Witness tells ICC how DR Congo rebels came to 'wage war'

15th September 2015, Comments 0 comments

The first witness began testifying Tuesday in the trial of former Congolese rebel Bosco Ntaganda, as he fights 18 charges at the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Concealed from the public at The Hague-based court and referred to only as "Mr Witness", the man spoke slowly in his native Kiswahili, at times clearly intimidated by the process and fearful of revealing anything that could reveal his identity.

His fears of possible reprisals came as prosecutors revealed that Ntaganda's defence lawyers had passed on a direct message from the feared warlord to one of the prosecution witnesses.

Prosecutor Nicole Samson also told the three-judge panel that defence investigators had contacted prosecution witnesses in their villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo and places of work.

"Mr Ntaganda should not be, through his counsel, communicating directly" with witnesses, Samson said.

Defence lawyer Stephane Bourgon said investigators had "inadvertently" made contact with four prosecution witnesses, acknowledging it was a mistake.

His image pixellated on the courtroom broadcast and his voice heavily distorted to protect his identity, the witness told how, at the end of 2002, rebels of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) party had come to "wage war" in his village of Mongbwalu in the northeastern Ituri region.

Ntaganda has been charged with ordering hundreds of deaths in 2002-2003 through savage ethnic attacks carried out by his rebel Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo(FPLC), which were then the armed wing of UPC.

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been mired for two decades in ethnically-charged wars, as rebels battle for control of its rich mineral resources.

The unrest spiralled to encompass armies from at least six African nations, claiming an estimated three million lives in one of the world's most deadly recent conflicts.

Ntaganda, who unexpectedly turned himself in by walking into the US embassy in Kigali in 2013, has denied 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity.

But prosecutors say the feared rebel commander played a central role in the Ituri conflict which rights groups believe has left some 60,000 dead since 1999.

"Mr Witness" told the ICC he had been trading goods in the nearby community of Yedi when the rebels arrived in Mongbwalu.

- 'Tribal war' -

"I saw people who were fleeing and going towards Yedi," said the man, who described himself now as a farmer.

He said he could hear "bullets and the noise of heavy weapons."

"I feared that they might kill me, because you see I was part of the Lendu tribe," he said describing, noting that it was a "tribal war."

The witness fled the fighting but in the process his house made of 22 sheets of tin roofing was destroyed and looted by "the enemy" who he said were "UPC soldiers."

In an area known for its gold mines, the witness said he had lost the equivalent of $4,920 (4,352 euros), as well as 53.5 grams (1.9 ounces) of gold and 9.3 grams (0.3 ounces) of gold alloy wrapped in some clothes and hidden in a suitcase.

They also stole 12 pairs of trousers, 14 shirts, seven pairs of shoes and five pairs of sandals from him, he said.

At the start of his trial earlier this month, Ntaganda, 41, had rejected his nickname of "The Terminator".

"That is not me. I am a soldier," he said, speaking publicly for the first time since his 2013 surrender.

© 2015 AFP

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