Lubanga's neighbors split over war crimes trial

The Congolese ex-militia leader is the first man to stand trial at the International Criminal Court. Back home, some defend their native son as simply protecting his people.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    ICC: Thomas Lubanga's trial began in January.
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    Fighters: Lubanga is charged with using child soldiers. Here, some attended a 2003 rally led by him about 15 miles from Bunia.
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With his unseeing eyes, Innocent may not be able to watch the world put his father on trial. But he is convinced what the outcome should be.

Blind since childhood, as he stands in front of what was once his grandmother's home on the outskirts of Bunia, he says he is certain that his father is not guilty. "I am proud of my father," Innocent says, quietly. "He is a good man, and I hope that one day I will get to meet him again."

But the international community has other ideas. A continent away, Innocent's father, Thomas Lubanga, is the first man ever to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. A former militia leader during northeast Congo's bloody ethnic wars, he is accused of sending boys and girls younger than his teenage son into battle. At the trial, witnesses have spoken of being abducted and forced to kill when as young as 11. Mr. Lubanga denies the charges.

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During the Ituri war, Lubanga led the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), an ethnic Hema militia in the region. From 1999 to 2004 districts and villages across the region fractured along ethnic lines as a half dozen militias from the rival Hema and Lendu communities, supported by the Ugandan and Rwandan armies, fought one another for control of territory and the region's mineral wealth. In 2005, Lubanga was captured by United Nations peacekeepers in Ituri, before eventually ending up in The Hague.

Some 50,000 people are thought to have been killed in the conflict and 30,000 children used as combatants.

At the height of the war, from mid-2002 to 2004, the town of Bunia was at the epicenter of the fighting. Now, more than five years on, Lubanga's trial still divides the town's 100,000 inhabitants. Although a fragile peace has settled on most of this shattered region, the thought of Lubanga in the dock can still stir up old enmities. In January a plan to televise the trial live at a venue in town was halted after just one day over fears that it would rile Lubanga's supporters.

A 'peacemaker' and a 'kind man'

The image of Lubanga as war criminal sits uncomfortably with the memories shared by his two sisters. "He was a clever, quiet child and someone who could go far," remembers his younger sister, Stella Maluti, in the living room of her crumbling house. "At home he played the role of the peacemaker."

Last year, she says, Lubanga's mother died, heartbroken by the accusations against her son.

The surrounding district of Mudzi Pela is a predominantly Hema neighborhood of crumbling houses where people are on first-name terms with the suspected war criminal. Memories of Lubanga range from the heroic to hagiographic. For most Hema here, he was simply protecting his own people from certain death.

"Thomas had integrity. He was a kind man and liked justice and order," says Jean Baptiste Ngolotcha Bongi, a founding member of the UPC along with Lubanga. "In another life, he could have been president of Congo." Pointing to a dog-eared copy of the UPC's 2001 constitution with Lubanga's e-mail address on the cover, Mr. Bongi insists the group was set up to try to reconcile the different ethnic groups.

Others in the district deny the accusations leveled against Lubanga. Witnesses have been invented and proof falsified, they insist. Erique Singo, a former child soldier in a precursor militia to the UPC, is adamant that Lubanga dismissed all the underage combatants within a week of taking command.

Even in Lubanga's former stronghold, however, some Hema have a more nuanced view of the trial.

Although he makes sure to blame the other sides as well, Aimé Issamba, the current district chief of Mudzi Pela, pointedly does not exculpate Lubanga. All the militias, he says, were guilty of using child soldiers.

"Everyone who was involved in the war should be on trial," Mr. Issamba says. "But you have to understand that at that moment it was a matter of self-defense and everyone protected themselves as best they could."

Two former Lendu commanders are also in captivity in The Hague and should go on trial by the end of the year, Issamba concedes, but says putting Lubanga in the dock first smacks of a "two-speed justice system."

Other ex-militia leaders untouched

On the other side of town, in the village of Lengabo, few people have such a nuanced view. Populated by the neutral Bira tribe, the village was caught in the middle of the bloodletting.

When Lubanga's name is brought up in a crowd of inhabitants, the horrified reaction is uniform. In 2002, the UPC attacked the village, burning houses and killing civilians in retaliation for the village's perceived support of a rival militia, inhabitants say.

"There were many armed groups at the time, but the UPC were the worst of all of them," says Jean-Claude Kababo. Others around him nod vigorously.

Now, Mr. Kababo says, people in the village are following the Lubanga trial on radio news bulletins whenever they can and praying for justice.

But another man that Kababo and the rest of his village want to see put on trial, is living a long way from The Hague. Although an ICC arrest warrant is out for him, these days Bosco Ntaganda can be spotted lounging on comfortable hotel terraces in the town of Goma, about 200 miles south, where thousands of UN staff are based.

Another former UPC commander, Mr. Ntaganda, nicknamed "the Terminator," is wanted for the same crimes as Lubanga. But Ntaganda is being feted by regional armies after siding with the Congolese army against his former boss, another militia leader in the region, Laurent Nkunda.

"Tell us why Ntaganda is sitting in Goma and no one is arresting him?" Kababo asks. For the people of Lengabo, Congo's troubled search for peace has trumped one village's desire for justice. Thanks to the country's kaleidoscopic political alliances, one more suspected war criminal has become a kingmaker.

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