A witness this week stated that war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba used child soldiers during his militia’s intervention in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2002. Testifying for the second day on Friday, the ‘Witness 42’ described how he saw “many” minors among the Congolese troops who entered the CAR capital Bangui on November 7, 2002.
“When they arrived on the 7th and when they were moving towards Damara, we heard about it and came to the road,” narrated the witness. “It was laughable because you had children who were carrying weapons whose weight meant that these weapons were dragged along the ground.”
The witness also spoke about the ill-fitting clothes, which he said the young fighters wore. “They were wearing clothes that were ridiculous, and it was laughable. Everybody who was by the roadside was laughing. Who were these people wearing clothes that don’t fit?”
The witness said he could not tell how old the young fighters were but added that he later learned that they were “child soldiers.”
Although the use of child soldiers in armed conflict is a war crime, Mr. Bemba is on trial for having failed to rein in his Congolese soldiers as they carried out mass rape, killings, and plunder in the CAR.
Mr. Bemba is a Congolese national but sent his troops, who at the time were attempting to overthrow the Congolese government, to help the Central African president put down a rebellion by sections of his army. Thomas Lubanga, another Congolese national, has since January 2009 been on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over his alleged enlistment, recruitment, and use of child soldiers in the Congo’s Ituri province.
‘Witness 42’ also stated that many of the MLC soldiers in Bangui were uneducated peasants “picked from the village” and turned into soldiers overnight. He spoke of one Congolese fighter, who told him he had learned to shoot in one day and was promptly issued a gun.
A previous witness in the trial told the court that the young fighters among the MLC ranks were trigger-happy and had shot his wife dead.
‘Witness 42’ stated that MLC soldiers raped and looted because Mr. Bemba was not paying them. “Bemba organized war crimes in CAR, and he did not pay the soldiers [so] the soldiers lived off the population and raped women and he is the one to blame,” said the witness.
The witness, who testified with face and voice distortion so as to keep his identity secret, estimated that as many as 1,000 MLC troops were camped at the Bangui suburb of PK 12. He said the soldiers forcefully occupied several houses belonging to civilians.
Prosecuting lawyer Hesham Mourad asked ‘Witness 42’ how people whose houses were taken over by the MLC felt.
The witness responded, “The Banyamulenge [MLC soldiers] were like a cat. If a cat comes into a house, do you think a mouse is happy to share a house with the cat?” He explained that people fled when the MLC soldiers went to their homes.
The witness also told the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that MLC commanders took over one large house in the suburb, while soldiers occupied houses along an entire street.
The witness also recounted how his ten year old daughter was raped by two MLC soldiers. He stated that he did not take his daughter to see a doctor following the attack. “What good would it have done taking her to hospital?” he wondered.
He added, however, that even if he had wanted to take her to a doctor, he would not have managed to. “During these events, the hospitals were closed,” said the witness, who added, “In fact, I had no more money.”
The witness said his daughter was treated with traditional medicine. “There are some medicinal plants that you can boil and then the girl sits down into that potion to cure herself,” he said. The witness said this concoction was normally applied to women after they give birth in order to stop the bleeding.
‘Witness 42’ said he did not witness the rape of his daughter as the Congolese soldiers had taken her away from where he was. While the two soldiers were raping the young girl, another group of soldiers was flogging her father, claiming his son supported the rebels who were attempting to overthrow the country’s president, Ange-Félix Patassé.
Earlier in the week, ‘Witness 80’ recounted how she, her four children, and her husband were subjected to multiple rapes by MLC soldiers. Talking about how MLC soldiers committed mass rapes in her neighborhood, the witness said, “They were not hiding; they were doing it quite openly.”
‘Witness 80,’ who was described by Judge Steiner as “very vulnerable,” also testified with protective measures, including the use of a pseudonym, as well as face and voice distortion to keep her identity secret.
“How many Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] raped you?” prosecuting lawyer Thomas Bifwoli asked the witness.
“Three of them raped me,” replied the witness.
The witness did not give the full circumstances of her rape in open court. However, she stated that when she tried to resist her attackers, who spoke the Congolese language Lingala, they threatened to rape her “50 times without stopping.”
Regarding her family members, the witness said, “They made my children also suffer. The Banyamulenge raped me. They raped my husband and my children.”
“I wanted to speak about my first daughter; she was raped and now she has problems to conceive,” said the witness. “Another as well was 11 [years old] at the time, she was deflowered. Another was 14 [years old] at the time. Another was pregnant when she was raped.”
‘Witness 80,’ who was a resident of PK 12, stated that besides the MLC soldiers, rebels belonging to coup plotter François Bozizé’s group were also present in her neighborhood.
However, as with all previous prosecution witnesses, ‘Witness 80’ insisted that Bozizé’s fighters did not commit any crimes against the civilian population of the CAR.
“No, they [Bozizé’s rebels] did not commit any crimes. They are the ones who came to free us from our suffering,” she said.
The witness also said that MLC soldiers “took everything from her house.” According to her, “They took away the beds, the foam mattresses, kitchen utensils, and even the furniture. They did not leave anything.”
‘Witness 80’ stated that while her family was rich and respected before the attacks, since the assaults her family members had been subjected to ridicule from their neighbors. “We ate well, we lived well, but after those events, everyone was making fun of us,” she said.
Asked by Mr. Bifwoli how the rapes affected her daughters, the witness responded, “Right now as I talk to you, which kind of man is going to approach any of my daughters? Every man is afraid of my daughters since they were assaulted.”
‘Witness 42’ will continue giving evidence on Monday.