Former Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda raped child soldiers who guarded him, and shot dead a priest, a man with mental disabilities, and three members of the unnamed man’s family, according to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor.
Speaking at the opening of Ntaganda’s trial, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda also said that during 2002 and 2003, Ntaganda and his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia controlled the Ituri district, which she described a “one of the bloodiest corners” of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She said that during that period, an estimated 5,000 people were killed in the conflict.
The prosecution has lined up more than 80 individuals, including expert witnesses, insiders who worked with Ntaganda, victims, and eyewitnesses, to testify at the trial. The prosecution will also rely on forensic evidence gathered from exhumed bodies, communication logs, letters, video, and photos from UPC training camps. The sum total of witnesses called and evidentiary material submitted is expected to be the largest ever for a trial at the court based in The Hague.
Bensouda said rape and sexual enslavement of soldiers were so prevalent in Ntaganda’s armed militia that these girls were referred to as “guduria,” a Swahili word for a large communal cooking pot. They were “reduced to objects which soldiers and commanders could pass around and use for sex whenever they pleased.”
Prosecuting lawyer Nicole Samson explained that although Ntaganda will not be charged as a direct perpetrator of rape, evidence will show that he committed rape, including of girls in his direct escort, which shows that he knew sexual crimes were being committed against child soldiers in the UPC.
She said the rape of young girls in the group was so common that soldiers sung derogatory songs about it. “They were seen as the property of the commander to be exploited,” said Samson.
Ntaganda, a former deputy chief of staff for the UPC armed wing, has been in court custody since March of 2013 although the court had issued a warrant for his arrest in 2006. He faces 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity, including rape, murder, attacking civilians, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers in armed hostilities.
Thomas Lubanga, who headed the UPC, was convicted for using child soldiers in armed conflict and sentenced to a 14-year prison term. The prosecution contends that Lubanga, Ntaganda, and Floribert Kisembo—who was killed by Congolese government forces in 2011—were the top military commanders of the UPC.
Bensouda said Ntaganda was the top commander in charge of operations during the two main attacks for which he is on trial. “He planned, coordinated and commanded the attacks,” she said. He controlled logistics, weapons, and training for the UPC troops who committed crimes, and he gave orders to shoot and kill. The prosecutor said instead of punishing Commander Salumu Mulenda, who led killings in Kobu, Ntaganda praised him as a “real man.”
Samson said UPC leaders recruited hundreds of children, some only 12 years old, into the militia. They forced the children to kill and treated them poorly. Those who tried to escape were severely punished, sometimes with death, she said.
She said before the UPC soldiers went to war, Ntaganda and another commander ordered them to attack and plunder whatever they found, including women.
The prosecution said it will call witnesses who will testify that they saw Ntaganda personally attacking and killing civilians and pillaging their goods. They will testify how Ntaganda shot dead a priest after he denied knowledge about some documents, and then he repeated to his soldiers that members of the Lendu ethnic group should be eliminated. The judges will also hear evidence of how Ntaganda shot a man and three members of his family, and a colonel.
According to Samson, UPC men ordered civilians to dig their own graves before shooting them dead. They attacked a local health center and killed those who could not flee. In many attacks, Ntaganda’s men shot at fleeing civilians.
The forensic evidence that the prosecution plans to rely on was gathered last year when investigators exhumed bodies at the sites of some of the fiercest UPC attacks. In one grave, three of five bodies belonged to children and their bodies had injuries consistent with bullet wounds. Another 12 bodies were exhumed from a different grave but forensic experts could not establish a concrete cause of death. However, there were indications that they suffered injuries similar to those of the victims in the first grave, and witness accounts indicated that the victims were shot by UPC troops.
The hearing of opening statements continues tomorrow morning when lawyers representing the more than 2,149 victims participating in the trial will address the court.