Defendant Thomas Lubanga visited military training camps to boost the morale of young recruits, a former child soldier told prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, ICC, this week.
“I saw the president on two occasions,” the unnamed witness told the court. “The first time he came, he asked about our situation in general. The second time, he tried to boost our morale—it was a few days before training ended.”
“Do you know the name of the president?” asked prosecutor Nicole Samson.
“Yes,” replied the witness. “Mr Thomas Lubanga…I saw him with my own eyes.”
The witness, who testified in Swahili with voice and face distortion, said that he was kidnapped by soldiers on his way home from primary school and forced to undergo military training in the camp, allegedly run by Lubanga and other commanders in the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC.
Lubanga is charged with recruiting, conscripting, and using child soldiers, defined as fighters under the age of 15, in the ethnic conflicts that raged in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, during 2002 and 2003.
The witness said he also saw other high-ranking UPC officials in the camp, including Bosco Ntaganda, who is currently wanted by the ICC for recruiting and using child soldiers, and Floribert Kisembo, the former UPC chief-of-staff.
“As far as Kisembo is concerned, it was as if you woke up in the morning and saw your mother, father, brothers and sisters,” said the witness. “Seeing him wasn’t special or different.”
The commanders, said the witness, forced the recruits to participate in extensive weapon training, which was often practiced with pieces of wood.
“I treated the piece of wood like my own weapon,” explained the witness, who added that he was whipped on one occasion when he misplaced it.
He said that beatings were common in the camp, especially when the recruits first arrived.
"Can you describe how you were beaten?" asked Samson.
"No, I can't," the unnamed witness replied. "I might have problems and get angry [if I talk about it]."
He also declined to describe what happened when he attempted to flee the camp, where recruits received extensive weapons training.
“In the case of certain events, it’s better not to talk about it,” he said. “It awakens certain feelings.”
As the witness spoke, Lubanga appeared sullen and sat with his arms folded across his chest.
After the four months of training ended, the witness said he was issued a weapon and uniform and sent to the village of Djugu, where his battalion acted as “reinforcements” for the other army units. He did not provide details about his activities as a soldier.
In other developments, judges reprimanded prosecutors for an inadequate response to a May 22 request from victims’ attorneys who want charges against Lubanga expanded to include sexual slavery and cruel treatment.
“The prosecution [response] in present form fails to address issues raised [by the victims’ lawyers],” presiding Judge Adrian Fulford told prosecutors. “It would be helpful to us to have a substantive position set out…given this affects the very charges brought against the accused.”
Lawyers for the victims contend that the charges should be expanded because the many witnesses have testified about seeing or experiencing rape by commanders at the UPC training camps.
The prosecutors responded to the victims’ lawyers in a three-page filing on May 29.
Judge Fulford dismissed the prosecution’s response as “technical” and requested a more complete response be submitted to the court by June 12. The defence has until June 19 to respond to the prosecution resubmission, and the victims’ lawyers must respond to both parties by June 26.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague covering the trial of Thomas Lubanga. Her daily reports can be seen on the lubangatrial.org website.