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The trial of Thomas Lubanga, former Congolese warlord, signals to others that wartime atrocities won't go unaccounted for.
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.