A former United Nations child protection officer who worked to demobilize child soldiers in conflict-ridden Congo during 2003 has recounted the stories of some of the young fighters she helped to leave the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the militia where Bosco Ntaganda was a top commander.
Testifying at Ntaganda’s trial in The Hague, Kristine Peduto, who worked with the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC), recounted the stories of former soldiers she and her team interviewed at transit centers for demobilized child soldiers in Bunia, Congo. One former child soldier told her that Ntaganda “executed at least six soldiers in public for refusing to enter battle.” The unnamed boy, who claimed to have served as Ntaganda’s bodyguard, said he had changed his unit “because Ntaganda killed too much.”
Peduto stated that she and her team interviewed up to 420 children associated with various armed ethnic militia in Bunia and the surrounding towns of Lipri, Bambu, Kobu, and Rwampara. The interviews were aimed to understand how the children got into armed groups. “We were documenting their experiences to provide responses to victims,” she said.
According to one of her reports, which was presented in court this afternoon, up to 34 children had not been demobilized as at May 2003. All of them were male with an average age of 15 years. The youngest was 11 years old. The children were recruited between November 2001 and February 2003.
This is the second time Peduto is testifying at the ICC. She testified earlier in July 2009 in the trial of UPC leader Thomas Lubanga. In her testimony then and also this afternoon, she stated that during 2003, she worked with various non-government organizations in Bunia towards demobilizing child soldiers.
“The majority of the children I interviewed were associated with the UPC,” she said. During the interviews, some of the children told Peduto they were forcefully recruited into the UPC.
In response to prosecution lawyer Julieta Solana’s question about the age of the children, Peduto said she could not ascertain their ages but some looked “very young.” She said some children lied about their age: “A lot looked much younger than the age they were providing.”
The former UN official said she and her team visited Mandro, where the UPC earlier had a training camp, to look into a specific incident. Her team found “nothing” at the camp.
“What did you see at Mandro?” asked Solano.
“The place where the military camp allegedly was did not exist anymore. It had been burned down,” she replied.
At the time of Peduto’s initial ICC testimony, Ntaganda was still at large. Since then, Lubanga was in March 2012 convicted of recruitment and enlistment of children and using them in armed combat and was sentenced to 14 years in jail. Meanwhile, 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the use of child soldiers, were confirmed against Ntaganda in June 2014. The accused, who voluntarily surrendered to the ICC in April 2013, has pleaded not guilty.
Peduto continues her testimony tomorrow.