Witnesses Speak of MLC Plunder
Two witnesses last week claimed that soldiers from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, plundered and destroyed property belonging to civilians during a looting spree in the Central African Republic, CAR.
The women, who both testified with face and voice distortion and were named only as witnesses 81 and 82, told the International Criminal Court, ICC, that the soldiers belonged to the group founded by Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
They said that the soldiers grabbed all property that they could from homes in PK12, a suburb of the CAR capital Bangui, before loading it on to boats and transporting it back to the DRC on the Oubangui river.
“They destroyed everything in the house,” witness 82 said. “My grandfather intervened to stop them from breaking everything. They just pointed their weapons at him and started to gather all the things in the house and take them out."
She said that her grandfather was beaten with the butts of rifles when he protested at the raid.
“My brother, who tried to stop them from taking the ducks, was beaten to death,” she added.
She said that the soldiers destroyed household items which were too heavy for them to carry away, such as the refrigerator and television set.
According to her, the Congolese soldiers in her neighbourhood moved along with push-carts which they loaded with looted property and transported to their camps.
Witness 81 also told the court how MLC soldiers had looted her home. She said that they took a mattress and two suitcases, one belonging to her child and the other to her husband. She added that the soldiers also grabbed television sets and other property from the home of her grandfather.
“[MLC troops] were supposed to come and help us, but unfortunately when they arrived they started committing acts of violence against the population,” she said.
She told the courtroom that her family could do nothing to prevent the theft, since the troops were armed.
“So as not to put our lives in danger, we had to let them do whatever they wanted to,” she said.
At the opening of the trial last November, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated, “Bemba's troops stole from the poor people of one of the poorest countries in the world.”
The prosecutor also said looted goods were stored in MLC bases, including in the residence of MLC commanders, and that “together with their commanders, MLC soldiers organised the transportation of these pillaged items into the DRC”.
As well as having their identities protected, both witnesses were monitored by a psychologist sitting in the court, while an official of the court's Victims and Witnesses Unit, VWU, sat beside each of them to offer assistance.
Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said these measures were recommended after a psychological assessment of the witnesses. She also told the lawyers that their questions should be short and non-confrontational, due to the vulnerability of the witnesses and their low levels of literacy.
The witnesses also claimed that they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of MLC soldiers.
Witness 82 said she was raped by the soldiers in 2002, when she was just 12 years old. She added that the soldiers also raped her sisters and her grandmother, who was pregnant at the time of the attack and lost her baby shortly after birth.
Witness 81 said that four MLC soldiers gang-raped her one week after she gave birth, and dug defensive trenches in front of her house, where they stayed day and night. They then obliged her to prepare their meals on a daily basis.
The ingredients of the meal were provided by the soldiers but the witness did not know where the soldiers got them from. She said she prepared meals for the soldiers for two weeks before they moved from her home.
"But the soldiers [in the trenches] never entered your house, did they?" asked Bemba's lawyer Peter Haynes.
“No, they didn't enter the houses. They had everything with them outside and we did various sorts of work for them,” the witness replied.
Haynes then asked, “If anybody thought you were sleeping with these soldiers, they were quite wrong, weren't they?”
The witness replied that it was only on the day the soldiers arrived at her home that they raped her. "Afterwards, they no longer touched me," she said.
Eight witnesses have now called by the prosecution in the trial of Bemba, who has denied all five charges against him stemming from his alleged failure to stop or to punish his MLC troops as they committed crimes against the civilian population in CAR during 2002 and 2003.
His Congolese troops were in the country at the invitation of then president Ange-Felix Patassé, who faced an insurgency led by sacked army chief-of-staff Francois Bozizé.
The trial continues this week.
Wairagala Wakabi is an IWPR reporter.