Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The fourth witness to testify in the war crimes trial of former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba said last week that the soldiers who gang raped her nearly ten years ago were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and not the Central African Republic, where the alleged attack took place.
Defence lawyers, though, questioned this and suggested that it would have been very difficult for the witness to tell exactly what nationality the soldiers were.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, ICC, claim that soldiers from the Movement for Congolese Liberation, MLC, which Bemba headed, carried out widespread rapes, murders and pillaging between November 2002 and early 2003.
Bemba’s MLC soldiers were reportedly in CAR at the time to help the country’s then president Ange-Felix Patassé fight off rebel soldiers who were trying to overthrow him.
Bemba is charged with being criminally responsible for having failed to act or punish those responsible for the crimes.
The witness, who testified with voice and face distortion, told the court that soldiers from the MLC stormed her home in November 2002, and demanded to know whether there were any rebels hiding in the house.
After the soldiers were told that there were no rebels in the house, they grabbed furniture, televisions and radio sets, and left.
The witness said that, two hours later, a different group of four Congolese soldiers raided the house; that three of them dragged her out and raped her, one after the other. She said none of the rapists used a condom.
The witness said that all soldiers she saw committing atrocities and crimes were Congolese. The witness also described how Congolese soldiers looted markets and residences, carting away what they’d stolen to their bases.
She said that although they wore uniforms similar to those of Patassé’s presidential guard, they spoke Lingala – a Congolese language.
Defence lawyer Nick Kaufman asked the witness how she was able to identify the language spoken by the soldiers as Lingala because she had said in her statement that she only spoke the Central African dialect Sango and a little French.
The witness answered that although she did not understand Lingala, she could recognise it when it was spoken.
Kaufman also asked how the witness was able to identify the boots and uniform worn by the soldiers who raided the house where she stayed, considering that it was at night and there was a power cut at the time.
“We used oil lamps to shed light,” the witness explained.
The witness said by the time the Congolese troops arrived in Bangui, the nation’s capital, the rebels who were attempting to topple the CAR president had already withdrawn.
“After these [Congolese] soldiers arrived, I did not see any other soldiers,” she said in response to questioning by prosecution lawyer Petra Kneur.
In response the witnesses’ insistence that those who raped her were Congolese, Kaufman pointed out that there were several militia groups that committed atrocities in Bangui at the time Bemba’s troops were in the region.
He mentioned the names of several groups, and asked whether the witness knew of them. She said that she had heard of most them.
The lawyer asked the witness whether she knew a person called Abdoulaye Miskine, who he said was helping Patassé to fight off the attempted coup by sacked army chief of staff François Bozizé.
The witness responded that she had indeed heard that Miskine was fighting the rebel soldiers.
“Did you hear that Abdoulaye Miskine and his group were very violent people?” Kaufman asked.
The witness said she had no information about that, although she subsequently confirmed that she had heard of a massacre allegedly carried out by Miskine at a meat market in Bangui.
Miskine, reportedly a Chadian national, was an aide to Patassé from 1993 to 2003. He was in charge of a special unit outside the army that fought coup attempts by Bozizé.
Last week, Kaufman suggested to the witness that Bozizé’s troops withdrew from Bangui later than the dates she gave, indicating that they were still in the capital when the MLC joined the campaign against the insurgents. Kaufman also suggested that there were Sudanese troops fighting with Patassé.
Throughout his questioning, Kaufman sought to pick holes in the witness’ testimony, questioning whether her was really able to accurately remember when and where events took place.
He referred to the written testimony given previously, to point out discrepancies with the oral testimony that the witness was giving before the court, particularly concerning when the MLC troops came to Begui; when she had been raped and when her brother had been killed.
It also emerged during last week’s hearing that the witness did not see a doctor immediately after she was raped. She said that she only got to see one in 2009 – an appointment arranged by the ICC – seven years after the attack.
Kaufman asked the witness why she hadn’t been able to see one earlier.
“In our country, in order to see a doctor you have to have money,” she replied. “As all the money I had had been stolen [by Bemba’s soldiers] I could not go to see a doctor.”
The trial is continuing this week.
Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR reporter. Passy Mubalama, an IWPR-trainee, contributed to this report from The Hague.
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