A prosecution witness has recounted how Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) soldiers kept “many” prisoners in an underground pit covered with iron sheeting during the 2002-2003 ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Witness P-886, who is testifying in the International Criminal Court trial of Bosco Ntaganda, the former deputy chief of staff of the UPC militia, also said the group “terrorized” civilians, forcing many to flee their homes.
According to the witness, the make-shift prison was dug between the Catholic church and police office in the town of Sayo. He added: “It was covered with corrugated iron and the guard was watching over the pit … If you walked near the prison you could see soldiers [guarding the pit].”
Asked by trial lawyer Diane Luping how many prisoners were kept in the pit, the witness said he had not personally seen them.
“It was the person who was in the pit who told us there were many people in the pit and that at night [the UPC] had some of them come out and those people never came back,” said Witness P-886.
The witness also recalled that among the ranks of the UPC were children, whose duties included acting as bodyguards for the group’s commanders. However, he was unable to provide any names of such commanders. He said that the child soldiers also performed guard duty around the camps that the UPC established when it took control of Sayo and other towns.
Witness P-886 said UPC soldiers “terrorized” civilians and “no one dared go near them.” They ransacked several houses, stripping them of their iron sheeting. “If you were wearing rubber boots they would take the boots,” recalled the witness.
According to the witness, when the UPC arrived in Sayo, members of the Lendu ethnic group fled and only returned after the fighters had left. Ethnic groups which were not at war with the UPC, namely the Alur, Babira, and Lugbara, remained in the area during the UPC’s occupation.
After UPC soldiers left, decomposing corpses were found in bushes, including behind the Catholic church. Witness P-886 said that some of the bodies were discovered by schoolchildren who had gone to collect straw. The witness was unable to say how many bodies there were.
“Did you see these skeletons with your own eyes?” asked Luping.
The witness answered, “When we burnt the bush you could find skulls because wild animals had already eaten away the bodies. But it was difficult to see how many bodies there were.”
Ntaganda is facing 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by UPC troops against the civilian population during ethnic conflict in the DRC’s Ituri district.
The trial continues on Oct. 28 with the cross-examination of Witness P-886 by the defense.