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UPC Decrees Demobilization of Child Soldiers But Seeks More

On the fourth day of cross-examination in Thomas Lubanga’s trial, the prosecutor repeatedly and unsuccessfully pressed defense witness Bede Djokaba Lambi Longa to admit children were used as body guards for commanders in the army of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), contrary to his evidence in chief. Mr. Longa would only agree that a young girl helped the wife of Chief of Staff Floribert Kisembo with chores and that she could have been anywhere from 14 to 16 years of age.

When the UPC was driven out of Bunia in March 2003, nineteen young people accompanied General Kisembo’s group, he said. They were separate from the 10,000 civilians, who also fled with the UPC, but none were soldiers and none were under 15 years of age. They did not participate in military drills or training, but played sports.

Mr. Longa denied prosecutor Ade Omofade’s suggestion that the number of young people in General Kisembo’s compound was 45, the size of a platoon. In response to the prosecutor’s assertion that General Kisembo created a unit of children called the Kadogo Unit, the witness argued that Kadogo is a flexible term in Swahili that can mean men as well as children.

After several hours of questioning, the witness conceded that he could not say there were no children serving as soldiers in the UPC from September 2002 to September 2003, but the UPC had no policy to recruit and use them. “No, no. Some got through the net but were demobilized,” he insisted.

Mr. Longa is testifying on behalf of Mr. Lubanga, former rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who is on trial for the recruitment, conscription, and use of children under 15 years of age in armed conflict during 2002 and 2003. The trial is the first held at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In today’s session, considerable time was spent circling around issues for which the prosecutor sought concessions, as Mr. Longa was adept at sidestepping direct questions. Prosecuting lawyer Manoj Sachdeva took over cross-examination to focus on UPC Executive Committee actions regarding demobilization of child soldiers.

The Executive Committee of the UPC government met weekly, and it was presided over by President Thomas Lubanga. Mr. Longa testified that no Patriotic Force for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) or military attended Executive Committee meetings. The witness was presented with a list of names of attendees at a meeting on June 11, 2003, which included General Kisembo, another general, and the witness himself. The military attended, he claimed, because circumstances in Bunia were insecure.

The Executive Committee discussed demobilization at a meeting at the beginning of October 2002, the witness said. The Committee issued a decree, read out on local radio by Eric Mbabazi, the UPC official responsible for relations between soldiers and the civilian population, that anyone not of legal age in the FPLC or any group bearing arms should be demobilized. Mr. Sachdeva suggested this attempt and others were never intended to be carried out.

The prosecuting lawyer secured Mr. Longa’s agreement that the Executive Committee decree was in response to complaints about the FPLC’s recruitment of child soldiers by the United Nations and other members of the international community. The Executive Committee’s concern, it appears, was not for children who might have been recruited but for the reputation of the FPLC. “In view of that [the complaints],” Mr. Longa testified, “UPC President Thomas Lubanga thought it necessary to try to take action to protect the FPLC from such accusations.”

Tomorrow morning, Mr. Sachdeva will present Mr. Longa with a document dated November 6, 2002, from Mr. Mbabazi to his superior, Chief of Staff Kisembo, pointing out that too few children were being recruited into the FPLC and more were needed.

Cross-examination of Mr. Longa is expected to conclude his testimony tomorrow, possibly followed by re-examination by the defense.