On Tuesday. the first victim to testify in the trial of former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba recounted how she was twice gang-raped by a group of Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) soldiers. She also described pillaging and murders carried out by the accused’s fighters in her locality.
Going by the pseudonym Victim a/0866/10, she testified in full public view without protective measures. However, following a recommendation by the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU), she testified with the help of an in-court support assistant and a psychologist was present to monitor her.
She said two soldiers raped her outside a Central African Republic (CAR) military camp. One of the soldiers purportedly threatened her with a broken bottle while the others – about 20 in number – “were watching the show”. She said, “Some of them were shouting with joy while others were firing in the air.”
On a second occasion on the same day, an estimated 12 soldiers assaulted her. “They slept with me in the anus, vagina, and mouth,” she said. She vomited and lost consciousness during the ordeal. Among her attackers was an individual named Kovo, who appeared to be the commander of the group.
Asked by her lawyer Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson why she decided to take part in the proceedings, the witness said that it was an opportunity to tell the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the whole world what she had suffered.
“I was treated like an animal, and I cannot live normally. I was a woman with dignity, but I lost my dignity. I suffered inhuman treatment,” she said.
As a result, she has been stigmatized by her community. She is referred to as a wife of Banyamulenge [Congolese soldiers] and “sometimes people spit on me.”
She said troops belonging to Mr. Bemba’s militia arrived in Mongoumba town on the morning of March 5, 2003. Residents fled their homes and some of them, including the victim, took refuge at a hospital and hid under beds. Cries from a baby alerted a group of armed soldiers about the hiding place. The soldiers then lined up all the people in the hospital and took money and other goods from them.
“They took everything, all our personal items. They did not spare anything,” she said.
Asked by Ms. Douzima-Lawson what language the soldiers spoke and how she was able to recognize it, the witness replied that they spoke Lingala, a dialect native to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The border between the two countries is not far away so I was able to go to the other side [of the border] to do shopping. That is why I knew this language. I understand it.”
Because she spoke to the soldiers in Lingala, they “forcefully” took her along with them to act as an interpreter as they advanced on the town. At one time they stopped at a local church “brandishing their weapons” and threatening to kill. They robbed the church priest and nuns of money and property including vehicles, furniture, and television sets.
“They even took the sacramental wafers and ate them,” she added. One of the soldiers wore the bishop’s cassock.
The soldiers continued their day-long looting, ransacking the gendarme office, the mayor’s compound, and a resident’s home. They purportedly shot the resident, cut off his genitals, and stuffed them in his mouth. At another residence, they found an elderly woman holding a baby. When she resisted their attempts to grab her property, they shot her too.
Prosecutors charge that MLC soldiers systematically murdered, raped, and pillaged civilians during their deployment in the CAR between October 2002 and March 2003. “They killed civilians who resisted rape, physical violence, and pillaging. They killed them sometimes as part of a single attack or as a series of attacks,” said prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur at the start of the trial in November 2010. As their commander-in-chief, Mr. Bemba is being tried for their crimes at the court based in The Hague. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of war crimes and three crimes against humanity.
Victim a/0866/10 continues giving testimony tomorrow morning.