Congo Justice: Word Against Word

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 course of a two-week session.

Armed guards led the bull-necked captain into the mobile court’s tent hours before the judges convened to announce the verdict in the case.

It was a hot afternoon. Captain Bwana Ntambwé—known to many Kamituga locals by his nickname, “Anderson”—was wearing two shirts. On top: army khaki, three gold captain’s stars glinting on each shoulder, buttons down the front straining to girdle his beer-belly. Underneath: a red sports jersey that hung below the khaki. The two shirts were a sign that Captain Bwana Ntambwé would not be acquitted.

The accused sat patiently, shielded from the baking sun and lounging, as if under the roof of some ramshackle bar, waiting for a favorite waitress to bring him another cold bottle of the local brew. He chatted with guards in a soft, affable voice that was incongruous for a big, angry-looking officer, who might not have been angry at all. (Ntambwé had been a paymaster, not an infantry commander.) Smartly dressed women and men in leisure suits and polished shoes approached him. They shook his hand. They patted him on the back.

The army had transferred Ntambwé to Kamituga from a far-off province of the Democratic Republic of Congo known as Équateur. He had been in town for less than a year before his arrest. But in the neighborhood where he resided, a crime-ridden warren of shacks and rutty streets on the northern edge of town, Bwana Ntambwé had become a man with a reputation: he liked girls, lots of girls.

“Who doesn’t like girls?” smiled one of the police officers standing behind him.

Ntambwé is just one of the soldiers and police officers on trial for rape here. Prosecutors charged him with forcing C.B., a 13-year-old girl, to have sex with him in his house one evening in late July 2010. The prosecution asserted that he had asked the victim to gather his laundry, which had dried in the sun in his yard. As the petite victim was inside the defendant’s room depositing the clothes, the accused, a powerful-looking man, came in, shut the door, jacked up the volume of his radio, and threw the girl on the bed. He pressed a pillow to the victim’s face to muffle her screams as he raped her. Afterward, according to the prosecution, the accused gave the presumed victim money—9,000 Congolese francs, about ten dollars—so she would not denounce him. C.B. refused the money.

Ntambwé’s case before the Kamituga mobile court drew more attention than any of the others on the docket. Some local people insisted that Ntambwé was a jovial newcomer to town who had run afoul of someone seeking vengeance. Others said he had become Kamituga’s bête noir and described him as a kind of sexual predator.

It was time for the verdict.

***

The evidence in Ntambwé’s case was presented in an afternoon session a week earlier.

The presiding judge closed the hearing to the general public, saying that it was at the request of the young C.B., who did not want to testify before hundreds of people from her home town. She had good reasons.

In recent days, several unfortunate women who testified about having been raped did not enjoy the benefit of having their hearings closed to the public, perhaps because they were not savvy enough to request one. Or perhaps because they were not up against the likes of Bwana Ntambwé

Some of these victims showed the court torn undergarments and answered in detail questions of what the accused rapist had forced them to do. Despite efforts by the judges and guards to maintain order, testifying victims suffered nightmarish eruptions of mockery and laughter from the crowd—picture audience outbursts during a Jerry Springer show being held in a small revival tent.

The presiding judge in the Ntambwé trial did allow reporters to be present and permitted them to take photographs and video of the proceedings. The hearing took place in a half-finished shell of a brick building with a metal roof and a dirt-and-rock floor on the hillside above the tent. Armed guards shooed away frustrated onlookers. Curious kids carrying smaller kids on their backs peeked in until the guards hissed them away. A bleating lamb looked in, seeking its mother; a guard threw a stone to frighten it away.

“People are unhappy because they are not getting to see all the trials,” said Mandrake Masudi, a police official from the town. “They have wanted to see Anderson’s trial. He was a force in this town, a big man here. He thought he was above the law. His trial is a visual aid for the others who believe they can do whatever they want. The victim is very courageous. She is a hero.”

Masudi called Ntambwé the “Kibibi of Kamituga,” a reference to Lieutenant-Colonel Kibibi Mutuare, a notorious army commander sentenced to 20 years imprisonment after a mass rape by his men on January 1 in the town of Fizi.

Others said it was exaggeration to state that everyone in town knew about Bwana Ntambwé’s reputation or that his was a special case. “People here know about the bad behavior of the police officers and soldiers,” said one of the onlookers who had followed each trial. “These men seek to be dominant. They beat people. They take money, because they are miserably paid, and often they aren’t paid. And they seek to have girls, and they take them. When a captain is arrested for rape, people draw the conclusion that he must be the some kind of gray eminence who is responsible for everything.”

The presumed victim, C.B., stood with her guardian, a maternal aunt named Doudou, who was the concubine of Bwana Ntambwé’s superior, an army colonel.

The judges first asked Bwana Ntambwé for his version of the facts. He said that on the July evening in question, the colonel arrived at his house as usual and the two men went walking around mid-afternoon before going to eat as the rains began. “I called C.B. and told her to take a key and go to put my clothes in my bedroom and bring me back the key. She did so.”

