ICC North Kivu Probe Urged

Calls for court to be more active in the province, particularly in isolated areas where terrible crimes have occurred.

ICC North Kivu Probe Urged

Calls for court to be more active in the province, particularly in isolated areas where terrible crimes have occurred.

Thursday, 29 November, 2007
Huddled in a rain-drenched football stadium in the Rutshuru district of North Kivu province, some of those driven from their homes by recent battles between rebel groups told IWPR that international justice has so far passed them by.

“[The International Criminal Court, ICC] forgot us,” said Laurent who has lived in an abandoned building next to the stadium since October when he fled his village following an attack by troops loyal to the dissident Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda.

The ICC has so far launched cases against two Congolese militia leaders. But Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga are from Ituri not North Kivu where fighting since last December has displaced around 400,000 people, more than 160,000 in the last two months alone, according to the United Nations.

The UN says there are now around 800,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in North Kivu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

“We hear people talking about the ICC at The Hague. But that’s for Ituri,” said one NGO worker in Rutshuru who is helping those who have been forced out of their homes by the fighting. “Let them investigate here. We can show them mass graves. We can show them what is happening here.”

The ICC insists North Kivu is very much on its radar, but that’s little comfort for those on the ground in Rutshuru – north of the provincial capital Goma – where those fleeing the fighting continue to flood in and conditions are grim.

The NGO worker said thousands of families have been driven into camps and other temporary shelters in the last month, including local schools where some classes are cancelled to accommodate the influx.

On a recent afternoon, as the rain fell and the black, volcanic earth turned to mud, IDPs packed onto covered bleachers at the stadium. Others huddled under plastic sheets or placed buckets on their heads. Some sheltered under cars.

The World Food Programme is in Rutshuru and the aid agency Caritas has sent food, clothing and cooking pots. But the NGO worker said the humanitarian crisis is worsening in the area as more Congolese flee their homes. “We’re completely overwhelmed. We don’t have the capacity to cope,” he said.

Laurent and many of his neighbours ran from the village of Jomba on October 20 when Nkunda’s troops attacked. He said homes were burned and women raped.

Another man, pointing to the hills in the distance, said the fighting means that he can’t get back to his fields. He said he is hungry and thirsty.

Nkunda, a Rwandan-trained Congolese Tutsi who says he is protecting the country’s minority Tutsi population, is thought to have 6,000-8,000 men under his command. Attempts to integrate Nkunda’s supporters into the Congolese army failed and clashes between the two sides have intensified in recent months.

Added into the mix of combatants are troops from Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR, whose soldiers have battled both Nkunda and the army.

The FDLR is a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that includes some members of the Interahamwe militia responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide that claimed the lives of more than 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis.

Adding to the misery in North Kivu, it appears ethnic tension is now on the rise between some Hutus and Tutsis in the province.

Majoro Sebageni, 20, told IWPR that he and his Hutu classmates fled their school in Jomba amid rumours of forced recruitment of students into Nkunda’s army and fights between Hutus and Tutsis in the school yard.

Sebageni, who took refuge at an orphanage in Rutshuru, has no idea what happened to his parents and won’t go home, saying he has received threatening letters from Tutsis telling him to stay away.

“As a result of ongoing battles between the army and the troops of Nkunda and other armed groups we are noticing a definite increase in tension between Hutu and Tutsi and between Tutsi and other groups in North Kivu,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, DRC researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“That is dangerous and could result in further problems between local communities and may spill over into violence.”

Though many in North Kivu lay the blame for the violence squarely at the feet of Nkunda, Van Woudenberg points out that serious crimes have been committed by all sides in the conflict. The epidemic of sexual violence and the continued recruitment of child soldiers are two areas of grave concern, she said.

“It is absolutely clear that all groups are carrying out war crimes and crimes against humanity in North Kivu, including the army,” she said. “There are no good guys in North Kivu, and all groups are responsible for human rights abuses.”

In The Hague, the ICC is in the process of selecting its third investigation in Congo, though if that will be in North Kivu is not yet known.

The court is gathering information on crimes committed by all sides there including rape, forced displacement, killings and enlisting child soldiers.

“We’re looking at different options – Laurent Nkunda’s forces, the FDLR and also the regular forces of the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo),” said Beatrice Le Frapper Du Hellen, the head of the ICC division working with governments to secure cooperation.

In North Kivu, opinion is mixed on whether ICC should be doing more.

Jules Mbokani Mathe of the Research Centre on Environment, Democracy and Human Rights in Goma says the arrests of Lubanga and Katanga have offered a ray of hope. “We understand the case is evolving and that one day there will be an arrest here,” he said.

But there are calls for the ICC to be more active in the province, particularly in isolated areas where terrible crimes have occurred.

“We would like the ICC to start working in the Kivus, especially with regard to Nkunda,” said Christian Hemedi, coordinator of the Congolese Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

With some growing impatient, Le Frapper denies the court is moving too slowly. From the announcement of an investigation it can take 12-18 months before prosecutors ask judges for an arrest warrant.

“The pressure is for us to meet expectations of victims, but the pressure is also to win cases in court,” she said. “The worst situation for me would be not to bring a strong case to court.”

She also pointed out that that the fight against impunity in the Congo isn’t the ICC’s responsibility alone, a view shared by Van Woudenberg who called on the government of Joseph Kabila to step up.

“The ICC will not be able to take all of the perpetrators that are committing war crimes in Congo,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the Congolese government to ensure that individuals responsible for such crimes are held to account.”

Back at the stadium in the Rutshuru district where the fighting has increased in intensity in recent days, Laurent is getting desperate. “We need help,” he said. “Let the government give me a gun. This is enough now.”

Lisa Clifford is an international justice reporter in The Hague.

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