(Goma) – Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who mutinied against the Democratic Republic of Congo in early April 2012, has forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men into his forces since April 19, Human Rights Watch said today. Ntaganda, a former rebel leader turned army general, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes for previous recruitment and use of child soldiers.
“Bosco Ntaganda is once again committing the very crimes against children for which the International Criminal Court has been demanding his arrest,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Children and civilians in eastern Congo will remain at grave risk so long as Ntaganda is at large.”
On May 14, the ICC prosecutor officially filed a request for a new arrest warrant against Ntaganda on additional charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for murder, persecution based on ethnic grounds, rape, sexual slavery, and pillaging in connection with his activities in Ituri in 2002-2003.
Ntaganda’s troops – an estimated 300 to 600 soldiers who followed him in his mutiny – forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men around Kilolirwe, Kingi, Kabati, and other locations on the road to Kitchanga, in Masisi, North Kivu province, between April 19 and May 4, Human Rights Watch found in interviews with witnesses and victims. At least seven boys died in the fighting. Those forcibly recruited were between 12 and 20 years old and were largely from the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. At least 48 were children under age 18, of whom 17 were under age 15. Due to the patterns of recruitment documented, Human Rights Watch believes that the actual level of recruitment during this period may have been significantly higher.
Any recruitment by armed groups of children under the age of 18 is prohibited by an international treaty ratified by Congo. The ICC treaty makes the recruitment of children under 15 a war crime.
Forced Recruitment of Children
Ntaganda, a powerful general in the Congolese army, led a munity following government attempts to weaken his control and increased calls for his arrest for alleged war crimes. He called on other forces to join the mutiny at strategic military positions in Masisi territory. A few hundred soldiers responded. Ntaganda’s forces took control over Kitchanga, Kilolirwe, Mushaki, Rubaya, Kingi, and surrounding areas in Masisi territory in eastern Congo.
In mid-April, Ntaganda and fighters under his command told those living in towns and villages under their control that children and young men were needed for their forces. One woman from Birambizo told Human Rights Watch that Ntaganda personally came to her village and said, “Since you [villagers] have been with the government, you’ve gotten nothing. Why not join me?” The woman said: “[Ntaganda] asked us to give our children, our students, to him to fight. He came to our village himself, like [detained rebel leader Laurent] Nkunda used to do. But we refused and said our children should go to school.”
In the days that followed, Ntaganda’s fighters took children by force at school, from their homes, farms, or from the roadside as they tried to flee on foot or on motorbike taxis. A number of those forcibly recruited were given quick military training, but the majority were immediately forced to porter weapons and ammunition to frontline positions. Many were put in military uniforms or partial uniforms.
Near Kingi, Masisi territory, on April 19, Ntaganda’s forces rounded up at least 32 male students at Mapendano secondary school. A 17-year-old student told Human Rights Watch:
There were so many of them. They came at 1:30 p.m. We were almost done with the school day. [The fighters] asked us to exit the room and then they took us behind the school building. They tied my hands with a rope. All of us were tied up. Then they marched us to the hill…. They told us we would fight for Bosco [Ntaganda]…. They informed us that we would liberate our country by giving our support to Bosco Ntaganda. We must support him so that our Congo would not be taken by others.
At the military camp, the boys and young men were inducted into Ntaganda’s forces and taught some basic military tactics, including how to hide and take cover.
In another incident on April 29, soldiers who had joined Ntaganda’s mutiny forced 22 Tutsi boys off motorbikes at a makeshift roadblock near Kilolirwe as they attempted to flee. One motorcycle taxi driver, who witnessed the incident and whose two passengers were taken, told Human Rights Watch the fighters took the 22 boys to the side of the road, viciously beat them, took their ID cards, noted down their names and ages, and then took them away. The fighters accused the boys of fleeing rather than protecting their community. They permitted other passengers who were not boys or young men to pass.
