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The ICC and the DRC

Will the trial of a Congolese warlord make a difference to a terrorised population?
Last modified: 10 Feb 2014 17:49

Former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Right now I am in another part of the Democractic Republic of Congo, the mineral-rich Katanga province in the south. Ntaganda is accused of committing war crimes in the eastern DRC a decade ago. People here in Katanga remember him as the 'terminator' and the atrocities he committed.

He was once one of the ICC's most wanted suspects, accused of using child soldiers, keeping women as sex slaves, and murder. But surprisingly, nobody seems to care about his court appearance. Maybe it's because they know the hearing on Monday is just to help judges decide if there is enough evidence to try Ntaganda.

I am buying phone credit in Kalemie. Marie is trying to get me to buy more than I need, she says in case I have an emergency and need to make a phone call quickly. Marie sees I am holding something I printed out on Bosco Ntaganda. When I tell her I am a journalist she looks annoyed. She blames the media for always reminding people about the problems in the DRC. "Never the good things. Always the bad," she tells me.

Marie, like many others I have met, don't even know Ntaganda is appearing in The Hague. They don't seem to care. Their main concern is making enough money to feed their families. "All we want to know is if that court in Europe finds him guilty or not guilty," she explains, "he is probably being looked after very well but poor Congolese are struggling." Like I said before, Katanga province is very far away from the East. People here have their own rebels to live with.

Aid workers say attacks on civilians by armed groups, collectively known as Mayi Mayi Kata Katanga, are getting worse. More than 400,000 people have been displaced - a number the United Nations warns is going to increase. Armed groups in this province want to govern themselves. They say Katanga has been neglected by the Congolese government. Since independence from colonial rule in 1960, the province has been plagued by secessionist violence.

The Mayi Mayi are one of several armed groups in the DRC who say they want to share out Congo's wealth to the poor. But history has shown when rebel groups get into power, corruption just carries on, sometimes getting worse.

I was in Bukavu in the east when another Congolese rebel leader, Thomas Lubanga, became the only person convicted by the ICC in 2012. Again, the mood from villagers there was subdued. They didn't celebrate the guilty verdict. Even those who supported Lubanga because they believed he was fighting for their cause, just went about their business. The only person who showed any emotion was his sister. She was visibly upset about the verdict. An old man later told me whatever happens at the ICC means nothing to people who constantly live with the violence. The feeling seems to be 'when one rebel has gone, there is always someone to take his place'.

It could be a long while before we know whether Ntaganda will be found guilty for the crimes he is alleged to have committed. While the wheels of justice roll along at the Hague, people in the east, the Kivus and the forgotten Katanga province will continue to endure the wrath of rebel movements.

Walking through Kizabi village a few days ago in Katanga was an eye-opening experience. It lies in an area locals call the "triangle of death" - a place where there is constantly rape, violence, abduction of children and pillaging.  The place was deserted, except for an old man who had come back to see if he can salvage any of his property. I will never forget what he said when I asked him what he is going to do now that he has lost everything.

"I grew up with with this violence. It happens all the time. It will probably happen tomorrow. You will go back to your country. I will stay here. One day I will be too old tired to run." I can't help feel a bit guilty knowing there is nothing I can do in that moment to help him.

There were a few Congolese soldiers in the village, but not enough to convince people it is safe to return.  The UN has been in the DRC for years but they don't have enough troops to properly patrol and protect every single volatile part of the DRC. Bosco Ntaganda is just one of several rebel leaders. The reality is even if he is found guilty and is locked way for the rest of his life, chances are someone will carry on from where he left. 

Villagers want to know: what is the international community doing about that?