A heavy silence hung in the air in a conference hall in the Central African Republic (CAR) capital as hundreds of people, some with tears in their eyes, gathered to watch Jean-Pierre Bemba face a courtroom.
“I asked if it was really Bemba who was before the judges,” said one woman, her voice cracking.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s former vice president went on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague this week for crimes allegedly committed by his troops in the CAR in a brutal 2002 campaign.
It was a moment of extreme emotions for around 200 people who were watching a retransmission of the opening day of the trial on Monday, their happiness at seeing Bemba in court tempered by the painful reawakening of bitter memories.
In his opening statement, the ICC’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Bemba allowed his troops to commit hundreds of rapes, pillaging and killing.
Nine-year-old Asta Keita was too young to remember the mayhem but told Agence France-Presse what happened to her family.
“Bemba’s men killed papa when he returned from a trip in 2002,” she said, with her mother standing next to her unable to speak.
“We never saw his body, it was a neighbour who recognised him and helped with the burial which we saw two days later,” the little girl said, reciting her family’s sad story she has heard many times.
Bemba is charged with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities of about 1 500 fighters of his private Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) between October 2002 and March 2003
“We saw moments of indescribable terror at PK12 when MLC fighters went to work,” said 53-year-old Jean-Pierre Ndema, referring to an area outside Bangui where some of the worst atrocities are alleged to have taken place.
“Today, when I see Bemba before ICC judges, I say that God is great … Jean-Pierra Bemba should be tried for his crimes,” he said.
‘Force of law over law of force’
In a Christian youth centre near the ICC’s field office in Bangui, groups of activists, journalists and members of the public sat on a row of stone benches watching the trial.
“In addition to the cases of rape, there were murders, cases of mutilations, because Bemba’s men cut off the ears of hundreds of people,” said Mathias-Barthelemy Morouba, a lawyer representing the victims.
“Even though the victims have waited many years for the opening of this trial, it’s better late than never,” he said, calling on the ICC to deliver “an irrefutable verdict”.
Joseph Bindoumi, a judge and human rights leader, said the trial would prove “the force of law over law of force”.
“This trial shows that those among us, who for one reason or another commit the most serious crimes against humanity, will never be free from prosecution and will be hunted down to their final hiding place,” he said.
Bemba, who was arrested in Belgium in 2008, pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Bemba sent his troops into the CAR after the country’s then president Ange-Felix Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by former armed forces chief Francois Bozize, now the CAR president. — Sapa-AFP