Opinion: Why should we care about the first man on trial at the ICC?

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands — Who is the first man on trial at the ICC, and why does it matter?

The silence of the public gallery is interrupted only by the slow rise of the blinds. We are about to watch history in the making. Behind bulletproof glass a courtroom appears; the heart of the International Criminal Court. On the right, the prosecution. On the left, the defense, their somber robes contrasting starkly with the courtroom’s pale wood furnishings.

In their midst — dapper, calm, attentive — sits the eye of this storm: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, defendant in the ICC's first trial, which began nearly one year ago in January 2009 and is due to resume early this year after a more than five-month hiatus.

Who is this man, and what has he done to earn his dubious distinction and face a potential 30-year jail sentence? Now quietly jotting notes, now leaning over to consult with one of his lawyers, take away the setting and he could be a businessman as unremarkable as any you encounter on the streets of London, Brussels or New York every day of the week. Hardly a Radovan Karadzic or a Pol Pot. Hardly a Josef Mengele, whose experiments on children left the few survivors scarred for life.

When World War II ended, nobody expected that we would ever again allow destruction on such a scale. Five decades later, so inured had we become to wholesale slaughter that 5 million people could die in a new Great War, the Second Congo War, and their untold sufferings would remain just that — untold.

Until now. Because in the course of this landmark trial, not just experts but children who became the victims of this war are taking the stand to speak to the charges that as President of the Union des Patriots Congolais (UPC), between September 2002 and August 2003, Thomas Lubanga recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to pillage, rape and kill.

Lubanga is a member of the Hema ethnic group from Ituri, a district in the northeast corner of the Congo which has about the same land area and population size as the Republic of Ireland. Born in 1960, he secured a degree in psychology from the University of Kisangani. Married, with seven children, by the late 1990s there was no particular indication that this family man would ever become a feared warlord. In fact, well into the Second Congo War he was still working as a trader, selling beans in the market of Bunia, Ituri’s capital. However, the war would set him on a path to power and notoriety, not so much for any personal military feats as for his dedication to an inherently ethnic view of politics in which the Hema as a group must either eliminate all threats or be eliminated.

From the late 1990s, Ituri had become a particular focal point for violence as different factions involved in the wider war battled for control of its mineral wealth. Decades of mistrust between Ituri’s ethnic groups, particularly between the Hema and the Lendu, were manipulated for political ends with deadly consequences.

In June 2000, hundreds of Hema soldiers in the Rassemblement Congolais, the movement then in control of Ituri, went to Uganda for two months’ military training. When they returned, tradesman Lubanga became their spokesman. It didn’t matter to them that he had no previous political experience. He was educated, an intellectual, and he would speak on behalf of his ethnic group. The seeds of the UPC had been planted.

In January 2001, Lubanga joined the Rassemblement Congolais Government as commissioner for youth and sports. Later becoming defense commissioner, he recruited even more Hema troops. Sidelined by the Rassemblement Congolais from involvement in a peace deal struck in April 2002 in South Africa that was designed to end the war in the Congo, Lubanga broke away, taking his Hema soldiers with him. Turning on his old masters, in August 2002 his forces chased the Rassemblement Congolais out of Bunia, launching attacks on the Lendu and anyone they identified as "jajambu" (outsiders). Near-total anarchy ensued, as the UPC and rival ethnic militias not only fought each other but killed civilians from opposing ethnic groups with indiscriminate barbarity. And all sides were using child soldiers.

Figures in green military fatigues, clapping and singing, fill the video screens in the public gallery. In their midst is a slightly slimmer version of the man now in the dock, who looks on at his younger self indifferently, arms folded. The frame freezes. The Deputy Prosecutor’s voice cuts in. “Witness, do you know the person who is on the screen?” Witness 10, the girl in the witness stand, can barely be out of her teens even now. “It’s Thomas Lubanga,” she confirms.

By September 2002, Thomas Lubanga had been appointed president of the UPC. From then on he would brook no opposition. He would be not merely the president but the rais, a king-like leader invested with permanent and sacred authority by his community. The protector of the Hema, in an existential war demanding the participation and contribution of every Hema man, woman and child. Children were enticed, abducted, or even given up by their parents for military training. To protect themselves. To protect their ethnic group. Many aged 10 to 15. But even, according to some, as young as five.

But why? What does a war machine gain from being fed with children? Militias around the world in recent years have made a cynical calculation: that children can be exploited without payment; that they are loyal, obedient and unlikely to mutiny; that they show less fear in battle, having poorer ability to assess risks and consequences than adults. And if they are girls, they are likely to also be used as domestic servants and sex slaves for the force.

“I used to be a virgin before I entered the UPC, but they took away my virginity. I saw the blood that completely destroyed my life,” Witness 10 tells the Court. Murmured conversation in the public gallery falls silent. “I cry every day, for I have no mother or father. I’m alone and it’s hurting. … When I think about it, I feel like killing myself.”

A child, robbed of her childhood. Robbed of innocence. Robbed of opportunity. A girl who will most probably be haunted by this experience until she dies.

“Any experience where the perpetrator is physically close with a knife, with a gun, raping you, assaulting you; such experiences are more likely to cause us to develop psychiatric disorders.” Now Elisabeth Schauer, a doctor in clinical psychology, and head of an NGO working on rehabilitation after trauma, is addressing the court in April 2009. “Traumatic or emotionally important memories for us are burned into memory, right? Trauma doesn't subside. Trauma doesn't go away. You can be traumatized at age 11 and die with post-traumatic stress disorder when you're 70 years old.”

If the UPC was using child soldiers, it was doing nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of children are bearing weapons in conflicts around the world as you read this. But whatever its outcome for Thomas Lubanga, the message this trial sends is new: Use children as soldiers, even in a war as lawless as that in the Congo, and one day you may forfeit your liberty. So for anyone who values children, the future of our world, this trial matters.

Sheila is a freelance journalist and author of the ‘Lubanga Chronicles’, documenting Thomas Lubanga’s trial in a day-by-day account from the public gallery and going behind the scenes to interview members of the legal teams involved.