Our partner Radio Canal Révélation, a radio station based in Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), prepared this article as part of an interactive radio project on justice and peace, which encourages debate on issues related to justice in the DRC. The views conveyed in this article belong to the people interviewed and do not necessarily represent the views of all the community members, or all of the victims. The original French version is available here.
Bunia, March 20, 2020
Some victims of crimes committed in the northeastern province of Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fear reprisals and see reparations for victims moving away from their communities in the wake of the release of Thomas Lubanga, the first person convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed in the region.
“We accept his release, despite our position, but we don’t want him in Ituri at the present time, when there is a bloodbath in Djugu. It’s to avoid the worst. Don’t they say, ‘If you’ve already been bitten by the snake, is it not better to fear even the lizard?’” asked a Lendu leader we met at the Bedu-Ezekere groupement, in the Walendu Tatsi community, about 20 kilometers southeast of Bunia.
Lubanga, the former president of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), was released on Sunday, March 15, after serving a 14-year prison sentence. The ICC convicted him for enlisting children under the age of 15 into his militia and for involving them in hostilities in Ituri.
“I regret that the ICC recognized only one complaint, that of enlistment, while ruling out massacres. Thomas [Lubanga] should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Any criminal, whether Hema or Lendu, should find his place in prison for life to avoid the bloodbath in Ituri,” said a member of the Ezekere community (12 km east of Bunia).
“I have lost everything; I want to see reparations for the victims in the Thomas Lubanga case because in my opinion nothing has been done so far. However, I welcome his release,” said a mother victim near Kasongo, about 10 kilometers from Bunia.
Further afield, in the territories of Irumu or Mahagi, victims of crimes committed by Lubanga and Bosco Ntaganda express disappointment.
“How can he be released when reparations are not yet effective? For Bosco [Ntaganda], we believe the court will hold him until the victims are compensated because he is a co-author with Thomas,” as reported by Joachim Unegi, director of Radio Colombe in Mahagi (180 km north of Bunia, on the border with Uganda).
Within 24 Hours Two Former Warlords Released from Prison
According to a human rights activist in Bunia, Lubanga’s release came as a surprise to victims who thought he would be detained again by the Congolese authorities, just as Germain Katanga had been, after serving the sentence imposed by the ICC. The victims fear that Bosco Ntaganda may also be released in the coming days.
A sense of frustration is created in victim communities when they see their tormentor return. They fear reprisals. This is something that is also felt by the victims of Ntaganda.
“Even if he’s convicted, sooner or later he’ll be able to get back here. Knowing him as an terror actor, my victim brothers feel a sense of fear, a sense of psychological turmoil,” said Gabriel Mateso, a community leader in the village of Zumbe, 20 kilometers southeast of Bunia. Another former ICC prisoner, Germain Katanga, who had been detained by the Congolese government since January 2016, was set free the day after Lubanga’s release. In civil society, we do not understand. Organizations wonder whether this coincidence is politically motivated.
“The release of Germain Katanga did not take long, there were no obstacles compared to other cases. The military prosecutor’s office that detained him meant nothing, whether it was a provisional release or an acquittal. It’s all a blur,” said a lawyer with the non-governmental organization Justice Plus.
For the UPC, with Thomas Lubanga, it is time to seek peace.
“Thomas [Lubanga] returns as Jesus returned to Jerusalem. He’s a people’s fighter, a peacemaker. We are waiting for his word,” shouted a militant in a motor caravan organized by Lubanga’s political party to honor his release from Makala prison in Kinshasa in Bunia on March 15. He was serving his sentence there, after the ICC transferred him from The Hague, the seat of the ICC, in December 2015.
Public Opinion is Still Divided
“Some people say that he [Lubanga] will work for peace as he promised… and that he will do so with his former rival from the past, Germain Katanga, who became his friend in prison. But for others, he may be influenced by certain elements in his community to reorganize the Hema victims of the massacres carried out by the militiamen currently in the CODECO (Coalition of Congolese Democrats),” said a journalist analyst in Bunia.
A report presented in January 2020, concluded that the new abuses committed in Ituri province between 2017 and 2019, in particular against the Hema community, could constitute crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. Over 700 people were killed during that time period.
“Ituri does not need war, Ituri wants peace, [Thomas Lubanga] can go back to his home and native land and work for peace,” said Gentil Kaniki, president of the provincial youth council in Ituri.