Bringing the Terminator to justice is only the start of creating peace in Congo
For many Congolese September brings bad memories. It was in September 16 years ago that RCD-ML – a rebel group for Uganda’s illegal occupation and exploitation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s gold, coltan and diamonds – was launched in Kampala.
In September a year later, (ICC) in The Hague, created the notorious UPC militia that devastated the Ituri region of the DRC; and again, in the same month in 2002, an estimated 3,000 civilians were massacred in Ituri’s hospital town of Nyankunde – the single largest massacre of the .
So when the ICC prosecutor last week began reading the 18 counts of war crimes and against the Congolese people from September 2002 to September 2003, my heart cried.
Ituri is a small province in north-east Congo with rich deposits of gold, diamonds, coltan, timber and oil. During the second Congo war, from 1998 to 2003, it became known as the bloodiest corner of the country. Rival political and military leaders in DRC, Uganda and Rwanda – vying for control of Congo’s highly valuable natural resources – had armed and trained rival ethnic groups in Ituri to ensure their access to the minerals, unleashing a spiralling conflict that engulfed their civilians. It was a genocidal slaughter in slow motion.
The world eventually responded and an EU and UN intervention stabilised Bunia, Ituri’s provincial capital. As a result, three of the leading war criminals – Thomas Lubanga, Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga –found themselves in the dock at the ICC. Kigali and Kampala withdrew their armies from Congo – marking the end to what journalists had termed the first African war.
But the peace did not last – and Ntaganda, alongside his friends and supporters in Kinshasa, Kampala and Kigali, bears the greatest responsibility for this. Born in neighbouring Rwanda in 1973, Ntaganda had his first taste of fighting in Uganda, where he joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front and fought alongside Paul Kagame to overthrow the genocidal regime in Rwanda in 1994. It was in Ituri, though, where he co-led Thomas Lubanga’s UPC militias from 2002 to 2005, that he made his name.
Ntaganda, known to locals as the Terminator, was ruthless: massacre, summary execution, rape, sexual slavery, the use of child soldiers and mass displacement were the hallmarks of his brutality. His victims ranged from anyone of Lendu, Bira, Nande or Ngiti ethnicity to children from his own militia group.
By 2008, more than 5.4 million Congolese of a pre-war population of 50 million had already been killed. Ntaganda was co–leading another newly established, Kigali-backed militia group, known by its French acronym CNDP – and leaving a trail of blood across North Kivu in eastern Congo. In Kiwanja, 55 miles north of Goma, North Kivu’s provincial capital, he slaughtered 150 civilians outside a UN peacekeeping compound.
Though I and others were campaigning to have him brought to The Hague, Ntaganda and his supporters were growing more powerful. He was so certain of his impunity that he lived and moved about openly in Goma – selling and smuggling conflict minerals, and playing tennis and eating in restaurants within sight of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission.
His crucial mistake came in April 2012, a few weeks after the ICC sentenced Lubanga to 14 years’ imprisonment, when he formed a new militia, the M23, and began committing new atrocities in eastern Congo.
In one brutal attack, in the village of Chengerero, his troops gang-raped a 32-year-old woman then set her on fire; at least 46 women and girls were raped in other attacks, and 33 young men and boys who tried to escape his rebel group were summarily executed.
This time, the international response was formidable. Within a month, a second international arrest warrant against Ntaganda had been issued. Britain, Germany and other nations suspended aid money to Kigali over its support to the M23 and the UN security council approved the creation of the first overtly offensive force to neutralise M23 and other foreign militia groups tyrannising Congo. And by March 2013 .
The 18 counts he is facing at The Hague are merely a snapshot of his many alleged crimes across Congo. But it’s a good starting point, a victory for his victims and rights groups.
But for me, as a Congolese man, the question that remains unanswered is: what about Ntaganda’s patrons and Lubanga’s supporters in Rwanda and Uganda? A permanent peace between Congo and its neighbours is unlikely until those who aided and abetted these two butchers’ crimes are held accountable.