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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.

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"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.

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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.