Former Congo army general and rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda took the witness stand on Wednesday at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to testify in his own defense and recounted how witnessing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda drove him to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Rwandan genocide saw the killing of up to 800,000 individuals, mainly members of the Tutsi ethnic group.
“I was one of those who put an end to the [Rwandan] genocide,” said the 43-year old who faces 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. “I was young, but I was already in the army … I was a platoon commander, and I witnessed horrific events.”
“Did the genocide contribute to transforming you into the person you are today, and if so, in what way?” asked defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon.
“I remember that when we put an end to the genocide in Rwanda our superiors told us that [given] what we had just seen, those of us soldiers, if possible, we had to do everything to prevent this from happening again in Africa, and this was in my mind wherever I went,” said Ntaganda. “I told myself that I do not wish to see any other community experience what my own community went through.”
Testifying in Swahili, Ntaganda said he was born on November 5, 1973 in the current Musanze district in Rwanda, to Congolese Tutsi parents. He dropped out of secondary school at age 17 to join the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels. He said the RPF, which had been launched from Uganda in 1990, was fighting to topple the government of Rwanda to pave way for the return of several Tutsis who had been driven out of the country in 1959.
He testified that when the RPF launched a rebellion, there was talk that Tutsis in parts of central Africa, including eastern Congo, would be killed. Ntaganda and other young Tutsis decided to move from Congo to Uganda to join the RPF because “we preferred to join the army rather than wait for someone to kill us with machetes.”
Ntaganda affirmed his Congolese citizenship although he said he had relatives in Rwanda. Some of them, including uncles and aunties, were killed in the 1994 genocide. He also said his mother currently lives in Rwanda.
Judges have permitted Ntaganda to testify for up to six weeks in the trial that opened in September 2015, two and a half years after the former rebel leader showed up at the American Embassy in Rwanda and asked to be transferred to The Hague.
Earlier today, Ntaganda’s testimony was delayed after his lawyers sought an adjournment of proceedings. They argued against the accused taking the stand pending a determination by the Appeals Chamber on an application for suspensive effect to trial judges’ dismissal of an application for leave to file a no case to answer motion.
Defense lawyers also argued that trial judges needed to rule whether the prosecution could use audio recordings, transcripts, interpretations, and call logs of Ntaganda’s communications that were recorded at the court’s detention center during witness tampering investigations. In an earlier decision dismissing a defense request for a stay of proceedings, judges ruled that prosecutors could not use this material during the defense’s presentation of evidence unless authorized by judges.
In an oral ruling this afternoon, judges dismissed a prosecution’s request to use some of the material while cross-examining Ntaganda. Regarding the pending appeal, judges did not consider that the resolution of the appeal was “necessary” prior to the commencement of Ntaganda’s testimony. “The chamber does not consider that any compelling reasons have arisen to adjourn the proceedings for the reason put forward by the defense,” stated Presiding Judge Robert Fremr.
The prosecution opposed the defense request for adjournment, as did lawyers representing former child soldiers. However, the legal representative of victims of crimes supported the defense request.
Meanwhile, in his testimony, Ntaganda also told the court that he is married with seven children. He also stated that, in 2003, he went against the dictates of the Seventh Day Adventist Church to which he belongs and the beliefs of his father, by taking a second wife in a bid to reconcile two conflicting ethnic communities. At the time, he said, members of the Hema North and Hema South were in conflict, and the aunties of a school-going girl offered her to him as a wife in a bid to promote peace between the two groups.
Ntaganda said he paid dowry of eight cows to the girl’s family, but they separated after she got pregnant by another man. Ntaganda said the girl, whose age he did not mention, continued to stay with her mother after they got married, but she paid occasional visits to him.
Ntaganda’s testimony continues tomorrow morning.