C.Africa watches Hague war crimes trial, hoping for justice

·4 min read

Wearing suits and ties while on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom look for all the world like harmless office workers.

But in their native Central African Republic, the horrors wrought by the militias they are accused of leading remain vivid in the minds of the victims.

As the trial began in The Hague on Tuesday, emotions were high at a special live screening held for representatives of the victims at a court in the CAR's capital Bangui.

Most of those present lived through the events being discussed, which took place as the country slid into civil war in 2013.

A mainly Muslim rebel coalition called the Seleka toppled then-president Francois Bozize in 2013, leading to the formation of Christian vigilante groups, the anti-Balaka, which means anti-machete.

The anti-Balaka aimed to fight back against atrocities by the Muslim armed groups, but went on to commit their own.

Some at the Bangui screening even knew the two men on trial for war crimes.

According to prosecutors at the ICC, former sports minister Ngaissona was the "national general coordinator" of the anti-Balaka movement.

Yekatom, a 46-year-old MP, styled himself as "Commander Rambo" as he led an anti-Balaka force of around 3,000 people including child soldiers, the prosecutors said.

The room in Bangui shuddered as the prosecutors read out the charges -- crimes against humanity including murder, torture, conscription of child soldiers, as well as rape -- and the anger could be felt as the two defendants pleaded not guilty.

A world away from the muted Dutch courtroom is Bossangoa, a small town in the heart of the Central African Republic's northern savannahs where Alain crossed paths with Ngaissona and his troops.

Anti-Balaka militiamen attacked Bossangoa on December 5, 2013, slaughtering 38 people, including 11 civilians killed with machetes outside of the local imam's house, according to Human Rights Watch.

- 'I lost everything' -

Alain, whose name has been changed, was in Bossangoa during the attack.

"My wife lost her leg, they also shot her," he said.

"I was displaced, I lost everything. My car, my cattle, my refrigerator," he added, smiling under his white moustache despite his loss.

"This trial had to be held for the victims. Under the conditions that we fled, it's horrible when you think about it all."

But the victims want more than just a trial -- they want a conviction.

The ICC's acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, of war crimes in 2018 still lingers in the minds of many.

Aicha Baba's eldest son was killed by anti-Balaka militiamen at the age of 17.

"The two defendants are looking well in their nice jackets, compared to the victims who are still suffering," said Baba, the head of an association of Muslim women focusing on development.

"If the court finds them guilty, there will be real relief," she added.

Mike Cole, the ICC's Central African Republic representative, said it was "possible that there will be an acquittal but, in any case, the voices of the victims will have been heard."

"The time of impunity is over," he told the Bangui screening.

Marius Olivier Poussinga, representing a solidarity group for the victims, said that "as long as there is no conviction, we cannot say that the times have changed".

- Violence continues -

Eight years after the start of the bloodshed, many Central Africans still live in areas controlled by armed groups which occupy two-thirds of the country's territory.

And the CAR has plunged into a new cycle of violence -- a coalition of six of those armed groups, several comprised of anti-Balaka militiamen, joined forces in December to launch a rebel offensive against the government of President Faustin Archange Touadera.

The rebels made it to the outskirts of Bangui before being beaten back.

The anti-Balaka fighters who attacked Alain's family are still in Bossangoa, the stronghold of ex-president Bozize, who the government accuses of leading what it has called an attempted coup.

"We have high hopes that the trial will succeed," Alain said, "because there are still others who continue to commit crimes."

Aicha Baba said that "without justice there will be no peace."

"If the court does its job, we can grow -- justice is the basis of all things."