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Exhumed Bodies Show Little Conclusive Evidence of Mass Murders by Ntaganda Militia

A forensic anthropologist who conducted excavation and exhumation at sites where local residents said victims of mass murders by Bosco Ntaganda’s militia were buried says his team did not find mass graves at most of the sites.

In 2014, the team hired by the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) exhumed 14 bodies from four graves in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri province but could not determine the cause of death or how long the bodies had been buried. Dr. Derek Congram, a Canadian forensic archaeologist and anthropologist who testified this week for the prosecution in Ntaganda’s trial, said some of the bodies had been “properly buried,” suggesting the burial was conducted by family members.

Also known as Witness P-0420, Dr. Congram, who is testifying as an expert witness, provided reports to the court that explain his team’s findings from excavations and exhumations at Kobu and Sayo in Congo. He personally analyzed the remains of one person exhumed in Kobu and five in Sayo. In Sayo, five bodies were found in a single, shallow grave by the roadside, which indicated that these were not “normal deaths.” Three of the bodies were of young people, probably in their early teens.

Defense lawyer Christopher Gosnell questioned the lack of precision in the expert’s report, notably its conclusion that the remains could have been buried for between one and 20 years. The expert responded that there were limits to the ability of forensic anthropologists to establish precise dates when bodies were buried. However, he added that, because the remains were found close to one another, it appeared the burials occurred at or around the same time.

Dr. Congram said whereas local residents said there were graves east and west of the door to a Catholic church in Sayo, investigators found no graves in the area. After the team failed to find any graves that mirrored the massacres alleged by witnesses, “there was some discussion as to whether the position of the church had changed given this is a wooden structure not a permanent structure.”

The trial has previously heard that militia from the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), in which Ntaganda was a senior commander, kept several prisoners in an underground pit covered with iron sheeting near a church in Sayo, and when they left many decomposing bodies were found in the area.

“Did you find graves consistent with the events of February 2003 in the vicinity of the Catholic church?” asked Gosnell, referring to prosecution evidence of alleged murders by UPC soldiers in that area.

“No, we did not,” answered the witness.

An excavation at a different site where a resident said their sister and grandson were buried yielded no remains, said the witness. He noted that he was not aware whether in that part of Ituri family members marked graves, as this practice ranged between cultures.

Dr. Congram said they also failed to find any remains at a site in Kobu where locals alleged that 18 to 20 people were buried in a mass grave. “We checked that area thoroughly and found no mass burial in that area,” he said. Various prosecution witnesses have testified to the murder of about 50 civilians in a banana plantation in Kobu by UPC fighters.

The expert testified that the poor condition of the skeletons made it difficult to conclude whether damage observed on the skeletal remains was inflicted post-mortem or perimortem. “Much of the damage is clearly post-mortem,” he said, adding that it was hard to ascertain what was perimortem trauma because of extensive post-mortem damage. However, Dr. Congram said he observed two injuries that were consistent with gunshot injuries to the head and elbow.

Asked by Gosnell whether those injuries were consistent with anything else, the expert replied: “To me the most probable [cause] based on the nature of fracturing is gunshot, but I can’t say with certainty that these injuries were not caused by other similar projectiles.”  Dr. Congram said the injuries could be the result of blunt force trauma.

Dr. Congram has concluded his two-day testimony. Hearings continue tomorrow morning.