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.
Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.