Congo Justice: Final Judgments

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, tried rape cases involving soldiers and policemen over the course of a two-week session.

Church bells clanged from Kamituga’s Catholic parish before dawn on Good Friday. A metal pipe banged on a brake drum dangling from a pole outside a nearby Pentecostal church. Beating drums and voices singing hymns wafted from inside more modest houses of worship all over the valley. The sun appeared over the rim of the mountain.

The Kamituga mobile court’s last judgment hearing was supposed to commence at six a.m. so the judges and their wards could finish business early and hit the road. The public address system buzzed, waiting for someone with something to pronounce. Arrayed across National Route 2 just below the tent, guards leaned on their battered guns and laughed when their commander punched an annoying kid square in the face.

Wives, mothers, and girlfriends chatted with prisoners already inside La Correction, the green-trimmed white delivery van that would transport them to prison. Food parcels were passed through an open window. Bwana Anderson rested his head on a windowframe. Justin Pakulu stared blankly. Kasereka Bawere was inside with the others, out of sight.

***

After three hours of buzzing, the PA system crackled to life. The judges entered the tent. The guards snapped to attention and presented arms until their superior ordered them to stand at ease in the French manner familiar to any lover of Carmen.

Repos.”

The guardsmen’s gunstocks came to rest on the ground beside their boots. The presiding judge, Major Joseph Bulukungu, began reading the first of five verdicts in this attempt to bring discipline to the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo and its state police.

Mabengi Mulosa, a soldier in Congo’s army was with a younger companion when they accosted two sisters and their younger brothers, the judge read. The soldiers tied the boys, ages four and six, to a tree. The soldiers proceeded to rape the two girls—the elder sister, who was twelve years old and in the fourth grade, and the younger, who was eight years old and a second grader. Mulosa was sentenced to fifteen years in jail, expelled from the army, and ordered to pay a fine, fees, and $10,000 in damages. After careful comparison with boys brought from the crowd, the second soldier was found to be under the age of 18. This meant that he was not a legal member of the army and therefore stood outside the jurisdiction of the military court. He was handed over to be tried by the civilian authorities.

Next appeared Bizimana Bahati Harerimana: an eleven-year army veteran who had never attended school and did not know how to read. Bizimana had only a vague idea of his own birthdate, and had undergone no military training. The judges found him guilty of rape, assault, and extortion. He had accosted a married couple on a road to a village market, robbed them of $200 worth of soaps, lotions, boxes of cookies and juice, and mirrors, tied the husband between two trees, and proceeded to rape the wife. The judges sentenced Bizimana to twenty years in jail and assessed a fine, fees, and damages of $50,000. “But for the grace of God, they did not die,” the judge concluded, echoing words Bizimana had told his victims before he abandoned them, still bound, in the bush.

Three other accused were found not guilty of rape. One was acquitted of all charges. The judges wished him well in marriage to the woman he had been accused of assaulting.

After the cheering and applause had died down, the presiding judge rose and expressed thanks to the United Nations, the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative, and other organizations that had supported the trials. “We have come here to Kamituga to put an end to the horrible crimes which are taking place in these rural areas,” the judge concluded. “People of Kamituga, if you are victims of soldiers or police officers, do not fear to bring charges against them. But do not tell lies. Don’t make frivolous accusations.”

The court had no gavel to bang. The judges, prosecutors, and bailiff stood behind the plastic balcony furniture, saluted the guards, and adjourned the proceedings with the same word that had begun them:

Repos.”

***

Soldiers started disassembling the balcony furniture and folded the Congolese flag. Workmen on ladders began dismantling the tent. The judges drifted toward a minibus with bald tires hired to transport them on the two-day journey up National Route 2 and back to their base. Kids hustled Belgian waffles from plastic containers. People approached the lone white reporter in sight and begged for money. One prisoner complained that he had not been fed in two days. A police officer begged: “I haven’t been paid in weeks. I’m hungry.”

Local journalists interviewed the judges, taking note of their aspiration to help bring order to this vast traumatized land, where even traveling the National Route requires assuming the risk that gunmen will appear from the forest, hijack your vehicle, strip you naked, steal your money, and attempt to free convicted criminals riding La Correction.

“We have to be discrete in our movements,” the presiding judge said. “People track us. On March 12, gunmen ambushed a convoy delivering two prisoners. One prisoner, a soldier, and a civilian were killed.”

Both the bailiff and the prosecutor at the Kamituga court have been victims of ambushes in the past eight months. “Men wearing balaclavas shot out the tires and then began firing indiscriminately into our truck,” said the bailiff, Lieutenant Kitenge Kilumbu. “They killed the driver on the spot… We were told to strip naked. A boy who refused was shot in the leg. Then they stole everything they could carry and told us to walk. We hiked for five hours in the dark before arriving at a village.”

Gunmen, also in balaclavas, stopped the vehicle of the prosecutor, Major Jean-Pierre Banyongi, while he was assisting in preparation of the prosecution case against Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi after the mass rape in Fizi on New Year’s Day. “They spoke as if they were Rwandan. The men fled when another truck approached.”

Despite the danger of enforcing the law, the army and police have carried out government orders to arrest men indicted for war crimes. And members of the bench here at Kamituga, three of them former airborne commandos who fought for years in South Kivu, said the army is prepared to carry out more arrests, including arrests of the men alleged to have committed the crimes along National Route 2 from the city of Bukavu to the mines of Kamituga.

“I was here during the wars, and didn’t run to hide in the woods,” said Mandrake Masudi, a Kamituga police official. “I want those war criminals arrested. As the mobile court continues to tour, those people will be caught. I don’t know how long it will take. This is a question that depends for an answer upon Congo’s government and the international community.”

But each order for its troops to arrest powerful persons accused of war crimes requires Congo’s political leaders to assume a risk that its execution will upset a precarious military balance and plunge the country back into war. Some are officers in the army and officials in the government who have entered into their functions only through complicated compromises. Still others are abroad. Imagine what Tutsis in the Congo and elsewhere would do if a court in the Congo—or the International Criminal Court in The Hague—issued an indictment against Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, or members of the Rwandan army’s high command for complicity in acts committed by Rwandan troops and Rwandan-backed militias in Congo since 1996.

“There is a huge problem with security,” the presiding judge said. “The justice institutions, by themselves, do not have the means to accomplish this. Those persons who committed these crimes are still powerful. Commanders of irregular armies occupy important positions and are still untouchable. They believe that they are working under a mandate. In the name of peace, it is impossible to begin attacking them. We must wait for the future, if the truth is to be told.”

***

National Route 2 took its toll on the judge’s rented minibus. It blew a tire near the town of Kasika. All the driver had was a bald spare, and it blew out a few more miles down the road.

But La Correction trundled onward. By evening, the convicted prisoners of Kamituga were deposited at the Bukavu Central Prison.

Chuck Sudetic reported from Kamituga for the duration of the trials.

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