The recruitment by Ntaganda’s forces was so intense that many boys and young men fled from Congo to neighboring Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said. A confidential United Nations report noted that among the refugees who arrived by May 1 at Nkamira Transit Centre, near the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, a “significant number [were] young single males (between the ages of 16 to 25)” who told officials that “fear of recruitment into militia groups [was] their predominant reason for flight.”
Many of the children and young men forcibly recruited were beaten if they resisted, complained, or walked too slowly. Ntaganda’s fighters also made death threats to boys to deter them from fleeing. A 16-year-old boy taken near Kabati in late April to a nearby Ntaganda military position told Human Rights Watch that at night, Ntaganda’s fighters “put grenades on us and told us that if we moved, they would explode.”
Between April 25 and May 4, Ntaganda’s fighters clashed with the Congolese army near Mushaki, Muhongozi, and in the area north of Sake.
Some children told Human Rights Watch that Ntaganda’s fighters forced them to walk in front carrying weapons and ammunition to the frontline, so that the children would be the first to be ambushed or shot at. According to witnesses and those who later buried the bodies, at least seven boys died near the mobile-phone tower on the hill overlooking Mushaki town, where Ntaganda’s fighters had established a military position.
One 14-year-old boy was forced to transport the body of another boy who had been fatally shot in the chest during fighting in Mushaki. He said, “We saw one of us in military uniform who had been killed. We were so scared.” Both boys had been recruited at the same time, but had been immediately taken to different locations.
Around May 5, under military pressure from the Congolese army, Ntaganda’s fighters were forced to retreat east from Masisi territory into Virunga National Park, a large forested area that is home to Congo’s mountain gorillas. The soldiers forced a number of boys to go with them, carrying weapons, ammunition, and other supplies.
One 16-year-old boy, forcibly taken on May 4 from the village of Nturo along with his 13-year-old brother, was forced to carry a heavy box of ammunition through the rough terrain of the park.
“I was with a group of four others and we were all my age or younger,” he told Human Rights Watch after he managed to escape. “We were so tired and hungry and we wanted to stop, but the soldiers wouldn’t let us. They gave us nothing to eat or drink. They beat us whenever we stopped walking. I know others in the group ahead and behind me were also suffering, because I could hear them crying.”
ICC Arrest Warrant
Ntaganda has been sought on an ICC arrest warrant since August 2006 on charges of war crimes for recruiting and using child soldiers in active combat in 2002 and 2003 in the northeastern district of Ituri, when he commanded another armed group. In March, the ICC in its first case found Ntaganda’s co-accused, Thomas Lubanga, guilty of the war crime of recruiting and using child soldiers.
Despite the ICC warrant, the Congolese government integrated Ntaganda into its army and in 2009 promoted him to the rank of general. Until his mutiny, Ntaganda moved about freely in eastern Congo, playing tennis and dining at top restaurants in Goma in full view of Congolese government officials, UN peacekeepers, and foreign diplomats. No efforts were made to arrest him, although he continued to commit human rights abuses, many of which were documented by Human Rights Watch, including targeted killings, rape, torture, and recruitment of child soldiers.
Following Ntaganda’s mutiny, President Joseph Kabila suggested on April 11, during a public speech in Goma, that the Congolese government was considering arresting Ntaganda. In the weeks that followed, senior Congolese military and government authorities told Human Rights Watch that Kabila had issued an instruction for Ntaganda’s arrest. The order for his arrest signified an important change in the Congolese government’s policy toward Ntaganda, whom the government had previously insisted was needed for the country’s peace process.
The Congolese government has suggested that if Ntaganda is arrested, he could stand trial in Congo. The government referred the situation in Congo to the ICC in 2004, however. As a state party to the ICC treaty, Congo is legally obligated to cooperate with the court and follow its procedures, including enforcing the ICC arrest warrant for Ntaganda.
Should the Congolese government want to prosecute Ntaganda in Congo, it would need to file a legal submission to the ICC judges challenging the admissibility of the case and demonstrating that the Congolese justice system is genuinely willing and able to prosecute Ntaganda in fair and credible proceedings for the same crimes. The final decision about whether a national trial in Congo could supersede its own proceedings would rest with the ICC judges.
