The two witnesses who testified this week defended the conduct of Francois Bozizé’s forces during the 2002-2003 conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). They affirmed that while troops commanded by Mr. Bozizé’s were present in some suburbs of the capital Bangui, they never committed atrocities against civilians.
At the time, Mr. Bozizé troops were attempting to overthrow President Angé-Felix Patassé, which prompted the head of state to call in the help of the Congolese fighters. Both ‘Witness 81’ and ‘Witness 82’ said that the soldiers who carried out the rapes, murders, and looting were from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the group that was founded and led by war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba.
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. Bozizéhad one year earlier been dismissed as chief of staff of the Central African army, and many of his fighters were former CAR soldiers. The witness said MLC troops wore red berets while Mr. Bozizé’s troops wore red turbans. According to her, there were Chadian nationals fighting alongside Bozizé’s troops, and they, too, wore CAR army uniforms.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Aime Kilolo-Musamba, ‘Witness 82’ stated that even though Mr. Bozizé’s rebels carried weapons, they did not commit any acts of violence against civilians. 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.
Mr. Kilolo-Musambaread out excerpts from the interview “Witness 82’ gave to prosecution investigators in 2008 in which she stated that it was MLC soldiers who committed atrocities against Central African civilians. The witness told 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.
The witnesses who testified this week had protective measures including face and voice distortion to keep her identities secret. They gave most of their evidence in closed session. Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said a psychologist would be present in court to monitor the witnesses and that an official of the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) would sit beside each of the witnesses to offer them any assistance they might need. These measures were recommended after a psychological assessment of the witnesses.
For her part, ‘Witness 81’ told the trial that after being raped by four MLC soldiers, she fled from her home in the suburb of PK12 near Bangui to PK22, also near the capital. But due to the fighting in the area where she had sought refugee, she was forced to return to her home in PK12.
The witness told the trial that when she returned home, she found that MLC soldiers had dug defensive trenches in front of her house, where they stayed day and night. The soldiers then obliged her to prepare their meals on a daily basis. The raw provisions for the meals were provided by the soldiers.
“But the soldiers [in the trenches] never entered your house, did they?” asked Mr. Bemba’s lawyer Peter Haynes.
The witness replied, “No, they didn’t enter the houses. They had everything with them outside, and we did various sorts of work for them. It was outside the house.” She told the trial that she prepared meals for the MLC soldiers for two weeks although she did not say in open court how she stopped preparing meals for the soldiers.
She explained that while she worked as an unpaid a cook for the troops, she learnt the names of the MLC soldiers who raped her. Last Friday, ‘Witness 81’ provided these names – but in closed session. This week, Mr. Haynes asked the witness whether she had not stated in her statement to prosecution investigators three years ago that she had never had prior meetings with the soldiers she prepared meals for.
“Perhaps it’s been noted down incorrectly,” she replied, in reference to the investigators who took her statement which the defense attorney was referring to. “I had met them and the same people came and obliged us to cook for them.”
Mr. Bemba, the former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegedly failing to control his troops who raped, murdered, and plundered in the CAR during 2002 and 2003.
The defense this week also picked up on what they claimed were inconsistencies in the account given by ‘Witness 81’ regarding Mr. Bemba’s visit to Bangui. In her testimony, the witness stated that she saw Mr. Bembaarrive in a Bangui suburb by helicopter of the same color as his military uniform. According to the witness, the accused then addressed the local CAR population while he was surrounded by his soldiers.
However, the defense contended that an individual, who went with ‘Witness 81’ to see Mr. Bemba, had provided information that contradicted what she stated.
“This is someone who was apparently with you. He has described [that] Mr. Bemba was not in military uniform as you have said,” stated defense counsel Liriss Nkwebe. “He said that he [Bemba] did not come by helicopter. He also added that he did not speak to the population. On the contrary, the population was not allowed to meet with him. Do you stand by your testimony to this court regarding the arrival of Mr. Bemba?”
The witness answered, “I am not talking about the dreams of someone else. I am telling you about something that I witnessed myself. If someone else had dreams, I cannot interpret those dreams on their behalf.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, ‘Witness 82’ denied that a minister in the current CAR government told witnesses what to say when they went to give testimony in Mr. Bemba’s trial. The affirmed that she had met several times with Bernadette Sayo, who founded a nongovernmental organization that assisted rape survivors and is currently a cabinet minister in President Bozizé’s government. However, the witness said that while Ms. Sayo encouraged her and other survivors to testify at the ICC, she did not tell them what to say.
Mr. Bemba’s defense has questioned several witnesses about their dealings with OCODEFAD (L’Organisation pour la Compassion et le Développement des Familles en Détresse), the organization which Ms. Sayo founded.
After the witness said she had attended several meetings at OCODEFAD, which culminated into her testimony in the trial, Mr. Kilolo-Musamba asked her whether Ms. Sayo had recently contacted her by telephone or other means. The witness replied that she could not recall when she last met the OCODEFAD founder, but she went on to deny that Ms. Sayo had told the rape survivors what to say in their testimony.
“Did she say it was Banyamulenge who committed all these acts of violence in Bangui?” asked Mr. Kilolo-Musamba.
“She couldn’t tell me that,” replied the witness, adding that as a victim of the acts of violence, she knew that the perpetrators were soldiers from the MLC. She added that Ms. Sayo was herself a victim of the MLC soldiers’ crimes because they killed her husband. The witness stated that Ms. Sayofounded OCODEFAD to enable victims to tell the ICC what happened to them.
Asked whether Ms. Sayo had told her that she would receive compensation for testifying in Mr. Bemba’s trial, the witness said, “She did not talk to us about compensation. We came here to talk about what we experienced. We did not come to ask for any kind of compensation.”
According to the witness, OCODEFAD offered rape survivors food and, occasionally, money. Most of this help came from the CAR government.
Mr. Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness whether she could give evidence that was unfavorable to Mr. Bozizé’s government given that it had supported victims through OCODEFAD. “Do you know whether Bozizé’s government is aware of the testimony that you are currently giving in this courtroom?” he asked.
The witness replied, “I came here to give testimony myself. Who could go and say to the government what I am saying?”
She added, “Bozizé never committed harmful acts against the population. He fed people, paid salaries regularly, so I can’t tell lies against him.”