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Ituri: The Pursuit of Justice

Dear readers – Please find an article written by Sheila Vélez, a freelance journalist and author of the “Lubanga Chronicles” which document the ICC trial.  This article 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. 

Four million dead and over a million displaced. The biggest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. We travel to Ituri, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that saw a war waged by rival ethnic groups kill 50,000 people between 1999 and 2003. Today, some of those responsible for so much suffering are facing justice at the International Criminal Court. But how do their victims perceive these trials?

Bunia is far from what it used to be ten years ago, when different rebel factions were engaged in a struggle for political power and the control of the region’s natural resources. Today, the capital of the Ituri province exists in a relative calm, probably due to the presence of MONUSCO, the largest military contingent ever deployed by the United Nations in a peacekeeping mission. What seems to have scarcely changed, though, is the support that the first rebel accused of recruiting children for war by the tribunal in The Hague still enjoys. Bunia, and more particularly neighborhoods such as Mutzipela, remains the undisputed stronghold of one of Africa’s more notorious warlords, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.

My visit today is to the regional office of the Union of Congolese Patriots, the Hema military and political party founded by Thomas Lubanga in 2002, which, after having undergone a facelift, currently holds three seats in the Nation’s Parliament. The group’s emblem crowns the facade of the building, located in one of the main streets, dusty and full of holes as are all streets in Bunia. I am welcomed by Simon Ngadjole and Jean Baptiste Ngolotcha, Secretary and Federal President of the UPC in Ituri respectively, two men of apparently humble gesture and garb, wearing ragged clothes that are a far cry from the impeccably cut suits that “President Thomas” dons for the hearings of the Court in The Hague. It is hard to imagine the Rais, (the king, in arabic) invested of sacred authority, sharing a table with these men, sitting in an office with fake wooden walls and documents scattered all over the place. Ngadjole goes back to the origins of his party: “The UPC was created to put a halt to the massacres in Ituri,” he says, while producing pictures that make one’s stomach lurch: arrow wounds, machete cuts, decapitated bodies. Ngadjole blames all that cruelty on his enemies, the Lendu, who also took up arms and organized themselves into militias called The Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) and the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI). Their leaders, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, are both also being tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Just as they did with the Tutsis of Rwanda, the Belgian colonialists favored the Hema shepherding population, giving them land and positions in government, a policy which was continued after the country’s independence in 1960. The President of the former Zaïre, Mobutu Sese Seko, stuck to the same practice during the 32 years of his iron rule. However, as the expert on Africa Gerard Prunier explained to the judges of the ICC, ethnic rivalries, far from being the cause of the conflict in Ituri, were its instrument. “This particular rivalry was orchestrated,” he stated during the Lubanga trial. “The leaders used the ethnic issue to further their political interests.” Ethnic identity was then used as a weapon of war that would even benefit neighboring countries. According to Roberto Garreton, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Congo and a witness in the same trial, the Ugandan presence in the region exacerbated underlying tensions. “There was a general feeling among the Congolese that everything that was happening in Ituri was decided in Kampala,” he said. Ugandans and the colonialists typically played on Hema conviction that they, like the Tutsi next door, were born to rule.

The Hema have always denied any kind of favored treatment. A stack of papers in hand, Ngadjole, the secretary of the UPC, goes on to explain the origins of his party: it was founded as a response to the oppression and marginalization to which his people, the Hema, were subjected by the government of the Rassemblement Congolais (RCD) of Wamba dia Wamba and Mbusa Nyamwisi from 1999 to 2002. However, he omits the fact that the UPC rebellion stems from the mutiny of the Hema commanders within the RCD, which a then young member of the Assembly of Ituri, Thomas Lubanga, saw as the ideal opportunity to form a new political and military party. With the support of Uganda and of those who defected, Lubanga created an army and won its loyalty. The UPC expelled the RCD from Bunia on August 9, 2002, and a mere month later, on September 3, Thomas Lubanga was appointed President of the UPC and Commander in Chief of its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo.

“Thomas was selected for his courage and his political experience,” says Jean Baptiste Ngolotcha. Born into a Hema family in 1960, Thomas Lubanga studied psychology at the University of Kisangani. While hearing about the President of the UPC, I look at the walls of the office that display pictures and newspaper clippings of his trial in The Hague. They adore their leader. Both men say they felt sad when they heard of his detention. Lubanga was arrested by the Congolese authorities in March 2005 and transferred to the International Criminal Court a year later to be judged for the recruitment of child soldiers under 15. “We pray for his release every day,” says Ngolotcha.

