This week, two prosecution witnesses testified in the war crimes trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. They brought to 12 the number of witnesses who have testified so far in the trial that started last November at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
‘Witness 73,’ who gave most of his evidence last week, completed his testimony on Monday. As he did last week, this witness denied parts of the statements he made to prosecution investigators and claimed an individual, who identified himself as a staff of the ICC reparations office, advised him to make false claims in his application to participate in the trial as a victim.
The rest of the week was taken up by a rape survivor who described how she and her daughter were assaulted by Mr. Bemba’s soldiers. ‘Witness 79’ also testified that an aide to former Central African Republic (CAR) president Ange-Félix Patassé led an attack on a cattle market in which her husband was killed.
However, while she identified Colonel Abdoulaye Miskine as the individual who commanded the killings at the cattle market at a place called PK 13, she said among the killers were Mr. Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers. Hitherto, none of the witnesses has mentioned in open court about any joint operations between Mr. Miskine’s forces and the Congolese troops.
Mr. Miskine, also known as Martin Koumtamadji, is allegedly a Chadian national who Mr. Patassé had entrusted with the command of a special unit outside the army that fought coup attempts by sacked army chief François Bozizé. Last November, the first prosecution witness stated that when Mr. Bozize’s rebels attacked Bangui, Mr. Miskine carried out a punitive raid on the cattle market. The raid took place on October 30 and 31, 2002.
According to ‘Witness 79,’ who testified with voice and image distortion, an area resident informed her of the attack on the market. The person reportedly told her, “You Muslims are here but Miskine and the Banyamulenge have killed many Muslims and he promised to come back later and kill more Muslims in PK 12 [suburb].”
Banyamulenge is a term Central African people used to refer to Mr. Bemba’s soldiers, who were in Bangui to help Mr. Patassé fight off an armed rebellion during 2002 and 2003.
When defense attorney Aime Kilolo-Musamba asked the witness who commanded the attack on the cattle market, she responded: “I could not tell you who was in command and who were the assistants. I just know that it was Miskine and the Banyamulenge.”
Asked why she referred to the men who were with Miskine at PK 13 as Banyamulenge, the witness responded, “Miskine had come with them…and it was with them that he committed these abuses.” She recalled that the men who committed atrocities in her neighborhood spoke Lingala, a Congolese language.
Mr. Bemba’s lawyers have previously stated that there were numerous militias in Bangui at the time the MLC were there and that any of these fighting groups could have committed the systematic plunders, rapes, and murders that the former Congolese vice president is on trial for at the ICC. The defense has repeatedly asked witnesses about the massacre at the cattle market, which it claims the MLC never took part in.
‘Witness 79’ told the trial that two MLC commanders stated that they disapproved of atrocities soldiers were committing against civilians. She narrated how she and some of her neighbors met with the commanders to protest soldiers’ ill treatment of Central African civilians.
During redirect questioning by the prosecution’s Horejah Bala-Gaye, the witness explained that the meeting took place at the home of the local chief in the PK 12 suburb. She said the commanders addressed them in French.
“They said, ‘If you see those people come to the neighborhood and commit violent abuses, know that some are not professional soldiers. These are people who have been given military clothing and weapons to go to the front. So if you see that they are raping women and committing acts of violence, know that these are people who want to pilfer and are not professional soldiers.’”
The witness did not say in open court who gave weapons to the untrained soldiers. Similarly, she did not state the names of the commanders or whether they promised to take action against soldiers who abused civilians.
She did, however, describe the attack on her and her family. She and her 11 year old daughter were raped by MLC soldiers two days after the killing of her husband. “The person who killed my husband was Miskine and the Banyamulenge [MLC soldiers] who were accompanying him.” She testified that besides her husband, many other people were killed at the cattle market.
She said that two days after her husband was killed, armed MLC soldiers broke into her house at night. “There were five of them. They pulled me from the bed and threw me down to the ground, and then they undressed me. One of them first slept with me, the other had his gun pointed at my temple,” stated the witness.
She added, “The first one, after he had slept with me, got up and then a second man took his place. Two others entered the bedroom where one of my daughters was sleeping. She was 11 years [of age] and she was raped.”
The witness stated that after the soldiers assaulted her and her daughter, they made off with her property, including a refrigerator, a television set, shoes, clothes, and suitcases. The witness said two days after she was raped, she learned that her mother and elder sister had also been raped by Mr. Bemba’s troops. She said as a result of this attack, her mother became “rather disorderly in her behavior” and fled to neighboring Chad.
‘Witness 79’said she did not receive any support from her community following the assault. She explained that due to fear of stigmatization, she did not tell anyone what had happened to her daughter.
“I spoke to nobody,” said the witness. “Within the Muslims [community], such news when an underage daughter is deflowered, it runs counter to our customs. If I were to tell people what happened, then it would be very difficult for that girl to find a husband. That is why I preferred to keep the news of her rape secret.”