The anxious warlord and the friendly judge
‘How would he look like?’ Full of expectations my neighbor at the public gallery is asking the question, that is on everybody’s lips. The flyer of the International Criminal Court (ICC) still has an old photo with Bosco Ntaganda wearing a green baret, a green military uniform, holding two handphones in his left hand. That life as a commander in Eastern Congo is gone. Monday morning 18 March 2013 the fugitive warlord knocked on the door of the American embassy in Kigali, with the urgent request to be taken to the ICC in The Hague. From that moment everything moved fast.
Eight days later Ntaganda is appearing before the ICC-judge. Outside the court no demonstrations of fans or foes, like happened with other suspects. Inside on the public gallery there are even empty seats. There is much less interest for an initial appearance than before. It is almost business as usual.
The green curtains go up, while the judge enters. The visitors on the public gallery are getting up from their seats, just like the prosecuters, lawyers and court officials who are safely behind bullet free glass in the court room. When judge Ekaterina Trendafilova takes her seat, everybody follows. Only then I have full view of The Terminator, as the suspect is nicknamed. In the dock I see a timid man, shoulders down, sitting between two guards. His hands somewhere on his lap. He looks down. His eyes blinking, and moving from right to left. He makes an anxious and nervous impression. Confused in this strange world, where all eyes are gazing at him. In nothing he looks like the fearful warlord.
The dark suit he is wearing was clearly a rush job. The jacket is too tight around the breast, for the rest it is a bit wide and long. Ntaganda has the round face and the relatively small eyes, that I saw a day earlier in a clip of Human Rights Watch. ‘He is a predator,’ says the voice of a Congolese man. ‘He executes and kills everything. He devastates. He ravages.’ Others tell about the bloodbath in Kiwanja, where in 2008 more than 150 people were slaugthered on the orders of Ntaganda. On less than a kilometer distance of the base of UN-blue helmets. A boy of eleven tells how he was kidnapped in 2010 by Ntaganda’s men to become a childsoldier and was forced to fight. ‘We were tortured, to toughen us up.’
Judge Trendfilova – her hair neatly resting on the shoulders, modest mascara and lipstick – gives two photographers exactly 1,5 minutes to make a picture of this historic moment. Peter Dejong of press agency AP points a gigantic telelens to the suspect. Ntaganda looks down, and tries to avoid the eye of the camera. Only when he thinks the photographers have changed their attention, he looks up. Dejong then captures his face. Craftmanship, in just a few seconds.
The court officer reads the charges. War crimes (seven counts) and crimes against humanity (three counts) in Congo for: enlisting, conscripting and using children in hostilities, murder, attacks on civilians, rape and sexual slavery, pillaging and persecution.
In the public gallery people chuckle when Trendafilova explains to the suspect she will not just ask his identity, but also his profession.
Ntaganda stands up when he addresses the judge. With a kind attitude Trendafilova, who has developed faint blushes on her cheecks, tries to create an atmosphere of safety. But the suspect does not look at her. His voice sounds remarkably soft when he speaks. In Kinyarwanda, the language he feels most comfortable with. ‘My name is Bosco Ntaganda. I only received two names from my parents.’ I think about the people who conceived him. Bosco son was born on the 5th of November 1973, in Rwanda, where Tutsi’s like his family were facing increasing difficulties. On his 17th he left for Uganda to join the Tutsi rebel movement of Paul Kagame, current president of Rwanda. After the genocide Ntaganda joined the Tutsi troops to hunt down Hutu-killers who had fled to Congo.
Somewhere during those long years in combat he must have gotten of the track. Fighting for what might have been a just cause became war crimes
‘I was a soldier, in Congo,’ he says.
That was your profession, Trendafilova checks to be sure. Her English words, being translated into French and then to Kinyarwanda, arrive with a delay.
‘Yes. That was my profession.’
Then there is a misunderstanding: ‘I declare not guilty of the crimes I am charged with.’
Trendafilova looks with a gentle smile to Ntaganda. ‘I don’t want to interrupt you, because I want you to feel at ease.’ The judge, who is known for her strictness, explains this is not the moment for him to explain his position. In the next hearings there will be ample time for that, says Trendafilova.
How confusing is this setting? How do we relate to the man who represents evil? Trendafilova answers that question with her humane attitude. She points to the principle: innocent until proven guilty. My thoughts drift to countries where suspects are being tortured, like Ntaganda as warlord confronted with prisoners might have ordered himself. How comforting the idea that, with all serious criticism possible on the ICC, human rights are at least taken seriously here.
Ntaganda’s lawyer actually does have a complaint. His conversation with his client was disturbed and cut off by prison officials.
Unacceptable, reacts Trendafilova. Every suspect has the right to confidential consultation with his defence counsel.
The lawyer from Paris also announces he will soon demand temporary release for his client. Slowly Ntaganda starts to relax. He moves his shoulders, looks around, takes his pen and notes something down.
After 50 minutes the hearing is over.
Later in the media centre I meet an ICC official. He refers to the banality of evil, the concept developed by philosopher Hannah Arendt when she had reported on the Eichmann trial. ‘When you take people out of their context, then scenes like you saw today can happen,’ the offical says.
Peter Dejong shows me his pictures of Ntaganda on his laptop. I see an ordinary man, who in another circumstances could have passed me on the street. Not an unpleasant face. With a small moustache. On one of the pictures I see the big guard, his broad arms folded, sitting next to the suspect.
In the meantime the colleagues of the international press agencies are busy packing their equipment. They talk about the next assignment: an important soccer match that same evening.
Later I read the result on internet: ‘The Netherlands wipes out Romanians.’