Former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda has maintained that the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia in which he was a top commander screened its recruits to weed out individuals who did not meet requirements, such as those underage. He said recruits deemed too young to serve in the group were sent back to their homes.
Testifying in his own trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Ntaganda stated that the screening that was enforced at the group’s main training camp in Mandro also applied at other camps, such as Rwampara. However, he did not state what exact age was considered unacceptable for admission into the militia.
“When you went to Rwampara [training camp], did you notice any recruits who did not meet the criteria you referred to earlier?” asked defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon, referring to the protocols that Ntaganda said applied at the Mandro camp, including rejection of underage recruits.
“Yes, there were some of them,” conceded Ntaganda, but he added that he ordered commanders at Rwampara to “return all the small recruits to their homes as soon as possible.”
Asked by Bourgon if he followed up on his order to establish whether the young recruits had been sent home, Ntaganda replied: “Yes, those who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods were taken back to their homes. Those who lived farther away, it was necessary to make arrangements for their safe return. This would take three to four days.” Ntaganda could not state how many recruits at the Rwampara camp were deemed young, but he said they were “a minority.”
Last week, Ntaganda recounted that prior to enlistment, UPC recruits at the Mandro camp were assessed visually and challenged to complete tenuous tasks to determine if they were old enough and physically able to participate in combat. He said individuals deemed “unfit” for recruitment were asked to go home. He added that for those who lived far from Mandro, measures were taken to provide transport and to accompany them home if it was felt that they would encounter difficulties on the way.
However, Ntaganda’s claims contradict prosecution evidence and findings by ICC judges who found UPC president Thomas Lubanga guilty of enlisting, conscripting, and using child soldiers in armed conflict. The judges determined that there were child soldiers in UPC, some of whom had been conscripted. Last week, Ntaganda claimed that all children who joined the militia did so voluntarily.
Ntaganda is facing 18 war crimes and crimes against humanity charges, including attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, forced transfer of the population, displacement of civilians, attacks against protected objects, pillaging, destruction of property, and use of child soldiers. The crimes were allegedly committed during his tenure as the deputy chief of staff of the armed wing of the UPC, which was known as the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). The group was among several rebel groups active in armed conflict between the Hema and Lendu ethnic communities of Congo’s Ituri region during 2002 and 2003. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
In his testimony on Friday, Ntaganda briefly testified about the organizational structure of the UPC. He stated that he and Lubanga devised the structure with defined roles and chains of command in order for the group to follow conventional military structure.
“When we started, it was in a non-professional way. Later, we decided to set up a modern, professional army,” testified Ntaganda while responding to questions put to him by Bourgon about the UPC’s organogram.
Meanwhile, Bourgon also continued questioning Ntaganda about communications logs sent from various locations in Ituri during UPC operations, with the accused giving some of his testimony this week in closed session.
Ntaganda will continue giving evidence on Monday, July 10.