Following a one-month break, Bosco Ntaganda has resumed testimony in his own defense at the International Criminal Court (ICC), denying knowledge of the existence of child soldiers among the Congolese militia forces trained by the Uganda government.
Under cross-examination by prosecution lawyer Nicole Samson, Ntaganda stated that Ugandan authorities were in charge of the training exercise and he “was not in a position to know” the age of recruits airlifted to Uganda in 2000.
According to prosecution, in August 2000, Uganda’s army airlifted up to 700 Congolese militia fighters to train them at two military schools in Uganda. Samson stated that the trainees included up to 163 children, some under the age of 18 and others below 15 years of age. When asked whether, as one of the leaders of the groups that provided the fighters, Ntaganda was aware of the underage trainees, he replied in the negative.
“I wasn’t in position to know the age of these recruits because I wasn’t with these recruits,” he said.
Ntaganda, who was also in Uganda at the time, explained that he and other senior rebel fighters were trained at a different military facility than recruits. Ntaganda was in Jinja, 80 kilometers east of Uganda’s capital of Kampala, while the recruits were trained at a place known as Kyankwanzi, located 150 kilometers northwest of Kampala.
Samson then asked whether, at the time, Ntaganda had heard of the efforts by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to secure the demobilization of up to 163 underage recruits who were in Kyankwanzi.
Defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon objected to the prosecution’s question, suggesting that it should be put to forthcoming defense witnesses who would testify about what happened in Kyankwanzi. Samson then rephrased the question, asking Ntaganda whether, at any time during or after the training in Uganda, he had heard of the underage recruits at Kyankwanzi.
“I don’t remember this age bracket being taken into consideration for demobilization, but I know that I didn’t have any such information while I was on the training,” Ntaganda responded. He added, “I don’t know when the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] arrived in Kyankwanzi to undertake the demobilization which you referred to.”
Samson read excerpts from a Human Rights Watch report from 2001, which stated that when Uganda offered to train Congolese militia members, their numbers swelled overnight from 300 to 700.
According to the report, while residents in Congo’s Ituri district had expected Uganda’s army to disarm militia fighters, instead Uganda airlifted 700 of them, including those who were under the age of 15, to Uganda just after the United Nations had recognized the need to end the use of child soldiers. At the time, Ugandan forces were in Congo fighting alongside rebel groups opposed to the government in Kinshasa.
Ntaganda stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by himself and his subordinates in the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) during the 2002-2003 ethnic conflict in Ituri.
Ntaganda testified that the decision to train militia fighters was taken by the Ugandan authorities and that Ugandan leaders remained in charge of the training.
Ntaganda has previously testified that, in the summer of 2000, he spearheaded the formation of a self-defense militia called Chui Mobile Force, before it transformed into the FPLC, to protect members of the Hema and Tutsi ethnic groups who had come under severe discrimination and attacks in parts of eastern Congo.
In June, Ntaganda testified that members of his militia met senior Ugandan officials, including current Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda (then minister for the presidency), current labor minister Muruli Mukasa (then minister for security), and then Major Leo Kyanda (now a brigadier, and until last December the chief of staff of land forces in the Ugandan army). It was after those meetings that Uganda airlifted the militiamen to Uganda.
According to the prosecution, 200-300 of the 700 trainees airlifted to Uganda belonged to Ntaganda’s Chui Mobile Force, while the remaining numbers came from Thomas Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) group, whose FPLC militia integrated Ntaganda’s fighters. Lubanga is currently serving a 14-year sentence after being found guilty by the ICC over the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Democratic Republic of Congo.
At today’s hearing, Samson and Ntaganda disagreed on the dates when the fighters were airlifted to Uganda. Whereas Samson provided documents indicating they were airlifted in August 2000, Ntaganda said they travelled to the neighboring country in October of that year.
The prosecution continues its cross-examination of the accused tomorrow morning.