Bogoro Victims Finally Laid to Rest

Villagers refrained from burying murdered relatives believing ICC required bones as evidence against perpetrators.

Bogoro Victims Finally Laid to Rest

Villagers refrained from burying murdered relatives believing ICC required bones as evidence against perpetrators.

Villagers in Bogoro, in the north-eastern province of Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, have been told that they can finally bury the remains of those who died in the 2003 massacre in the town, since they are unlikely to be needed in upcoming war crimes trials.

“The court has no more investigations,” said Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ICC, during a visit to the region on July 10.

Bogoro suffered appalling atrocities in February 2003, when militiamen killed and raped civilians, leaving some imprisoned in a room filled with corpses.

Villagers had presumed that the ICC would need the remains of the victims as evidence in order to bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice. But the ICC says that it never instructed the villagers not to bury their dead.

In a statement to IWPR, the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, said, “During the investigation, the population of Bogoro called our attention to the presence of sites where bones were in the open. We are immensely grateful for their support and their dignity. Our investigation is finished. All remains may now be laid to rest.”

Two rebel leaders – Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo – have so far been charged in connection with the attacks and are due to go on trial before the ICC in The Hague on September 24.

Each faces six counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity. Charges include murder, sexual slavery, the use of child soldiers and inhumane acts.

Samuel Mugeni Bahemuka, the chief of Bogoro, expressed satisfaction with Moreno-Ocampo's recent comments.

“There are skulls and human bones of villagers spread throughout the fields,” he told IWPR. “People have to see them every day and this is not really a good thing.”

“We always feel very bad when we see those bones,” said Amos Tibantura, an inhabitant of Bogoro who is haunted by the tragedy. “Once we see them, we automatically remember our parents, brothers and sisters who were massacred here.”

Kezia Mugeni, a mother of nine, added that seeing the bones every day is not good for the psychological health of the survivors.

“Survivors sometimes cry and remember the better life they lived when their relatives were alive,” she said. “When a person dies, he must be buried so that people can move on. This is not the case here. Bones are out under the sun and rain all the time and we imagine that those who are not buried are our relatives who have been abandoned. It touches us a lot.”

The conflict in the DRC's north-eastern Ituri province is the result of historical rivalries between tribal groups, most notably the Lendu and the Hema.

Particularly brutal fighting between 1999 and 2003 claimed an estimated 50,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

The Nationalist and Integrationist Front, FNI, and the Patriotic Resistance Force, FRPI, claim to be fighting for the Lendu. The Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, is aligned with the Hema.

The ICC says Katanga is alleged to have led the FRPI, while Ngudjolo is said to have once headed the FNI. Rival militia leader Thomas Lubanga, whose trial before the ICC began on January 26, is the former head of the UPC.

“Ituri has become a necropolis,” said Pilo Kamaragi, a spokesperson for the Hema ethnic group in Ituri. “The district is characterised by massacres and cannibalism. Since 1999, thousands of people have been massacred. Foetuses were taken out of mothers’ wombs. Women were collectively raped. Perpetrators cut the heads off their victims and paraded them through the streets on top of lances.”

The OTP says that it has “moved on to a new phase of investigation”, concentrating most of its efforts on the Kivu provinces rather than Ituri. Moreno-Ocampo's comments, therefore, could be seen by other villages as a signal to also bury their dead.

The OTP has not completely ruled out further investigations in Ituri. “We will be guided by the legal requirements of gravity and admissibility,” the OTP said in a statement.

Jean Bosco Lalo, president of the Civil Society in Bunia, the regional capital, maintains that ICC investigations in Ituri have not been far-reaching enough.

“All the focus has been on Bogoro and Zumbe, but the harm done in these places was less than in Nyankunde, where investigations have not yet taken place,” he told IWPR. “I do not understand why the ICC does not want to speak about this.”

Nyankunde lies about 20 kilometres south-west of Bogoro. In September 2002, human rights organisations say militiamen from the Ngiti tribe launched an attack on the village in which hundreds of ethnic Bira tribesmen and women were killed.

Lalo says that, as in Bogoro, human bones are strewn throughout Nyankunde. But they are still not being buried, in case they are needed in future investigations.

Despite local concerns, Moreno-Ocampo told villagers that he is not ready to start new investigations in Ituri.

“We can provide more information on the crimes committed before 2002, but we cannot prosecute them,” he said. “We cannot prosecute all crimes committed after 2002, though this could be done in different ways, such as through a truth and reconciliation commission, national judges or other institutions.”

Using bones to provide forensic evidence in war crimes trial is not new. In 1999, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia dispatched a team of forensic investigators to Kosovo to uncover mass graves and to determine if there had been a pattern during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

“Fractures on the bones can provide evidence about when the killing took place, and the nature of the wounds inflicted,” said one forensic expert who preferred to remain anonymous.

“If the fractures are all of the same type, and can be dated to the same time period, this could point to widespread killing. If different groups of bones contain different dates, this may suggest that massacres have occurred on a number of occasions.”

Even if bones are interred, they do not necessarily lose their forensic value, should they be needed in the future.

“It all depends how they are buried,” said the forensic expert. “This can be influenced by the country's temperature, how deep the grave is and whether animals are likely to discover them.”

Jacques Kahorha is an IWPR trainee based in Goma.
Support our journalists