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Closing the Impunity Gap

skyligh Pictures image We walked with Hema tribal spokesman Professor Pilo Kamaragi through the killing fields of Bogoro in the Ituri region of eastern Congo, site of the massacre allegedly perpetrated by local warlord Germain 'Simba' Katanga – human skeletons were strewn throughout the tall elephant grass. Katanga was charged by the International Criminal Court with 3 counts of crimes against humanity and 6 counts of war crimes for his involvement in killings, pillaging, using child soldiers, and sexual enslavement during an attack on the town of Bogoro. From a documentary filmmaking point of view, we (our crew: Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís, Melle van Essen, Susan Meiselas, Leo Franssen, Lotsove Tryphonette and Pastor Marrion P'Udongo) had the serendipity of being in Ituri in October when Katanga, who led the FRPI militia, was taken into custody by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to The Hague, to the same prison where his arch-enemy Thomas Lubanga, leader of the Hema UPC militia, has been since last year facing charges of conscripting child soldiers, a war crime under the Rome Statute which governs the ICC. When speaking to members of each of these alleged warlords' ethnic groups, the Hema for Lubanga and the Lendu for Katanga, they often tell you that their leaders were protectors, not perpetrators. Each group claims to have battled the other in self-defense against genocidal attacks. The tragic result is that tens of thousands of members of both ethnic groups were viciously massacred, raped, dismembered, and a whole generation of youth traumatized by their forced participation in the brutality of war. Until the ICC took Katanga, Lubanga's Hema people complained that the ICC was being unjust in singling out their leader, but it turns out that he was just the first of several warlords the ICC has in its sights.

skyligh Pictures image skyligh Pictures imageNow that Katanga is in custody as well, leaders of both groups are claiming that it's their Ituri region that's been targeted, so the conversation has shifted to a national perspective on justice. But they seem resigned to let justice take its course with Lubanga and Katanga, and are actually calling for the ICC to arrest "bigger fish" in Congo's capital Kinshasa, and to intervene in the Lake Kivu region where so much unspeakable violence is raging.

Even though in recent years there has been less fighting in Ituri and its provincial capital Bunia, the region still bears deep scars of war: buildings in collapse, weapons plentiful, and a people living with a legacy of horror – we saw photos of heads on spikes, rows of heads and severed arms held aloft, displayed as trophies of war by smiling victors, taken as recently as 2003. Yet another replay of humankind's capacity for unbounded cruelty. Our hotel in Bunia had a "No Weapons" sign on the gate, and army deserters were assaulting travelers daily a few miles out of town.

skyligh Pictures image We were also accompanied in our visit to Bogoro by one of its former residents, Professor Jean Vianney Tibasima Sahie , who took us to the ruins of the home he had to abandon when his family fled Katanga's FRPI militia attack. The lush verdant growth of the high central African plateau had engulfed the property, and after pushing our way through shoulder-high grass for a hundred yards we came upon the remains of stately stone arches and hardwood balustrades, ringing an elegant semi-circle veranda overlooking Lake Albert in the far distance.

skyligh Pictures image The specter of another time, conjuring serenity, prosperity and aspiration, a world brought down. It also highlighted the fragility and ephemeral quality of communities riven by underlying tribal tensions wound tight for so long, unresolved, and exacerbated by the colonial experience. Even as I write these lines Kenya has exploded along tribal fault lines due to a disputed presidential election. It was sad and sobering to stand in those evocative remains of a home, in the dignified and melancholy presence of Professor Jean.

It will take time to bring Ituri back to the prosperous agricultural and mining region it once was, and ending the culture of impunity is an essential element in the process – the ICC arrests have made clear that perpetrators will be brought to account, which is a major step towards a lasting peace.

skyligh Pictures image The MONUC peacekeepers have played a stabilizing role by administering a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program which has helped bring thousands of rebel fighters (many of them child soldiers) back into their communities. After Katanga was taken to The Hague, the last 3 remaining warlords in the Ituri region turned themselves in to accept a DDR offer, apparently no longer seeing any future as rebels and wanting to avoid the ICC.

