By Kirthi Jayakumar
Image: A Military Court in DR Congo (Source: DW)
Congolese warlords Ntabo Natabari Sheka and Seraphin Zitonda were sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes that included murder, mass rapes, sexual slavery, and the conscription of child soldiers, on November 23, 2020, by Cour Militaire Operationnelle, a military court in the DRC. They committed these crimes in North Kivu between 2010 and 2014, raping 380 people (including children) and killing 287.
Ntabo Sheka founded the Nduma Defence of Congo, a militia that he claimed to have formed to fight Rwandan Hutu rebels from the FDLR. The militia was also found guilty of recruiting 154 children as fighters, and destroying nearly 1,000 homes and businesses. Sheka evaded arrest until 2017, when he surrendered to UN Peacekeepers, and his trial took place over two years in Goma.
That justice has been done in Sheka and Zitonda’s case affirms value for human rights and attests to the commitment to dispense with a culture of impunity. This is especially significant given that several of the world’s criminal courts prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence never attached the charge in many of their convictions until much later.
However, a more significant, and less considered part of this process is less procedural and more emotional, traumatizing, and painful: Sheka’s indictment comes on the back of the painful emotional labour of victims who testified against him, rendering painful details of the crimes committed to their person. Any examination of legal proceedings anywhere in the world will establish that the process of telling one’s story as a testimony within the context of a judicial setting is not easy. The mere rendition of one’s truth is a painful and traumatizing task in itself – leave alone having to do so under the scrutiny of the judiciary and its personnel, people one knows and doesn’t know – running the risk of stigma, the potential threat of reprisals – which is especially real in local contexts where one case tries one person at a time. There have been instances of women being laughed at while testifying before court, where judges simply did not know what to do when they heard these testimonies, and even passing final orders excluding mentions of sexual violence in armed conflict (Lamb, 2020).
Very few transitional justice mechanisms have responded to the unique needs and challenges of women in armed conflict sufficiently. Admittedly the yardstick to prove a crime calls for the satisfaction of a high threshold with appropriate evidence. Regardless, however, it falls on the prosecution to prioritize the needs of survivors and centre their agency in defining and pursuing justice, with minimum harm. The idea of “justice” in itself remains well out of reach for survivors – whose lives are thrown out of regular order in the post-conflict context almost irretrievably, at that. Forced to choose between finding ways to pick up threads and “resume” life by earning, finding food, and supporting those dependant on them, and fighting a case in court, very often, making the decision to prioritize the latter comes at a heavy price that involves stigmatization, re-traumatization, lack of monetary means and community support, and in several instances, failure in the delivery of justice in the sense that feels like justice for a survivor.
What needs attention in the process of “doing justice” is to also speak to the systems and structures that made this crime possible in the first place. Cycles of trauma and systemic failures to address patterns and structural violence that enabled such overt crime will only continue if they aren’t stymied through wholesome systemic change that is community-led, survivor-centric, and implemented with accountability to the truth.