Without mentioning their ages, Ngolotcha boasts that his four sons fought in the ranks of “Thomas’ army.” Their duty was to defend their family, and by doing so, they defended their community as a result,” he says. That was the contribution of the Hema to the ethnic war. According to the evidence submitted by the Office of the Prosecutor, Lubanga himself publicly decreed that each Hema family must support his military efforts by enlisting their children in his army. He ordered his soldiers to recruit “everyone they could lay their hand on.” Lubanga’s orders did not mention a minimum age. The sole criterion was the ability to carry a weapon. 

A number of boys joined the rebels of their own volition, driven by frustration, hunger and anger at losing a relative. Others were abducted by Lubanga’s soldiers in squares, streets and schools and forcibly carried away to military training camps. Emmanuel, my translator, tells me that several of his friends were taken to those camps. “They were given the same food every day. They said the physical exercises were grueling and that the commanders wanted to send them to the battlefield the sooner the better.” The military training lasted a few weeks and was often accompanied by inhuman punishment. Losing a weapon or attempting to escape was punished with death. According to Kristine Peduto, from MONUSCO, who is responsible for protecting the rights of children and witnesses in the Lubanga trial, the psychological state of children after they were demobilized was of great concern. “They were deeply traumatized; the youngest seemed totally lost. They had witnessed massacres and had lived trough terrible experiences,” she said. “The physical and psychological condition of the girls was far more alarming: they had been subjected to systematic sexual abuse from commanders and soldiers. I think the youngest girl I interviewed was 12.” Peduto was part of the MONUSCO delegation that visited Lubanga in May 2003 at his personal residence. “I told him that the use of child soldiers was a crime. However, he had absolutely no intention of discussing the issue. At some point, he even said the children were in the UPC because they needed protection.”

In one of the few restaurants in the city safe enough for foreigners to have a drink and shake off that thick coat of dust that hangs on one at the end of the day, I come across Dieudonné Mbuna, a member of the Lubanga defense team and a resident of Bunia. He is a man of few words. With Emmanuel’s help, I have prepared a list of very blunt questions, but shortly after the start of the interview, Mbuna tells me that his team have forbidden him to speak to journalists. “This is a very sensitive time,” he says, referring to the Defense’s application on the abuse of process. Lubanga’s lawyers have accused the Prosecution of collaborating with intermediaries who allegedly pressured witnesses into fabricating their testimonies. The judges asked the Prosecution to disclose to the Defense the identity of one of its intermediaries, a fact which worried the Office of the Prosecutor as the intermediary had not been granted protective measures. The Prosecution’s choice not to disclose this information led to a legal debate that almost put an end to Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo’s first case. On July 8, 2010, the judges stayed the proceedings asserting that a fair trial of the accused was no longer possible due to the Prosecutor’s refusal to implement the Chamber’s orders. “The judges are doing a good job,” says Mbuna. “They have shown that they are impartial. Thomas is confident that the outcome will be a fair one.”

Peace, as fragile as eggshell

There is that noble idea of international justice as a universal remedy that will bring peace and reconciliation to conflict ridden societies. But the reality is far more complex. Reconciliation becomes difficult when those who claim to be victims are unable to accept that their own groups were also perpetrators. Even the trials that can objectively establish what happened cannot contribute to reconciliation as long as people do not admit to the facts.

“Bunia is pervaded by a climate of mistrust between different ethnic groups,” says my translator Emmanuel. “Those who support the UPC still feel victimized by this [judicial] process; they maintain that they acted in self-defense.”

My next visit is to Radio Candip, formerly the official UPC radio station, now converted into an independent community broadcasting service. There, I meet Professor Pilo Kamaragi, the Hema spokesperson and a senior member of the UPC. With his credentials, I am surprised, during the interview, to see that he repeatedly denies any kind of relationship between Thomas Lubanga and his community. When asked about the trial of his leader, he immediately attacks the Court. “I am under the impression that this trial is extremely politicized,” he says. “It is not a fair one. Where did the weapons come from? Who financed this war?” he asks, referring to other leaders considered as the real culprits of the Ituri tragedy who are still at large. “The International Criminal Court is biased,” says Pilo forcefully.

