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Bemba’s Soldiers Spoke Central African Language

The eighth witness to testify in the war crimes trial of former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba has said that some Congolese fighters who committed atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) spoke the local language Sango.

‘Witness 82,’ whose testimony commenced yesterday, also told the trial, presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner, that the Central African rebels Mr. Bemba’s forces were fighting wore the same uniforms as the CAR’s army.

Troops belonging to Mr. Bemba’s armed group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), are accused of having carried out mass rape and killings when they went to the CAR in October 2002 to assist the country’s then president, Ange-Félix Patassé, to beat back a coup attempt led by François Bozizé. Mr. Bemba is on trial for having failed to stop and to punish the perpetrators.

In her testimony, ‘Witness 82’ said that although Mr. Bemba’s soldiers also wore CAR army uniforms, she was able to tell them apart from Mr. Bozizé’s rebels based on their head gear.  Mr. Bozizé had one year earlier been dismissed as chief of staff of the Central African army, and many of his fighters were former CAR soldiers. The MLC troops wore red berets while Mr. Bozizé’s troops wore red turbans. According to the witness, there were Chadian nationals fighting alongside Bozizé’s troops, and they, too, wore CAR army uniforms.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Aime KiloloMusamba, ‘Witness 82’ reaffirmed that even though Mr. Bozizé’s rebels carried weapons, they did not commit any acts of violence against the CAR population. Earlier on Wednesday, this witness stated that two MLC soldiers raped her when she was 12 years old. She said the Congolese soldiers also raped her sisters and her grandmother and bludgeoned her brother to death when he tried to protect his family.

Today, Mr. KiloloMusamba read out excerpts from the interview the witness gave to prosecution investigators in 2008 in which she stated that it was MLC soldiers who committed atrocities against Central African civilians. The witness stated to the investigators that it was not always possible to understand the Lingala language spoken by the MLC soldiers, but added that some of them spoke Sango.

Asked by the defense counsel whether she stood by this statement, the witness replied, “Yes, I stand by it.” She said Mr. Bozizé’s troops also spoke Sango, but rather than attack civilians, they advised them to move out of the areas where there was fighting.

‘Witness 82’ continues her testimony tomorrow morning.