On the fourth day of his testimony at the International Criminal Court (ICC), former Congolese rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda has told judges that there were no conscripts at the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) training camps. Ntaganda, the former deputy chief of staff of the UPC militia, also stated that discipline was strictly maintained within the militia and that ethnic discrimination was forbidden within the group.
He explained that the group set up one of its main training facilities at Mandro to train soldiers to protect civilians against attacks by the Congolese Popular Army (APC), the armed wing of a rebel group known as the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Kisangani. In his earlier testimony, Ntaganda cited the APC among armed groups that attacked individuals of Hema and Tutsi ethnicity in Congo’s Ituri district.
The camp was set up around the year 2000 on land provided by Kahwa Panga, a local chief, and Ntaganda was directed by Kahwa’s military ally Floribert Kisembo to lead the training. “Kisembo wanted to train young people in peace committees,” explained Ntaganda. Such committees existed “everywhere” across the region at a time when was riddled by ethnic conflict. Kisembo subsequently served as chief of staff in the UPC militia.
Ntaganda said recruits at the camp voluntarily joined the UPC with support from their families. Prior to enlistment, they were screened to weed out those who did not meet the requirements, such as “the old, sick, young, and handicapped.” Whereas he conceded that no documents were available at the time to confirm the age of recruits, a visual assessment by commanders helped to determine whether an individual was old enough and physically able to participate in combat.
“Was the question put to recruits on arrival as to how old they were?” asked defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon.
“No, if you asked such a question, they could lie and tell an incorrect age,” replied Ntaganda. He said individuals deemed “unfit” for recruitment were asked to go home. For those who lived far from the camp, measures were taken to provide transport and “accompany” them home in case it was felt they would encounter difficulties on the way.
Asked if any recruits joined against their will, Ntaganda said he “received no such report.” He testified that he emphasized to commanders that if anyone seemed weak in attitude or seemed unhappy, the person had to be “let go.”
Similarly, Ntaganda said that he did not receive any reports of recruits who had joined voluntarily but changed their minds and wanted to return home, or of deserters. “The camp was a place of refuge for them. They couldn’t return home,” he said.
In the trial of former UPC commander-in-chief Thomas Lubanga, judges determined that there were child soldiers in the militia, some of whom were conscripted. Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Ntaganda’s trial has also heard that the accused grabbed children from a primary school and conscripted them into the UPC.
Ntaganda continues his testimony Wednesday morning.