Page last updated at 23:56 GMT, Sunday, 25 January 2009

Congo trial starts road to justice

Former child soldier
More than 30,000 children were taken as soldiers during the war

By Karen Allen
BBC East Africa correspondent

Amid the tall grass where boys are playing football, the remains of destroyed brick houses still stand.

These are the relics of a local five-year civil war in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that saw some 60,000 people lose their lives.

It was us that chose to fight along side him. We did so willingly, we were scared of him so we joined him

We are in the outskirts of Bunia, in Ituri district, and the hunting ground of former warlord Thomas Lubanga, the first person to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC).

The boys playing football were all child combatants, operating under Mr Lubanga's command.

As head of the UPC - a militia made up of the Hema ethnic group - his ragtag army fought ethnic battles over gold and mining rights with the "rival" Lendu community.

It was one of the bloodiest conflicts DR Congo has ever seen and more than 30,000 child soldiers were fighters during the war, taken on by all sides.

Bahati, one of the boys kicking the ball, was just 11 when he was recruited by the rebels. He was given an Uzi machine gun and taught to fight.

He rose through the ranks to become Mr Lubanga's personal bodyguard. And he earned more then than he does now.

It has kept him loyal.

"It wasn't all bad. I could get money from vehicle checkpoints and free food, and I could get as many girls as I wanted," he smiled.

"But on the battlefield I saw friends die. I still have nightmares."

Like many other ex-combatants, Bahati has mixed views about whether his former master should stand trial.

Five years on from when he was forced to fight, his priority is getting a job and something to eat.

"He was very good to his militia, very disciplined," Bahati says of Thomas Lubanga.

"But it was us that chose to fight alongside him. We did so willingly, we were scared of him so we joined him."

Signal sent

It is a logic that is a strong currency here, where survival often overshadows issues of justice.

Gold miners in Mongbwalu, Congo
Mongbwalu's gold mines have attracted numerous armed groups

Yet in a country cursed by its mineral wealth, human rights groups warn that impunity will continue unless those who committed war crimes are held to account.

That is why the proceedings of the ICC trial are being carried on national TV and relayed to people across Ituri, and why radio stations will be devoting their day's coverage to the event.

There are huge banners right across Bunia advertising the trial.

But in the town of Mongbwalu, a key battleground for Mr Lubanga's men, they will be digging for gold instead.

The place is packed with gold mines - men armed with buckets and shovels dig in search of wealth. But unlike in wartime, when slave labour was rife, now they keep what they find.

Few had any idea the former warlord was standing trial. Many seem not to care.

But there is a strong sense that the ICC is only seeing one side of the coin. Certainly that is the view in the village of Saio, another flashpoint during the war.

Many are angry here that DR Congo's neighbours are not in the dock.

Bakamba, one of the residents, feels Mr Lubanga should face up to his alleged crimes.

"But what about Uganda and Rwanda, which at different times backed Congo's various rebel groups, in exchange for a share of the wealth? No-one seems to be going after them," he says.

So long as government rewards warlords and doesn't punish them then impunity will continue
Anneke Van Woudenberg Human Rights Watch

The ICC may face enormous constraints, but Anneke Van Woudenberg from Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Lubanga trial is crucial.

She backs the views of children's charities who warn that the trial could have far-reaching implications for the use of child soldiers worldwide.

"The work of the ICC is important because it sends the signal that this is coming to an end.

"It will only try a handful of cases - it's up to the Congolese justice system to try the rest - but it's a start."

But she admits a lack of political will has hampered the judicial process.

"So long as government rewards warlords and doesn't punish them then impunity will continue."

Sipping coffee

That point strikes a chord with many people in eastern DR Congo.

General Bosco Ntaganda in Rutshuru, DR Congo
Bosco Ntaganda may have bought himself time by switching sides

Not least because another former warlord, indicted by the ICC, has reinvented himself as a peacemaker and is still at large.

Despite arrest warrants being issued, he is sipping coffee at a hotel in the city of Goma. It is an extraordinary state of affairs.

Bosco Ntaganda has been charged by the ICC with war crimes.

He worked under Mr Lubanga - the man who is in the dock at the ICC - in Ituri.

Now, he has switched sides and become the chief of staff of the Tutsi CNDP rebel group, active in a separate conflict further south which is still continuing.

By agreeing in recent weeks to lend his troops to a huge military operation to bring peace to the troubled region, he seems to have bought himself more time.

It is hard to dismiss the notion of a political deal.

Peace will always come first, confessed a senior figure in the Congolese administration.

That is why bringing alleged war criminals to trial, will demand time and political commitment.

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