In the midst of all this catastrophe, we were inspired by local heroes we found working against formidable odds to strengthen justice in the Congo:

skyligh Pictures image Major Innocent, a military judge who keeps a copy of the ICC Rome Statute on his desk to guide him as he judges Congolese military officers and soldiers for human rights abuses. We filmed a hearing at the military tribunal in Bunia, where the defendant had received a life sentence in absentia (he escaped during a previous trial but was later recaptured) for participating in the killing of UN peacekeepers in 2005, and was appealing his sentence. While we weren't there for the final ruling, in our interview Major Innocent told us that he thinks it's important to set an example by imposing harsh sentences for human rights violations, so it probably didn't bode well for the defendant. Even though the defendant was an irregular militia and not in the Congolese army, civilians who commit crimes with military weapons in Congo can be tried under military law. We also met dynamic Richard Pituwa, who runs Canal Revelation, a radio station that has become a crucial forum for talking about justice through "Interactive Radio for Justice",

skyligh Pictures image a program he produces with the irrepressible human rights activist Wanda Hall. Bunia has no newspapers, and electricity is so sporadic that TV is not a strong medium, but radios run on batteries and are ubiquitous, so radio is far and away the dominant source of information in the region. People call in all day long on their cellphones, and we filmed a fascinating program they hosted with ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo phoning in from The Hague to take questions about the Katanga arrest from local callers. Justice on the ground and on the air.

After spending October filming in Ituri surrounded by the wreckage of war, we headed for Uganda in a small UN plane, bucking like a bronco through massive thunderclouds towering over the Great Lakes of Africa.

skyligh Pictures image On the same day, Patrick Opiyo Makasi, a Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) Director of Operations, arrived in Uganda after escaping from the LRA redoubt in Congo's Garamba National Park. It took some doing, but we managed to interview him and got a first-hand account of mounting tensions within the LRA due to the arrest warrants issued for their 5 top leaders by the ICC. Makasi told us that LRA chief Joseph Kony is fixated on making the ICC warrants disappear, and that it's the only reason he's remained in peace negotiations since July 2006, which has brought the longest relief from violence in the 20-year conflict suffered by the people of northern Uganda. He added that Kony is fully aware of the arrests of Charles Taylor and Thomas Lubanga, and does not want to follow them to the ICC courtroom in The Hague.

skyligh Pictures image Makasi says Kony has no intention of signing a peace agreement even if the warrants are removed, and it is only fear of the ICC that has kept him quiet and at the peace table all this time. Apparently Kony's closest ally, the ruthless Vincent Otti, actually wanted to achieve a peace deal, and it was disagreement over this that led Kony to murder Otti in October. The murder of Otti has not been officially confirmed, but Makasi is sure of it and other LRA fighters that defected after him have all said he was killed in a very brutal way, plus no one has heard a peep from Otti since October – and this silence from a man that used to get on his satellite phone every day making calls to radio stations and political leaders. There are indications that the LRA is under great strain, and MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, has set up stations to receive and demobilize LRA soldiers that defect. It appears the ICC is having a beneficial effect for the people of northern Uganda, by keeping the LRA at bay and weakening its morale. The ICC indictees are finally realizing that amnesty is not an option.

A remarkable effect of the ICC interventions are the fierce debates it has generated about the role of justice in the transition to sustainable peace. When we spent the month of December 2006 in northern Uganda, many local civil society leaders were calling for the ICC to remove the arrest warrants it had issued for the top commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), saying that it was hampering the peace negotiations, and that traditional reconciliation mechanisms such as Mato Oput would suffice to achieve justice for the massive crimes committed by the LRA. Now that's changed.

skyligh Pictures image We revisited Pagak Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp leader Dennis Lemoyi and interviewed him again a year later, which gave us valuable insights into how thinking about justice is trending in northern Uganda. Now civil society leaders are recommending that a special national court be created in Uganda to mount a "complementarity" challenge to the ICC warrants, saying that the crimes committed during the war, by both the LRA and the UPDF (Ugandan army) can be judged at home and meet international standards of accountability. We'll have to wait to see how things develop, but that this discussion is even happening constitutes a positive outcome of the ICC intervention.

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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