Court Hears CAR Civilians Took Part in Looting

Witness said they scared people from their homes, claiming Bemba’s soldiers were going to attack them.

Court Hears CAR Civilians Took Part in Looting

Witness said they scared people from their homes, claiming Bemba’s soldiers were going to attack them.

The trial of Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba heard last week that Central African Republic, CAR, civilians took part in looting in the country’s capital Bangui during 2003.

The witness, identified as Witness 29, also stated that soldiers from CAR confiscated looted goods and money from Bemba’s soldiers as they tried to cart it away to the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

However, the witness said the soldiers did not hand back the money and looted property to its civilian owners.

"What our soldiers did with the money I don't know, but I know that we had to pay the price," she said.

Testifying with voice and face distortion, the witness described how early in March 2003 Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, soldiers looted and raped as they were withdrawing from CAR.

Witness 29 stated that MLC fighters left Bangui and arrived in the port town of Mongoumba with looted goods they wanted to transport to DRC.

“When they got to the port, the [Central African] soldiers told them to unload the goods,” the witness said. “I didn’t see, but I did hear a lot of money... bags of money.”

According to the witness, CAR soldiers confiscated the money and the goods from the Congolese soldiers. The MLC troops then reportedly declared that they were leaving Mongoumba but would return to confront those who had confiscated their loot.

“If they hadn’t taken the money from the Banyamulenge, we wouldn’t have experienced what we suffered,” the witness said.

Banyamulenge is a term people in CAR used to refer to Bemba's soldiers who were in Bangui during 2002 and 2003 to help the then president Ange-Felix Patassé fight off an armed rebellion.

“If that money had not been taken from them, we believe they would not have come back to Mongoumba to commit those atrocities. But since they had been relieved of their loot... they came back to recover their money and that is what led to the misery,” the witness continued.

Witness 29 recalled that the MLC soldiers returned to Mongoumba four or five days later and overpowered the few government soldiers still remaining in the area. They then unleashed terror on civilians, raping, killing, and looting.

“They were looting goods and transporting them in canoes to the other side,” she said, referring to DRC territory which is separated from the Central African capital by the Oubangui river.

Witness 29 also told the trial presided over by Judge Sylvia Steiner that three soldiers belonging to Bemba’s group raped her, and she tested positive for HIV eight months later. She claimed that she was infected by these soldiers.

The witness said the soldiers who raped her spoke the Congolese language Lingala. She said they wore military uniforms similar to those of CAR soldiers but they were not armed.

She said she also heard of many other people in her neighbourhood who were subjected to multiple rapes by the MLC soldiers.

Witness 29 gave most of her evidence in closed session.

While Bemba’s defence says any of the myriad militia groups that operated in Bangui could have committed atrocities against civilians, prosecutors insist it was the MLC which harassed and killed civilians.

“On 5th March, did you see any other troops apart from the Banyamulenge?” prosecution lawyer Bärbel Carl asked Witness 29.

“I did not observe any other armed group,” the witness replied.

Assingambi Zarambaud, a legal representative of victims participating in the trial, asked the witness whether the uniforms that the rampaging soldiers wore bore any insignia or symbol.

The witness replied, “If those people were real soldiers of the CAR, maybe they would have worn military uniforms with stripes, berets and insignia. They only had military uniforms without military boots.”

The witness added, “Did you ever see soldiers going to the front with slippers or running boots? I wondered if they were soldiers or individuals from the streets.”

However, Witness 29 stated that Central African civilians also carried out looting in her neighbourhood.

She said these civilians scared people away from their homes, claiming that MLC soldiers were going to attack them. The witness said the local civilians then robbed homes while their owners were in hiding.

The witness explained how she fled her home in Mongoumba after being attacked by soldiers she believed belonged to the MLC. On two occasions, she was unable to reach the house when she attempted to return home.

“When we approached the town, young people alerted us, and we were afraid,” she said. “It was only later on that we realised our chickens and ducks had been stolen. We understood that it was not the Banyamulenge but the young people who had scared us to stay in the bush so as to steal our property.”

Defence lawyer Nkwebe Liriss asked the witness for how long the MLC occupied Mongoumba.

“They came in the morning. That evening, they left the town,” she replied.

Nkwebe showed the court a map of Mongoumba and its surrounding towns in CAR, DRC and Congo Brazzaville.

He then argued that any one of the inhabitants of these towns could have been able to reach Mongoumba by foot, bike, canoe, or boat and could have perpetrated the crimes in that town due to “movement without obstacle of persons and groups to and from Mongoumba”.

The trial continues this week.

Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR-trained reporter.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists