Mixed feelings about Lubanga in Ituri
Being in Ituri district the day former warlord Thomas Lubanga was handed down his verdict was interesting. The International Criminal Court in The Hague found him guilty of conscripting child soldiers under the age of 15 to fight for Congolese rebel forces during a five-year war that killed tens of thousands of people.
He was handed over to the court in The Hague in 2006 and went on trial in 2009.
This is not a simple open and shut case – there are some who believe he is guilty and there are those who think he is being unfairly targeted.
I spent the whole day immersed in this story. I started off in what one could call a “pro-Lubanga” village. These are people from the same ethnic tribe as him - the Hema.
I met a group of former child soldiers – young men now in their early twenties. The youngest said he joined Lubanga’s forces when he was just 10 years old. I expected the boys to say how they were angry that they were forced to fight but, they did not.
They said they joined Lubanga because that was the only way they could survive. Many had lost their parents during the civil war and their other family members had run away from the fighting. So, they were alone.
“Our parents were killed during the war. Joining the soldiers meant I was protected. It was how we survived.
“You had to learn to kill or be killed. I fought to revenge the deaths of my people and take back my land.
“I may not be alive today were it not for Thomas Lubanga.”
It was surreal – children who were forced into war seemed glad that they had been – because it was the only way that they knew how to stay alive.
Not many people can say they know what these boys went through. How can one, unless they had been in their shoes?
As I listen to their stories I imagine what they must have seen and been through especially when they were fighting battles as teenagers. To them Thomas Lubanga was their hero – a sort of father when their family wasn’t there.
An hour later I arrive at another village about 50 km away. They are from the Lendu ethnic group. During the war they fought bloody battles with the Hemas.
People here have been through a lot and are suspicious when we arrive. The civil war ended a few years ago but the trauma of that time is still very real to many families here. They are suspicious and cautious with their words.
I can tell an old woman wants to talk and tell me what she went through but she seems hesitant. I ask her why and all she says is, “If I appear on television my family could be attacked because I criticised Thomas Lubanga. My husband and two of my children were killed when Lubanga’s people attacked this village – it was dreadful. I want to tell you everything I saw, but my child,” she says, “I am scared.”
She looked about 70 – a wealth of information if she would only feel brave enough to speak and tell her story.
Things are not yet well in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some parts of the relatively peaceful country are still unstable.
Local militia, and those from neighbouring countries, still attack communities here.
The guilty verdict made far away in Europe may send a message to other war lords who are still recruiting child soldiers, but until they are captured, traumatised communities say they won’t have peace of mind.