People in the small village of Mwenga have been experiencing the formal justice of a court for the first time in their lives. Congolese judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and civil party lawyers have traveled the five long, bumpy hours from Bukavu on treacherous, muddy, mist-filled, mountainous roads to spend two weeks in Mwenga to hear dozens of cases of rape, mostly committed against young children.
I feel humbled sitting in the makeshift courtroom watching a small, thin, fragile looking nine-year-old victim standing before the three-judge panel. As she tells her story of being raped twice by a man who was visiting the pastor’s home where she was staying, I can't help but be impressed by her courage and strength as she sticks to her story and insists what she says is true. The presiding judge warns the defense attorney against bullying the girl, striking a delicate balance between protecting the rights of the accused against the rights of victims, not to mention a child victim.
For hours, the lawyers representing victims make powerful arguments and spar against rigorous defense attorneys. The mother testifies about how she’d seen her daughter’s bloodied clothes, and had assumed she’d been injured, until told of the rape. She says her daughter had lost weight, couldn’t sleep, and was lethargic since the incidents. She immediately took her daughter to a medical clinic, where the rape was confirmed.
Squeezing the girl’s shoulder encouragingly, the director of the mobile gender justice court, acting as one of the civil party lawyers in the case, confidently asserts that the dossier provided sufficient proof meeting every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Shaking his head in disgust, my translator murmurs that the defendant “ keeps contradicting himself,” by claiming there’s no evidence against him, that it is merely her word against his. A classic defense effort for sex crimes the world over.
Watching the young girl, listening to her, I am impressed by her resilience and tenacity. But then, I remind myself, this is a place where children are forced to grow up fast. Kids who can be no more than five carry babies on their backs as they collect firewood and fetch water miles from their home. Life is harsh and poverty a way of life.
Another young girl, who looks to be about six or seven, bravely stands and approaches the judge’s bench when her case is called. Wearing a pretty blue dress two sizes too big, she nonetheless stands with such calmness and dignity. She seems simultaneously relieved and disappointed when her case is postponed for a day because the accused’s defense attorney asked to be recused for personal reasons.
I’m traveling with the American Bar Association (ABA), which facilitates this mobile court project throughout remote areas of South Kivu, and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), which has funded it for the past three years. Exactly one year ago today, a judgment in the mobile courts most high profile case, a joint rape as a crime against humanity trial against an army colonel and ten of his soldiers, was handed down in the Fizi mass rape case.
At that trial, one woman we met said she walked for two days with her young children to observe the proceedings, since she had assumed that never in her lifetime would she see anyone prosecuted for a crime, much less for rape, much less a senior military official. The trial, and subsequent conviction of the colonel and eight others, gave people more hope than they’d had in years, those participating in and watching the proceedings told us.
The ABA-facilitated mobile court in South Kivu has provided justice to over 300 victims in the past couple of years, an unprecedented achievement in this part of the world. I feel proud that my organization, the Open Society Justice Initiative, played a role in designing the court, which provides justice to victims in a place long denied it. True, there are plenty of rapists and murderers and thieves who escape justice, no doubt about it. Yet the Congolese judges and lawyers participating in the mobile court, which has both military and civilian jurisdiction, insist that it is playing a crucial role in deterrence. The experience, one official told me, of participating in the mobile court, which is focused on gender crimes but has discretion to hear other serious crimes, is also changing attitudes about women and about rape. Sex crimes are definitely not, as he once believed, lesser offences. They impact the entire family and the whole of society.
We leave Mwenga a day earlier than planned because on the way in we had been twice stuck in the mud and had to be towed out, and the forecast of rain means the roads will be even more hazardous or impassible. Just before we head out, the village chief asks to meet with us to discuss the mobile court with us. He says he happened to be in Kamituga last summer when the court was operating there, and he was determined to bring justice to his own village and have the perpetrators put behind bars and unable to continue crime sprees.
It’s impossible to work or even read on the trip back to Bukavu (imagine trying to accomplish anything other than settling your stomach on a bumpy, jerky 5-hour roller coaster ride), so, aside from taking in the breathtaking beauty of the country, I let my mind wander. As I do, fear settles in my heart. Not fear of any lurking dangers on the road. Fears that I may have broken a golden rule – first do no harm. OSISA’s commitment was for a three year period, and the third phase will come to an end in February 2013. What will that mean for justice in eastern Congo? Will another funder pick up the project, and hopefully even expand and improve upon it? Or will these good people’s growing expectation of justice be yanked out from under them? If the project shuts down, will the rigorous monitoring of the prison sentences cease (some face up to twenty years in jail), and thus those found guilty of heinous crimes bribe their way out when the ABA no longer continues to monitor them?
This project was designed to complement the work being done in The Hague at the International Criminal Court, and local justice is far less expensive, speedier, and its impact more immediate than the handful of higher level cases being tried a continent away. Moreover, in the mobile courts, literally thousands show up to watch the proceedings, which is of enormous educational benefit to those who have never seen a formal justice process before. The Congolese lost nearly six million people during their bloody civil war. I cannot stand the thought that they could be re-victimized if the rule of law is ignored and impunity again allowed to flourish. Donors: please, please step up!