On Monday, a victim recounted to International Criminal Court (ICC) judges how she was sexually assaulted in front of her young daughter by soldiers belonging to the group led by war crimes accused Jean-Pierre Bemba.
The first of three individuals who will this week address the trial of the former Congolese vice president, Victim a/0542/08, talked about the stigmatization she has suffered as a result of the assault. She has also suffered health complications resulting from the rape, and her husband has abandoned her.
Watching the ordeal, the victim's daughter cried.
"I told them that I was not in good shape and that I was having my period and can't have sexual intercourse," said the victim. The Congolese soldiers dismissed her pleas. "One of them spread my legs and put the barrel of the gun into my vagina."
After the assault, the soldiers walked away laughing and making fun of her. "They abused me and I wonder whether that is the way they act in their own country. To put a barrel of a gun in a woman's vagina is unacceptable," she stated.
She recalled the arrival of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) troops in her home town of Bossangoa during the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).
"They burst into the town and shot into the air," said the victim who testified in full public view but with the help of a support assistant from the court's Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) by her side. Additionally, there was a psychologist in the courtroom to monitor her.
The victim said when the Congolese soldiers arrived, the town's residents fled. However, she was unable to leave as she was tending to her ill mother. She recounted that two MLC soldiers, accompanied by a Central African youngster acting as their interpreter, raided her house. The soldiers who were dressed in military uniforms and brandished weapons, demanded for money and she handed over 200 Central African Francs. However, the soldiers were "furious" about the paltry sum and kicked her.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers fired his gun and the bullet grazed her ear. He asked, "Why are you Central Africans so poor?"
Shortly after the departure of the two soldiers, a second group arrived at her home together with a woman carrying a child.
"She, too, asked for money and threatened to shoot me if I didn't have money," said the victim. She handed over an undisclosed amount, which her husband had saved for buying cows.
This second group of soldiers broke into nearby houses belonging to her mother and brother, taking more money, foam mattresses and "many other items."
Victim a/0542/08 then carried her mother on a wheelbarrow, and together with the victim's daughter, they fled to a nearby field. It was in a hut in the field that the soldier sexually assaulted her while his colleague looked on.
She said MLC crimes in Bossangoa were widespread and did not target a particular group of people: "They attacked everyone. Young people, old people, they did not discriminate in any way."
Victim a/0542/08 addressed the court via video link from Bangui, the capital of the CAR. She was not questioned under oath and her testimony will not form part of the evidence. Victims' legal representative Marie-Edith Douzima-Lawson guided the presentation of her views to the court, and she was not questioned by the prosecution and the defense.
Mr. Bemba has denied any wrongdoing. He is charged with three war crimes and two crimes against humanity arising from his alleged failure to control his troops who ICC prosecutors allege murdered, raped, and pillaged while they were deployed in the armed conflict in the neighboring country.
Meanwhile, this afternoon, Victim a/0394/08 also presented his views and concerns to the trial. He testified via video link from Bangui. He was granted protective measures including image and voice distortion as well as the frequent use of private session. Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said the protective measures were necessary to "enable him and his family continue to live in his community without being harassed."
Victim a/0394/08 stated that Mr. Bemba's fighters occupied his house in Damara for two months. The soldiers looted all of his property and destroyed his house.
"The two months they spent in the locality was disastrous. They destroyed everything," he said.