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Warlord trial gives victims hope

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Women tell Mike Thomson how troops attacked them

By Mike Thomson
BBC News, Central African Republic

Marie trembles as she tells me about the day when Jean-Pierre Bemba's Congolese troops came to her town.

"We heard gun-shots as they went from house to house," she says in Bossangoa in the Central African Republic.

She struggles to contain her emotions as she recounts how she and her husband cowered next to their children as the awful sounds outside their home drew closer.

"Soldiers burst through our door," she says.

"They told my husband to lie down and then they shot him right there in front of us all. I fell onto the body of my husband.

"Then six of them grabbed me and held me down. I was raped where I lay on his corpse."

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She adds, gesturing at a lengthy scar that runs across her face: "One man tried to cut my throat but I was struggling so much that he slashed my mouth instead all the way up to my ear."

It is horrific testimony like this and that of other victims in the Central African Republic which have led the former Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba to a prison cell in the Netherlands.

There he awaits trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes - charges he denies.

Mr Bemba was chairman of an armed group called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he once served as a vice-president.

In 2002, the then president of the Central African Republic, Ange Felix Patasse, invited Mr Bemba and his troops into the country to put down a rebellion against his rule.

Death threats

I met Marie in Bossangoa, one of many Central African Republic towns and villages where Mr Bemba's forces are said to have conducted a horrific campaign of murder, rape and torture against civilians.

Children in Bossangoa
Bossangoa has not recovered from years of fighting
In the grounds of Bossangoa's hospital she and more than 20 members of a local support group - both women and men - gathered to tell me how they had been raped by Mr Bemba's troops. All say they are now HIV-positive.

Some waited quietly for hours to speak to me. They thanked me for giving them the opportunity to tell their story.

One woman told me she had fought back against her attackers but was overpowered by five men who each raped her in turn.

"They were really violent and I began to bleed really badly," she told me.

"After they had gone I waited until the fighting stopped and then made my way to the nearest hospital. The doctors there operated on me.

"When I came round they said my womb was so badly damaged that they'd had to surgically remove it."

"Monique" CAR rape victim
We can just talk, this can free us and I think there is nothing as good as to feel free
"Monique"

Another woman, who I will call "Monique", said that she and her 15-year-old daughter had fled into the bush when Mr Bemba's troops arrived.

But they were caught when hunger drove them to return home in search of food.

"They took us to their base and they started raping us," she said. "One of them went with my daughter and afterwards he slaughtered her. They left me alone then and I ran back to the bush."

Some of those who have given statements to ICC researchers have received death threats. But Monique says she is determined to speak out.

"We decided to talk to reveal what happened to us so we don't have to hide ourselves again," she said.

"We can just talk, this can free us and I think there is nothing as good as to feel free."

Legal dilemma

Mr Bemba's arrest is widely regarded as a landmark prosecution in a part of Africa where the perpetrators of major human rights abuses have seldom been held to account.

Jean-Pierre Bemba (file image)
Jean-Pierre Bemba denies committing crimes against humanity
It is a development which may give some of the region's warlords and military strong men pause for thought.

But Mr Bemba was only detained after he had travelled to Europe. He was picked up in Belgium when the ICC issued a secret warrant for his arrest.

Many of the people I spoke to in Bossangoa would like to see others in the dock alongside Mr Bemba. Among those mentioned is former President Ange-Felix Patasse who brought Bemba's forces in to prop up his regime.

This faces the ICC with a dilemma. Mr Patasse is one of several senior figures involved in the fragile peace process to end the civil war in the Central African Republic, who have been accused of serious human rights abuses in recent years.

The group includes individuals within the current government and several rebel groups. Would further arrests - even if they are possible - upset hopes for peace?

If the government doesn't do more to stop the violence here, I dread to think what will become of this country
Mathias Morouba

At present the ICC will not say if further investigations are contemplated.

Among those who are demanding further action is local human rights lawyer Mathias Morouba who has been assisting the ICC to compile evidence of crimes carried out by Mr Bemba's soldiers.

In addition to numerous rapes and murders in Bossangoa, he says he has identified around 4,000 more cases across the country. And he believes the outcome of the Bemba prosecution will have major implications - whichever way it goes.

"Many here witnessed the numerous and terrible atrocities that Bemba's men committed," he says.

"Since that time others have followed their example and murdered people too. But if Bemba is convicted in court many of these people will become afraid. They'll know that they could be next if they continue killing and raping.

"But if this doesn't happen and the government doesn't do more to stop the violence here, I dread to think what will become of this country."

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Country profile: Central African Republic
04 Jun 08 |  Country profiles

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