Ntaganda is currently believed to be in Virunga National Park with a small group of fighters, according to Congolese army and UN officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Some officials believe he may attempt to seek refuge in Rwanda or Uganda. Rwandan military officials played a crucial role in placing Ntaganda at the head of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebel group in January 2009, and pushed for his integration in the Congolese army. Since the mutiny began, Rwandan officials have told diplomats that they will not permit Ntaganda to enter Rwanda.
“The Rwandan government should use its influence to support the Congolese government’s efforts to arrest Ntaganda and others responsible for serious abuses, and not harbor them or help them go elsewhere,” Van Woudenberg said. “Both the Congolese and Rwandan governments have much to gain by ending Ntaganda’s abuses, restoring the rule of law, and ensuring that justice is done for the victims.”
A Second Mutiny
Many of the soldiers who mutinied with Ntaganda have either returned to the Congolese army or are suspected to have joined Col. Sultani Makenga, another Congolese army officer who launched a separate mutiny on May 3. A Makenga spokesman said in a press release and subsequent media interviews that Makenga was not with Ntaganda and that his mutiny was to highlight the grievances of the Tutsi community and conditions in the Congolese army. Ntaganda and Makenga previously worked together in the Rwanda-backed CNDP rebel group.
The Congolese government is fighting Makenga’s forces – known as M23 in reference to the March 23, 2009 peace agreement between the CNDP and the Congolese government – near Runyoni and Djomba in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu.
The Rwandan government has urged the Congolese government to negotiate with Makenga’s forces to avert a humanitarian crisis. Some CNDP officials and Rwandan authorities claim that attacks on Tutsi civilians by the Congolese army are the reason why Tutsi are fleeing Congo to Rwanda.
The UN estimates that 45,000 people were displaced by the fighting in Masisi, Rutshuru, and Nyiragongo territories since early April, including some 8,000 refugees who crossed the border to Rwanda. Many of those internally displaced in Congo have begun to return to their home areas.
Human Rights Watch conducted research in Masisi between April 25 and May 15, and visited Nkamira Transit Centre in Rwanda on May 11 to interview Congolese Tutsi refugees about alleged attacks. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm recent attacks targeting Tutsi by Congolese army soldiers in Masisi territory, though fear about possible attacks may be contributing to their flight.
In some locations, such as Kivuye and Bibwe villages in Masisi territory, where a number of Tutsi lived, armed groups with alliances to the predominantly Rwandan Hutu militia, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), have taken control of the area following the departure of Ntaganda’s forces. The arrival of groups linked to the FDLR in these areas is likely to have contributed to the flight of Tutsi civilians who fear retaliatory attacks, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 14, the ICC prosecutor announced he was also seeking an arrest warrant for Sylvestre Mudacumura, the commander of the FDLR, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in 2009 and 2010 in North and South Kivu provinces, including murder, rape, torture, and inhumane acts. Two political leaders of the FDLR, Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni are currently on trial before a local court in Germany, where they have both resided for several years. The two men stand accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their alleged role in attacks committed by FDLR troops in the Kivus.
Efforts to Minimize Civilian Casualties
During military operations against Ntaganda’s fighters in Masisi in April and May, Congolese army soldiers appear to have significantly improved their adherence to international humanitarian law, taking efforts to minimize civilian casualties on at least several occasions, Human Rights Watch said. When the army took control of Kitchanga from Ntaganda’s fighters, a town with a sizable Tutsi community, Congolese army officers called a meeting with community representatives to calm their fears and assure the population that the army would protect all communities and not side with any ethnic group.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, has also made efforts to protect civilians during the recent clashes, including establishing safe zones, conducting regular patrols, sending protection assessment teams, and urging military operations to take place away from population centers. The UN says it has not yet been requested to assist in Ntaganda’s arrest by Congolese authorities.
“The Congolese government should end the destructive cycle of promoting serious rights abusers and arrest them instead,” Van Woudenberg said. “Now is the time to arrest Ntaganda and UN peacekeepers should do all they can to support the Congolese government’s efforts to do so.”