A horrific world where children are used as cannon fodder, human shields and sex slaves in Africa’swars was brought to life in The Hague yesterday on the first day of a historic trial at theInternational Criminal Court (ICC).
The case against the warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo will focus on his alleged conscription, training and exploitation of thousands of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC).
Human rights groups have hailed the proceedings as the first international criminal hearing to focus on the issue of child soldiers and to give 90 of them a voice for the first time.
“This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level,”
said Param-Preet Singh, counsel involved in Human Rights Watch’s international justice programme.
The trial opening marked the birth ofapermanent ICC, which will replace the ad hoc tribunals used to deal with genocide in Rwanda and war crimes in former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone.
Mr Lubanga, the former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots militia in the Ituri district of north-eastern Congo, is charged with using children aged under 15 in combat between September 2002 and August 2003. The case is expected to last for months.
The chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno- Ocampo, told the three-judge panel: “Lubanga’s militia recruited, trained andusedhundredsofyoung children to kill, pillage and rape. The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did.”
The court was shown footage of Mr Lubanga at a training camp for young men and children, some of whom were dressed in military fatigues, and of a pick-up of armed bodyguards, including at least two who seemed to be children, following his vehicle.
Carla Ferstman, from the rights group Redress, which works with victims, said theDRC had one of the worst records in Africa for using child soldiers.
“They made up as much as half of the ranks of rebel armies, they were used and abused, put out in front ahead of adults as human shields,” she said.
The boys and girls had suffered terrible initiations and had been used as sex slaves and porters and made to kill.
“For the ICC to start with child soldiers as the focus sends an important message,” she said. Mr Lubanga was expressionless in the court as his lawyer said he denied the charges.
The United Nations estimates that up to 250,000 child soldiers are being used in world conflicts.
The trial, which was meant to start last June, will test the credibility of the ICC. Given a permanent home in The Hague, it has already made a number of controversial decisions, including the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, which analysts fear will makematters worse in Darfur.
Thecourt has been criticised for only indicting Africans or those involved in African conflicts. Countries including the US and Israel have said they will resist efforts to indict their citizens.
The trial starts amid renewed calls for the arrest of another ICC indictee, Bosco Ntaganda, the self-proclaimed leader of the CNDP Tutsi rebels who was an associate of Mr Lubanga.
Eyewitness accounts: Children’s evidence
CHILD A: I was in school when I was taken in March 2002 by rebels. I was 13. They took me to a training camp where I stayed for two months. Our commander ordered us to kidnap women. I participated in a number of battles. I was injured with a gunshot wound to my leg. I am very behind in my schooling but I am trying to catch up.
CHILD B: I was taken by rebels when I was 13. I lost about four years of schooling. They taught us how to use guns.
They also taught us how to rape, steal, kill. I used an AK47 and fought in a number of battles. When I returned to my village people were afraid of us and rejected us.
CHILD C: I was going to the market when the rebels kidnapped me. Sometimes they made us get water, sometimes they made us steal to get food. During one battle I was able to escape with friends.
When I came back home, I was very violent. I missed out a lot on school.
CHILD D: I was treated like an animal. I was forced to carry arms and to steal. I often think back and I see monsters in my dreams. When I left the rebels I went back home, but my family wasn’t there. I still don’t know where my father is. I now suffer from insomnia.
Extracts from conversations with child soldiers in the Eastern DRC, from the Redress NGO
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