Ntambwé and the colonel then went to a bar where they found Doudou: “At once Doudou said to me, ‘Captain, how dare you have sex with my niece. Don’t you know I am responsible for this child and I can have you arrested?’

“I got angry and went home,” said Ntambwé.

As he spoke, Ntambwé was calm, not belligerent, not quarrelsome, not loud. He consistently maintained that he did not have sex with the girl.

Soldiers and policemen arrested him the next morning: “I was astonished. I wanted to speak with the prosecutor. I wanted to see colonel. One of the soldiers said, ‘Why do you want to see the colonel? He is the one who has made the accusation against you.’

At 10 a.m., the colonel came to see me and said, ‘I have just come from the hospital with C.B. The doctor saw that you had sex with her. If you give me $5,000, this problem can be resolved.’ He came again the next day. ‘How much do you have? Give even $3,500.’” The amount requested, Ntambwé said, shrank to $100.

Ntambwé testified that Madame Doudou was asking the colonel to tell her what she was supposed to say to the authorities. The defense attorney said that Ntambwé had been very close with Doudou but had had a falling out with her. He said Doudou and the colonel were attempting to set Ntambwé up, either for money or to remove him from Kamituga.

The presiding judge then called the presumed victim and asked her to tell her side of the story.

She spoke in the softest of voices. The judge called her close to the bench so she could be heard. Bwana Ntambwé listened, just beyond a gaggle of robed lawyers and an interpreter.

“It was in the evening,” she began. “The captain called to me and told me to gather his dry clothes.

“When I was about to leave his bedroom, I saw him entering, and he closed the door and turned up the radio.

“It was a very big radio with two big woofers. He pulled me and tore my blouse. Then he lifted me up and threw me on his bed. He took my skirt off and tore my underwear.”

One of the judges held up the torn underwear and the torn blouse.

“Then he had sex with me.”

Prosecutor: “Why didn’t you cry out while he was having sex with you?”

Victim: “Because he had turned up the volume of the radio.”

Ntambwé denied everything damaging in the testimonies of the victim and her aunt. A defense attorney asked the court to grant him permission to call a new witness, a woman who worked at a hotel-bar where Ntambwé had spent time among Congolese Falstaffs and at least one waitress who opens beer bottles with her teeth.

The attorney said the witness was going to testify that Ntambwé had been at the bar at the very time that the victim says she was raped. This was a new alibi, one that had not figured in his statements to investigators before. The judge disallowed the witness, because Ntambwé had had months to make such a witness known. Then the defense attorney asserted that the victim had been manipulated by her aunt to testify against Ntambwé. The defense said Ntambwé had quarreled with the colonel, and this might have led to the rape accusations.

When the trial ended, Ntambwé’s fate hung in the balance between the word of a 13-year-old who had exhibited ripped undergarments and his own accusations that C.B.’s aunt and his commander were taking revenge upon him. Such are many rape cases here, and elsewhere: One person’s word against another’s. But here there are no DNA tests and little additional medical evidence. All sides—including the state—are effectively indigent.

Congo’s records system fell apart during the wars. As a result, there is a paucity of credible birth records, which are crucial because statutes governing sexual violence make sex with anyone under the age of 18 rape. In some cases, the victims and accused were orphans who did not know their own ages. With lives in the balance, it all came down to guesswork. At several points during the trials, the judges had random kids pulled from the crowd to make side-by-side comparisons with victims and accused to determine their approximate ages.

In his final words to the court, Ntambwé said, “The members of this tribunal are wise. I ask them to find me not guilty.”

***

One week later, the sun set during a thunderstorm. Despite a drizzle, a large, quiet crowd gathered for the judgment hearing. Moist red dirt stuck to Ntambwé's flip-flops.

Guards presented arms and stood at attention, saluting. The presiding judge pronounced Ntambwé guilty as charged, sentenced him to fifteen years in Bukavu’s central prison, and assessed civil damages against him: the equivalent of $10,000 in Congo’s francs.

Then the judge stripped Ntambwé of his captains’ rank. The guards tore off Ntambwé’s stars and unbuttoned and removed his khaki uniform shirt, revealing the hidden red jersey. It was vintage Atlanta Falcons, the number 32 of a running back Ntambwé had probably never heard of, Jamal Anderson.

Nobody cheered. Nobody complained. People were slow to depart the tent. Voices repeated the words Quinze années. Quinze années. Fifteen years. Fifteen years. A number of interviewed onlookers reiterated the leitmotif of the crowd reaction to these mobile court trials: “This is a lesson. Men should behave better.”

One who said so was Martine Nalubala, 30, who caught the end of the Ntambwé hearing. “But,” she added, “fifteen years is a long time. It destroys the convicted person. And people can abuse this system. A woman can say you have raped her, even if you just touched her. People who have bad intentions against other persons can drum up rape accusations. Some people might do this for money. Some might do it for jealousy. Some might do it for vengeance. People have to be prevented from making false accusations.”

Anderson’s attorney said he would appeal.

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

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