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Expert: Language Distinguished Bemba’s Soldiers From Central Africans

A linguistics expert called by prosecutors today said the language spoken by Congolese soldiers belonging to war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba’s group, as well as their accent, would have distinguished them from citizens of the Central African Republic (CAR).

William Samarin, a professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada, testified for the second day today. He said Sango, a language widely spoken in the CAR, belonged to the Oubangian languages spoken in the Niger-Congo region. On the other hand, Lingala was a Bantu language spoken from the area round the Oubangui river at the border of the CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to the Cape in South Africa.

He asserted that languages within each of the two families – Bantu and Oubangui – had a great deal of homogeneity. However, the families themselves were very different because they had distinct pronunciation as well as grammatical differences.

In his report to the court, the professor stated that as the national languages of their respective countries, Lingala and Sango each unified people in a “speech community.” As such, soldiers of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) – the group Mr. Bemba led – would have used Lingala as a symbol of solidarity among themselves.

Prosecuting lawyer Jean-Jacques Badibanga asked the witness if, in the context of events in the CAR, a language could have been used to establish distance or express authority.

“Yes, absolutely,” responded Professor Samarin. “This is one of the phenomena of social linguistics – the use of words to establish relationships and distance.”

He continued that historically, Sango and Lingala had not been in contact with each other. As a result, the two languages had not influenced each other in such a way that words from one were used in the other.

The expert witness stated that he had no doubt that Central Africans would have been able to identify Lingala based on personal experiences. He said Central Africans would have come into contact with Lingala through radio broadcasts from DRC as well as through Congolese music, which citizens of the CAR were familiar with.

“Imagine a Central African tells us that ‘I recognized Lingala because in the market there are people who speak Lingala.’ Would you question him or her?” asked Mr. Badibanga.

“I would not question that at all,” replied the witness. He added that such a person would not necessarily have to speak Lingala. Professor Samarin explained that through the different levels of recognition, the person would just say the speaker was from elsewhere and rule out the possibility that they were Central Africans.

Moreover, even if the MLC troops were to speak in French or Sango, Central African nationals would still have been able to recognize them from the different accents, voice, texture, and generally “the feel of a language.”

Mr. Bemba, a former vice president of the DRC, is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over his alleged failure to rein in his troops who committed mass rapes, killings, and plunder in the DRC. He has denied the charges.

Several prosecution witnesses have said they concluded that the soldiers who brutalized civilians in the CAR were from the MLC because these troops spoke Lingala. Defense lawyers have in turn questioned how these witnesses could have told that the language being spoken by the rampaging soldiers was Lingala, since these witnesses did not speak Lingala themselves.

Professor Samarin continues giving evidence next Monday morning with questioning by legal representatives of victims and then by the defense.