Congolese refugees in Oruchinga camp, southwestern Uganda, have welcomed the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) guilty verdict against former Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rebel leader Thomas Lubanga. Some of the refugees are survivors of attacks by Lubanga’s forces.
On 14 March, Lubanga was convicted of the war crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to take part in hostilities.
“All things Lubanga did were bad. He took away the riches of the Congolese people by force. I am happy he has been found guilty for his atrocities and crimes,” said Mark Bolikango, 18, who fled to Uganda from Goma in eastern DRC. “What I don’t know is whether my mother and sister have HIV/AIDS; [Lubanga’s] soldiers raped them in front of me.”
Francis Tumba Pandemoya who fled Bunia, the main town in the northeastern region of Ituri where Lubanga’s forces were active, said: “It’s a wonderful decision by the ICC. Lubanga recruited Congolese children to become soldiers and ordered them to commit several atrocities and war crimes… Lubanga was a killer. His militia killed the Congolese and raped women. I want him to be jailed for 25 years. Others will learn from it.”
According to Peter Iyolo, formerly from Bunia’s Wacha area, too many Congolese are in Uganda as refugees because of Lubanga’s atrocities. “We fled our country because of war,” he said.
As of 1 February, some 89,949 Congolese refugees were living in Uganda, according to the UN Refugee Agency. But the number is steadily rising with dozens of refugees arriving in Uganda every day from parts of eastern DRC.
Some refugees said they were optimistic Lubanga’s conviction will deter other militia leaders and are calling on the ICC to cast its net wider. “It’s a warning to the remaining criminals who are still continuing to recruit children and killing our people. If you are a criminal, one day you will be arrested, prosecuted and convicted,” said Salome Keza, a refugee.
A nursing mother at the refugee camp said: “I am tired of people laughing at us as refugees. I believe after Lubanga’s conviction, the guns will go silent. We need to return; it’s not easy to live as a refugee.”
“Was he [Lubanga] the only one who committed atrocities in Congo? All perpetrators of violence and atrocities in Congo must be arrested and held accountable. Massacres and mayhem are still continuing,” said Furaha Kavira, who hails from North Kivu.
Joseph Akonkwa, who fled his village near Bukavu in South Kivu Province, was more skeptical. “Laurent Nkunda [a former leader of another DRC rebel group, now thought to be under house arrest in Rwanda] committed serious atrocities in Congo. He killed, and looted minerals. Why hasn’t he been taken to the ICC? Is it because Lubanga killed UN troops?” he asked, referring to his alleged role in the 2005 killing of nine Bangladeshi blue helmets in Ituri.
“Recruiting children into the army by Lubanga versus killing and the looting of our resources that Nkunda did - which one is good?” he asked.
Nkunda was arrested on 22 January 2009 as he tried to escape a joint Congolese-Rwandan military offensive. He claimed to be protecting minority Tutsis in the east from the Forces démocratique pour la libération de Rwanda (FDLR), which included the Hutu militia blamed for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Lubanga’s trial was the first to be decided by the ICC; refugees and analysts are calling for more arrests and convictions.