This allegation of partiality is echoed by the rival ethnic group, the Lendu. According to Alex Losinu, one of their representatives, the community does not understand why the number of charges brought against Lubanga by Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo is not greater. “Were these children recruited to kill monkeys or to kill us?” he asks, recalling the massacres the Lendu suffered. “Whether  Lubanga is convicted or not does not matter. This trial will not bring peace to Ituri. It cannot undo what these child soldiers did. They raped, they killed, they robbed, and they remain free.” Losinu goes on: “If Thomas Lubanga ever comes back to Bunia, we shall ask him to leave our community in peace. Should he provoke us, we will defend ourselves and so we will be right back where we started. In Ituri, peace is as fragile as eggshell.”

As the days and meetings go by, I find out that radical stands are not that significant in number. Gilbert Tandia Bakonzi, a human rights defender and director of the Pelican Centre for Peace and Justice in Bunia, does believe that the proceedings in The Hague will bring peace to the region. “These trials send a clear message: the era of impunity is ending. Ituri needs justice, but reconciliation depends on us,” says Gilbert, who has been threatened by those he calls “extremists.” He remarks that the division between groups is of an intellectual nature, among the elite and the politicians. “The ordinary Hema and Lendu coexist peacefully. They go to the same markets, they are treated in the same hospitals, and they worship in the same churches.” His words remind me of “Hell on Earth”, John Carlin’s documentary on Sierra Leone, where he says  that the main issue in Africa is the ability to forgive. And so it is. People seem weary of so much war. But it is a weariness tinged with a certain resignation. I see it in Emmanuel’s eyes. Whenever I speak of peoples’ revolutions and of putting an end to decades of abuse, he looks at me stunned. Eras of colonialism and dictatorships seem to have alienated generations. They have not been raised to complain about barbarism but rather to accept it.

The much hoped for Justice 

Alice Zago, investigator in the Lubanga case, faced a big challenge in Ituri. How to explain to victims and witnesses the abstract notion of justice? How can we speak of rights to those who have never enjoyed any? In my meeting with the citizens of Katoto (22 km northeast of Bunia), I see this for myself. There is a group of four men and three women that gather now and then to listen to a radio program about justice.  Interactive Radio for Justice, was founded, and is made by an American colleague who has always been passionate about the region. When I ask them if they understand what they are listening to, one of them answers that he does not understand what we mean by human rights. And to my even greater surprise, my translator, Emmanuel, cannot find the Swahili equivalent for “international justice” and uses instead the French expression. Gratian Iracan, a local journalist working with Interactive Radio for Justice, goes right to the point: “People need time to understand what justice is. Under [the dictator’s] Mobutu’s regime, there were no protests, no recognition of our rights. It is now that people begin to understand the meaning and importance of justice as the only way to live in peace,” says Gratien. “But the problem is corruption; money rules here.”

This lack of trust in local judicial institutions is a common factor to the inhabitants of Ituri. Although the Congolese government, with the help of international organizations, has shown some progress in recent years, corruption and a lack of resources and infrastructure impede the implementation of justice. “I do not understand how a man who has raped a woman can be arrested and released shortly after,” says a woman from Katoto. “There  is no justice for the poor here. If you’re rich and you have a problem, all you have to do is produce money.” This lack of funds also extends to prisons. “What I saw there was gruesome,” says Emmanuel, recalling his visit to the Bunia prison with another journalist.  The sight of emaciated prisoners, sitting in cramped, overcrowded and unhygienic cells and whose sole subsistence is what their families can provide is still vivid in his mind.

This long history of wars and ethnic conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past decades has shattered its judicial structures. “Since 2004, the courts started to operate timidly, but it is only now that our judicial system is really beginning to take its first steps,” says Military Prosecutor in Bunia Jean Maurice Lianza. “That is why the Government has asked the International Criminal Court to intervene, so that crimes do not go unpunished.” In March 2004, Kinshasa referred the situation to the ICC asking it to investigate and prosecute crimes under its jurisdiction committed on Congolese territory. However, the international court should not be an alternative to any national proceedings, but rather complement them. That is one of the challenges of the court, to encourage states to put an end to the crimes that are a concern to humanity, as well as to meet the expectations of the women of Katoto: “Hopefully, this will never  happen  again. Children were not born to be soldiers. Children should go to school.”