Congolese warlords facing trials in The Hague for the genocide of villagers of the ethnic Hema, in the mineral-rich Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have said they acted out of self defense. Prosecutors at The Hague plan to call 26 witnesses, out of which 21 of them are expected to give evidence veiled from public view for fear of reprisal attacks.
Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga Chui are the men accused of directing an attack on the ethnic Hema village of Bogoro in 2003 in which more than 200 people were killed. The International Criminal Court [ICC] charges include: Seven war crimes, including willful killing, sexual slavery, attacking civilians, pillaging and using child soldiers, and three crimes against humanity. The two men pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against them for their roles in the Ituri conflict that cost over 60,000 lives before the intervention of European Union peacekeepers in 2007.
“Some [villagers] were shot dead in their sleep, some cut up by machetes to save bullets, and others were burned alive after their houses were set on fire by the attackers. They used children as soldiers, they killed more than 200 civilians in a few hours, they raped women; girls and the elderly, they looted the entire village and they transformed women into sex slaves,” Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo is quoted as saying of the two defendants. However, the lawyers of the accused men said their clients were merely defending their own people and played no part in the Bogoro attack. They had clear conscience, the lawyers have argued. The trial is expected to take several months.
According to local reports, the proceedings of the ICC trial are being carried on national TV and relayed to people across Ituri. Radio stations are devoting their day’s coverage to the event. “The work of the ICC is important because it sends the signal that this is coming to an end. It will only try a handful of cases – it’s up to the Congolese justice system to try the rest – but it’s a start. So long as government rewards warlords and doesn’t punish them then impunity will continue,” Anneke Van Woudenberg from Human Rights Watch is quoted.
Leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots [UPC] a militia made up of the Hema ethnic group, Thomas Lubanga controlled Bogoro until the ethnic Lendu militia group headed by Mr. Katanga and the Ngiti fighters headed by Mr. Ngudjolo attacked them [UPC]. Luanga’s army fought ethnic battles over gold and mining rights with the rival Lendu community. It has been recorded as one of the bloodiest conflicts in DR Congo with more than 30,000 child soldiers involved. The conflict in Ituri was part of a war that raged in DR Congo following the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda and involved troops and fighters from several neighboring countries.
Human Rights Watch called on the ICC to also investigate officials from DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, accusing them of arming rival militias in Ituri. Militia leaders from all sides including Uganda and Rwanda, which at different times backed Congo’s various rebel groups, in exchange for a share of the wealth, have been accused of using the conflict to profit from the region’s mineral reserves, especially gold, coltan and casseterite. The rights group also warn that impunity will continue unless those who committed war crimes in the mineral-rich country are held to account. This is only the second trial or Congolese war criminals at the ICC in The Hague.