Central African Republic: Victims say justice must include reparations

News and Press Release
Originally published
View original
Seven years after having their livelihoods destroyed, victims are growing impatient at lack of economic justice.

By Katy Glassborow in Bangui (AR No. 221, 8-July-09)

"Now that you have taken our voice, how will it help us?" Clementine asks, searching our faces expectantly.

Clementine is one of many civilians who were caught up in months of violence during fighting for the presidency of the Central African Republic, CAR, in 2002 and 2003.

She was a trader from a suburb of the capital Bangui and would buy cassava from Boali, an 88-kilometre drive away, to bring back and sell, until the truck she was travelling on was attacked by armed men.

An early rain storm is brewing as Clementine tells her story. Hordes of children stream into her mud home to eavesdrop and squabble for a place on a rudimentary bench in the corner of the room, bodies caked in mud from a morning of playing.

"When we met Bemba's men in [the Bangui suburb of] PK 12 they stopped the truck and shot the driver and two boys in the truck," Clementine said. "I was with five women. We had 200,000 francs (425 US dollars) with us. I had 100,000 francs with me. I ran to the bush and lost everything."

Jean-Pierre Bemba's Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, a militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, was allegedly brought in by then CAR president Ange-Félix Patasse to help fight off a rebellion led by ex-army chief François Bozize.

Ordinary people were reportedly killed, raped, robbed and displaced as punishment for perceived support for the rebels. In May 2007, the International Criminal Court, ICC, opened an investigation into suspected atrocities committed during the coup attempt.

So far only Bemba has been arrested. His defence lawyers say that Bemba was responding to a call for help from Patasse to put down a coup attempt, and that once he sent MLC fighters into the CAR from Congo, they were no longer under his control but subordinate to Patasse.

In a recent interview with IWPR, Patasse said repeatedly that he was "aware of nothing" when it was put to him that CAR citizens blame him for inviting Bemba's men into the country, and for not stopping the atrocities they allegedly committed.

Prosecutors say investigations are continuing into crimes committed in the CAR.

Clementine and a series of other people who spoke to IWPR say justice for crimes they suffered must include receiving reparations for the money, property, livestock and livelihoods that were looted and destroyed.

Victims like Clementine are going to have to wait a while longer for compensation, however. Court-ordered payments linked to sentencing can only happen once a trial is over and a judgement has been delivered.

CAR is tenth on the Failed States Index compiled by Washington-based think tank Foreign Policy. Continued instability has created an almost impossible climate for people to pull themselves out of poverty.

Central Africans want Bemba to reimburse them out of his own wealth. The former DRC vice-president has widespread business interests and is thought be one of the country's richest men.

When he was arrested in May 2008, the ICC froze his assets and ordered Bemba to pay his own legal fees estimated at 50,000 dollars a month.

Laetitia Bonnet from the ICC's Victims Participation and Reparation Section, VPRS, says reparations can play a part in healing the wounds of a conflict-affected society, "It is not just about going to prison for something bad you have done, but understanding there are people who have been affected by your acts and you are going to be part of making it good."

Victims can receive assistance from the court in two ways - either through court proceedings, or by benefiting from rehabilitation schemes set up by the Trust Fund for Victims, TFV, an autonomous branch of the ICC.

Although it does not have to wait for a court verdict, the TFV has not as yet implemented any programmes in the CAR. One TFV project in northern Uganda has a team of plastic surgeons operating on civilian victims of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army who have been purposely disfigured, leading families to reject them.

The TFV has only been operational for one year, and has had to stagger the implementation of rehabilitation schemes across the various target countries because of financial and logistical constraints. It is expected that the first scheme, which will include physical, psychological and material support, will be rolled out in the CAR by January next year.

If ICC judges convict a suspect, his or her assets can be confiscated, sold and transferred into funds for reparations. Judges can also order an accused to pay personally for reparations, or fund compensation schemes via the TFV.

But seven years after having their livelihoods destroyed, victims are growing impatient.

Fighters chased another victim, Augustine, from her home in PK12, which was particularly badly affected by violence.

"They split the windows and beds for firewood. Bemba's men shot our goats, shot our chickens. We couldn't cultivate our fields. Our water well became their [toilet]. I was selling [produce] to make money but now I can't. I have to farm and it is a very miserable life," she said.

André Laperrière, executive director of the TFV, is keen that reparations schemes are not confused with handouts, "The philosophy is to help victims go back to the life they would have had if it were not for the aggression. We don't rehabilitate communities, we help them rehabilitate themselves. We provide seeds, but we don't plant them."

He also stressed that schemes do not replace work of the national government. His team holds discussions with authorities to make sure their efforts are in line with the long-term plan of the state.

Whilst understanding of the ICC is patchy amongst central Africans, many are so disillusioned with their own failed justice system and lack of reparations from the government that they have pinned their hopes on the court in The Hague.

Augustine heard of the court once while listening to the radio, "We want a fair judgment but we are more concerned about our things which were destroyed. Bemba should pay reparations."

Clementine says she lost everything in the attack, and believes the ICC should force Bemba to recompense his alleged victims.

"Reparations are good. If they take his belongings [to pay us] it is also fine. They should be giving money personally to people. I want money, and to multiply lost earnings until now. Without reparations it will not be good justice. My anger will decrease if we receive something," she said.

As well as receiving reparations, victims can also apply to participate in investigations and trials. So far, the court has focused on raising awareness about this, but central African lawyers like Marie-Edith Douzima, who represents victims in the Bemba case, said, "The ICC has done nothing to tell people about reparations.

"Informing the population is the task of the ICC, but it has taken too long. How can we trigger people to come forward as victims if the people don't know?"

Communication is a challenge in post-conflict environments where communities are either displaced or in remote locations.

"In terms of security we have to be very careful not for the security of ICC staff, but more for the security of the people we work with. This is a factor limiting the capacity of the court to reach out to potential victims outside Bangui," said Bonnet.

To Clementine's question "Now that you have taken our voice, how will it help us?" it was necessary to say that media coverage of the issue might reach those with the power to influence matters or effect change.

In the meantime, it is clear that providing justice, reparations and rehabilitation schemes, and at the same time managing high expectations, remains a formidable challenge for the ICC.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter based in The Hague. Dr Jan Coebergh, a Hague-based doctor specialising in mortality rates in conflict situations, contributed to this report from Bangui.