For the first time in International Criminal Court (ICC) history, an accused has taken the stand in his own defense. Germain Katanga is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during an attack on Bogoro, a village in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He took the stand on Tuesday in his own defense.
Katanga was allegedly the leader of the Ituri Patriotic Resistance Force (FRPI), an Ngiti militia. Katanga opened his testimony by providing personal background information about his family and upbringing. He also provided contextual information about the conflict in Ituri leading up to the attack on Bogoro.
Katanga’s testimony can help clarify details of a complex conflict with a wide range of actors. Moreover, his testimony can help his defense team dispel prosecution allegations concerning his alleged responsibility for crimes committed in Bogoro.
The defense team of Germain Katanga does not deny that there was an attack on Bogoro. However, according to the defense case, Katanga is not responsible for the attack. Rather, the responsibility lies with Ugandans, Rwandans, the central government of Kinshasa, and other local militias, such as the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) led by Thomas Lubanga.
This report covers the first two days of his testimony. Katanga’s co-accused, Mathieu Ngudjolo, is also scheduled to testify next month. Ngudjolo was allegedly the leader of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), a Lendu militia linked to the FRPI.
“My birth was a mistake”
Katanga began his testimony by describing his family and his upbringing. His birth was a “mistake,” he said. His mother was in a convent when he was conceived, he testified. As an infant, Katanga said he was sent to live with his uncle and his uncle’s wife in Mambasa.
His uncle was a soldier in the Zairian Armed Forces and died during battle in 1996. At the time, Katanga was 18 years old and testified that he was a member of the civil guard in Isiro. He was also studying math and physics at the local secondary school, he said.
Katanga explained that after his uncle’s death, he decided to seek out his biological parents and continue his studies. He said that he did not meet his father until 1998, when he was 20 years old. His father was living in Aveba, and Katanga said that his father enrolled him in the Bajanga Institute nearby.
Katanga also testified about his ethnic identity. He explained that although his uncle, his uncle’s wife, and Katanga’s mother were of Yogo ethnicity, Katanga was of Ngiti ethnicity, after his father.
Katanga said that it was when his uncle died that he asked himself which ethnicity he was. It seemed from his testimony that he did not identify with or know that he was of the Ngiti ethnicity until he met his birth father.
Katanga explained that “the whole thing started” when the Ugandan army attacked the area in 2000. “Ugandans had no pity,” he claimed.
The locals did not know the goals of the Ugandans, and decided to form self-defense groups to defend themselves from the attacks. Katanga testified that the attacks included bombardment by helicopter and burning houses in the villages.
He described one attack that he witnessed, when he claimed the Ugandans opened fire on the students of the Bajanga Institute, where Katanga was studying at the time. This is when he first had the idea to join the self-defense group, he said.
At this time, Katanga claimed, there was no ethnic element to the fighting.
Bemba’s Peace Efforts
Katanga said that Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo (also on trial at the ICC for crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic conflict) came to the Walendu-Bindi area in 2001 to try to establish peace. After Bemba left, Katanga explained, there was a lull in the fighting.
However, he said, the Ugandans came back and things got worse.
“Combatants” and Self-Defense Groups
Katanga readily admitted that he joined the self-defense groups. He described the early days of the fighting, when the “combatants” fought with traditional weapons. According to Katanga, they were untrained and ill-equipped.
He also explained the meaning of the terms “combatant,” “militia,” and “youngsters” or “young people.” Katanga’s explanations of the common understanding of these words could help the Judges better understand the way witnesses have used these terms.
He called “combatatism” a phenomenon of self-defense groups that were formed by people who were called “combatants.” He said that to a villager, the word “combatant” meant a man who fights using traditional weapons. However, he said that he considered combatants to be those who went to the frontlines with their traditional weapons.
If you had a firearm, Katanga testified, you would not be called a combatant. Soldiers were those men who fought with organized armed groups, such as the UPC and APC, he testified.
Katanga said that the words “combatant” and “militia” developed during the conflict and took on their own meaning. Villagers did not really understand or use the terms, he said. For example, he said that some villagers would use the term “militia” to describe their unruly or disobedient children.
Katanga said that the village wise men would call them the “youngsters.” This word also changed over time to designate self-defense groups, and this is how the word combatant came to be used by everyone, he explained. It was the “sacred” word to be used, he said.
Katanga testified about the start of ethnic tensions in the conflict. He claimed that the leaders of the Andisoma collectivity gave the Bira people bladed weapons to attack the Lendu.
“The Lendu were being hunted down and killed and driven out from Nyankunde,” he said.
Katanga testified that he was living in the mainly Ngiti area in Kalingi. In Kalingi, when the Bira combatants arrived, they showed no mercy, he said.
“We tried to get our families away and take refuge in the hospital,” Katanga told the Judges.
The Lendu were obliged to leave Nyankunde, he said. Katanga explained that after the attack in August 2001, he left with his family and went to Aveba.
The majority of the Bira did not take part in the conflict, he said. He said he was told that it was the Hema who influenced the Bira to take action against the Lendu.
“Of course the Hema had that ability,” he said.
Katanga denied that he had prejudice against Hema. He said that he lived with Hema people and went to school with them. In fact, he claimed, he’d stayed at one point with a family member of Thomas Lubanga, who was the leader of the UPC, a Hema militia.
Katanga said that outside of the Ngiti community, no one really knew about the ethnic tensions that existed in the region.
Attack on Nyankunde
Katanga also discussed major events in the conflict that took place in the area in 2002, including the Ugandans withdrawal from the collectivity, the arrival of Lopondo and the RCD/KM-L, the UPC’s attack on Lopondo in Bunia in August 2002, and leading up to the September 5, 2002 attack on Nyankunde.
Katanga said that he did not participate in the September 5 attack on Nyankunde. However, he said that he later learned that there was a disaster in Nyankunde. He went there in October, before the UPC took Nyankunde back later that month. Katanga testified that the situation in Nyankunde was dire and that the hospital had been destroyed.
He testified that at the time of the attack, he was a “combatant” living in Niabire (phonetic), trading animal skins he collected by hunting. He testified that he was serving as the bodyguard of Kasaki Bandro, the healer and fetisher from Aveba.
Katanga explained that if there were any problems caused by a combatant against civilians, Kasaki’s men would be called on to do something. They tried to work as bodyguards, but if problems arose between the combatants and the civilian population, then they would try to intervene, he explained.
Katanga’s Return to Aveba
Katanga said he returned to Aveba with Kasaki in late 2002.
Katanga testified that the BCA camp in Aveba was set up in the second half of 2002, sometime before the September attack on Nyankunde. The camp was occupied by the local combatants and an APC platoon.
According to Katanga, the platoon of about 36 men was at first commanded by Alpha Baby, and then by Kambale (also called Mbale). The leader of the platoon could give orders to the local combatants with the cooperation of the combatants’ leaders, Katanga said.
In the fall of 2002, Katanga estimated that there were about 500 combatants in the BCA camp in Aveba. They were not all local from Aveba, he said, but had fled from the surrounding villages to Aveba.
There were three main commanders of the combatants, he said. According to Katanga, they were locals with no military training.
As Katanga reiterated several times in his testimony, the combatants generally fought with traditional weapons such as machetes (what Katanga classified as a working instrument), spears, and bows and arrows. They might have had a few firearms, he said.
Katanga’s testimony will continue next week. Once he has completed his direct examination, he will be cross-examined by the prosecution.