different roles in the attack. “The combatants were participating in the war, [while] women and children transported the property,” says the witness. “That means the children took part in pillaging and destruction and transportation of the property out of Bogoro?” insists Mr.Gilissen. Witness 268 confirms the lawyer´s words.

The defence teams of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo assess the credibility of Witness 268. Both Defence teams raise doubts about the identity of the fighters and the number of victims.

Mr. Hooper stresses the fact that the village of Bogoro had suffered previous assaults before the ‘final attack’ in February 2003. In the counsel´s view, it is likely that this ‘final attack’ was predictable. In the course of previous examinations, Witness 233 told the court that the population of Bogoro had received warnings about possible attacks. “There were rumours,” said Witness 233. This information leads the Counsel to think that many people fled before the attack, and therefore the number of victims alleged by the Prosecution – 200 civilians – is wrong. “Did you know this attack [on 24 February 2003] was going to happen that day in Bogoro?” asks Mr. Hooper. “There was a lot of harassment,” says the witness.

As regards the identity of the fighters, Mr. Hooper´s information indicates that the group of people the witness saw – men, women and children – spoke another dialect, Bira. “Those people came from Bira territory,” assures the Counsel. His colleague, Mathieu Ngudjolo’s lawyer, also questions the characteristics of the combatants. “You said the Lendu fighters you saw in February 2003 were dressed in military uniform similar to those used by the Ugandans. What made you think that those soldiers were not with the Ugandan army?” asks Mr. Jean Pierre Kilenda. “I know the Ugandans, I know the Lendus, and I know the UPC,” replies the witness. Witness 268 says that he can distinguish the ethnic differences of the Ngiti and the Lendu groups in the way they walk and by the colour of their skin. “We lived together. We knew each other very well. We knew the origin of the people, who was Hema, Lendu, Ngiti,” he says.

You also said that during the attack your family was in Bunia, and you stayed alone in Bogoro.  Why did you live separately from each other?” asks Mr. Kilenda.  “It was difficult to flee in a group; in the case of being killed we would die alone,” says the witness.

-“So you left your family in Bunia in safety and you returned to Bogoro.  Was that because you were an UPC soldier?”

– “No, no I was not a soldier.”