Congo Justice: The Defendants Arrive

This series of dispatches chronicles the work of a mobile court in the town of Kamituga in eastern Congo, a region riven by conflict that has witnessed an appalling epidemic of rape and other sexual violence. The court, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, will try ten rape cases involving soldiers and policemen over the next two weeks.

Workmen rigged the tent on a weedy bluff overlooking Congo’s National Route 2. This is a famous, and infamous, rutty packed-dirt track. It winds and bounces across half of Africa: from the city of Bukavu, on the southern tip of Lake Kivu and the border with Rwanda, to Congo’s far-off capital, Kinshasa.
Soldiers on their way to overthrow the government in Kinshasa have marched and fought and killed along National Road 2. Warlords have fought pitched battles and massacred civilians to control the gold and other valuable mineral ores that are shipped along the road on the way to smelters and electronics factories in East Asia and jewelry stores in New York and London.
Inside the tent, the workmen hung a sign:

The Uvira Garrison’s Military Tribunal, in
Partnership with the American Bar Association, is
Holding Trials Before a Mobile Military Court at
Kamituga from April 11 to April 22
Everyone Welcome

Darkness had fallen by the time the armed guards escorted the defendants into the tent. Cold raindrops drummed on the taut plastic in an accelerating rhythm. Hundreds of onlookers gathered round, undeterred by the rain and mud, the thunder, or the lightning that was making silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. Skinny-leg kids with bare muddy feet came to witness the spectacle of handcuffed men facing justice.

But gathered here too were teachers and preachers in neat suits and polished shoes, young men sporting Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and US RMY (sic) t-shirts, and women in multicolored dresses who came to listen and to see for themselves that even military officers and police officials could no longer sexually assault women and girls and walk away as if they had done no wrong. If military officers and the police can be jailed for sexual assault in Congo, anybody can be jailed for sexual assault.

Lanky soldiers with Kalashnikovs and full clips of live rounds eased to attention for the entrance of the five judges, one a police official, the others military officers in crisp camouflage khaki. They took their places before white-plastic garden chairs arrayed behind matching round white-plastic tables pushed together and covered with a red-, yellow-, and powder-blue flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The presiding judge, an army major, saluted and sat down. Before him, handcuffed together, the accused pressed against one another on wooden benches, their shoes, flip-flops and bare feet soaking in red mud soup. In black robes with bleached white cravats, defense attorneys and lawyers representing the victims stood ready in silence.

The clerk began to read the charges: “…viol,” “rape,” and again “…viol,” “rape,” and again. The people whispered and ooohed and nodded their heads at each utterance of that word they understood too well. One of the victims was eight years old, another ten, another eleven, another twelve, another thirteen....

Sometime before the mobile court adjourned on April 22, each of the victims was set to appear: eleven more women, teenagers, and little girls who found themselves numbered among the tens or hundreds of thousands who have been raped, some multiple times, amid these mountains along National Road 2 in one of recorded history’s worst spates of sexual violence.

The presiding judge of the mobile court called for the formal identification of the accused to begin. He called the name of the first defendant: Bwana Ntambwé.

A squat man with a powerful neck stood up from the front bench. A guard affixed the shoulder flashes of a captain to his uniform. The court clerk read the charges in French. A translator repeated the words in Lingala, the official language of Congo’s army:

In Kamituga, at about 7:30 in the evening on July 28, 2010, Bwana Ntambwé, a captain, 32nd Brigade, Army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, forced a minor, thirteen years of age, to have sexual relations. The prosecution asserted that the accused had asked the victim to gather together his laundry, which had dried in the sun in a yard outside his residence. As soon as the victim entered into the defendant’s room to deposit the clothes, the accused came in, closed the door, turned up the volume of his radio, and threw the victim on the bed. He pressed a pillow to the victim’s face to muffle her screams as he raped her. Afterward, the accused gave the victim money—9,000 Congolese francs, about ten dollars—so the victim would not denounce him.

The judge checked Ntambwé’s age, his address, and his rank, duties, marital status, and other personal information. Then he set the trial for April 14 and called for the next accused. The rain slowed to an erratic beat. One by one, the handcuffed men stood to hear the charges against them. With each mention of the word viol, voices of women in the crowd rose in ooohs.

Questions lingered.

How satisfied will the victims be in a court process that might jail their attackers for years but leave the victims and their families with no tangible compensation?

Will the trials be fair or is popular anger ready to lash out at any scapegoat?

Will the mobile courts presage legal action against men who committed war crimes during the conflict in eastern Congo in the late 1990s and the anarchic violence that continued here afterward?

Would impunity be set back, and for how long?

The trials were set to begin.

Chuck Sudetic will be reporting from Kamituga for the duration of the trials.

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