THE HAGUE, May 1 – A Central African war crimes victim Tuesday described how she was raped by soldiers after her village was overrun by forces believed connected to Congolese ex-vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Bemba, 49, is on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he faces three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for atrocities committed by members of his private army in the neighbouring Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003.
“He grabbed my pants and undressed me,” the 30-year-old woman told Tuesday’s hearing, “before two of them began to rape me.”
Some soldiers were “jubilant” while watching the scene, while others fired shots into the air, said the woman, speaking in Sango through an interpreter.
Testifying for the first time on behalf of victims, the woman also told how soldiers crossed the Ubangi river, the border between the CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in late 2002.
The soldiers, she said, arrived in the village of Mongoumba south of the capital Bangui “with orders to shoot everyone, sparing nobody,” the witness said, the first of some 2,287 victims authorised by the ICC to take part in Bemba’s trial.
His troops are accused of widespread and systematic attacks against CAR civilians when he sent in his forces in late 2002 to help put down a coup against then CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse.
During the trial, the court has heard accounts of brutal rapes of girls as young as eight or nine by Bemba’s MLC militias.
Bemba has pleaded not guilty to the charges, with his lawyers saying his forces in the CAR were under Patasse’s command when the atrocities were committed.
Prosecutors closed their case on March 21, with victims now testifying before Bemba’s defence will get their chance.
The former rebel leader-turned-politician said he deployed his troops when Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by the former armed forces chief Francois Bozize, who eventually seized power in 2003.
Bemba unsuccessfully challenged current DR Congo President Joseph Kabila in polls in 2006 and went into exile after his private militia was routed by government forces in 2007. He was arrested in Brussels in 2008.