A former child soldier told a war-crimes trial on Wednesday that he was recruited into a militia led by Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) warlord Thomas Lubanga as he was going home from school.
“Certain school pupils were recruited and taken away,” he told the International Criminal Court (ICC), where Lubanga is on trial for recruiting hundreds of children to fight in the DRC’s civil war.
“I was one of those taken to the camps. It happened when we were returning home … I was leaving school.”
Addressed only as “Mr Witness”, he gave evidence in Swahili from behind a screen to protect him from public view, although Lubanga, as well as the judge, prosecutors and defence lawyers can see him.
His voice and face have been electronically distorted on screens in the public gallery and his name withheld for his own protection.
Lubanga stared intently at the witness, who described the men who recruited him as “Thomas Lubanga’s soldiers”.
“They had UPC uniforms,” he told the court, referring to Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots. “There were more of them than my friends and me together. They all had weapons except the chief.
“They said that the country was in trouble and young people must mobilise to save the country. I said we were too young.”
He said he had been in the fifth grade of primary school at the time, but could not remember his exact age.
The witness is the first to testify in Lubanga’s trial, the first before the ICC, which began work in July 2002 as the world’s first permanent war-crimes tribunal.
Prosecutors said at Monday’s opening of the trial that Lubanga’s militia had been “an army of children”.
Lubanga (48) is accused of recruiting hundreds of children under the age of 15 to fight for his militia during the five-year civil war, which ended in 2003.
The prosecution alleges that Lubanga’s role in the conflict was driven by a desire to maintain and expand his control over the eastern Ituri region, one of the world’s most lucrative gold-mining areas, where inter-ethnic fighting has claimed 60 000 lives over the last decade.
It says his militia abducted children as young as 11 from their homes, schools and football fields and took them to military training camps where they were beaten and drugged. The girls among them were used as sex slaves.
Prosecutors say the child soldiers were deployed in combat between September 2002 and August 2003.
Lubanga has pleaded not guilty.
He was arrested by Congolese authorities in 2005 after the murder of nine UN peacekeepers in Ituri, and transferred to The Hague a year later. – AFP