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ICC orders compensation for DR Congo child soldiers

media Former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga awaits the judges' verdict in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, December 1, 2014. Reuters/Michael Kooren

Nearly 15 years after the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo's north-eastern region of Ituri, international war crimes judges on Friday awarded the child soldiers who fought for warlord Thomas Lubanga 10 million dollars in compensation. Some fear the payout risks reviving old tensions.

"We are certainly happy with the fact that there has been a decision," said Luc Walleyn, one of the lawyers representing the victims, shortly after the International Criminal Court (ICC) awarded landmark reparations to Lubanga's former child soldiers.

"We would have preferred to have had this decision sooner," he told RFI.

Lubanga, 56, was jailed for 14 years in 2012 after being convicted for using child soldiers during the war in DR Congo's north-eastern region of Ituri.

The conflict claimed thousands of lives.

"People in Ituri don't feel as though they were victims," Jean Bosco-Lalo, the head of a civil society group in Ituri's capital Bounia, said.

"At the time, these children went to fight in self-defence, they had no choice. When your family is attacked and your whole village is destroyed, it doesn't matter what age you are. You can be 15, 16, 17, you go and fight, to protect your family."

At the time of the crimes in the early 2000s, all the child soldiers in question were under 15.

Fears of tension reviving

“It is not acceptable that children are used in armed conflicts. So the fact that they have been used in it, makes them necessarily victims," Fadi El Abdallah, spokesman of the International Criminal Court responded.

"People do not forget," he said, when asked whether the court's decision might revive old tensions. "Actually it is the truth that helps them, it is accountability that helps them to go on building their lives, we cannot build our lives on hiding and keeping the frustration and waiting for the possibility of revenge."

El Abdallah hopes the 10-million-dollar (8.5-million-euro) compensation will do precisely that: help Lubanga's victims rebuild their lives and integrate back into society.

At least 425 of them, identified by the court, are to be compensated.

However, "this suffering is not individualised," explains Luc Walleyn, who last year asked the international court how it envisaged calculating a lost youth.

What was decided on Friday was that the harm inflicted by Lubanga directly or indirectly amounted to 8,000 dollars (6,800 euros), giving a lump sum of 3.4 million.

Award to silent victims

However, in a surprise move, judges also decided to award a further 6.6 million dollars (5.6 million euros) to help "hundreds or thousands of other Lubanga victims" that may have suffered directly or indirectly but are too scared to speak out now.

"All of that is in the form of collective reparations," adds El Abdallah. "So it will be in the form of projects that will be implemented by the Trust Fund for Victims, if the Trust Fund receives the funds that are necessary for that, but it will not be individual payments."

The Lubanga judgement is the ICC's third reparations award. Its first, involving another Congolese warlord, Germain Katanga, came under scrutiny, notably its symbolic reparation of 250 dollars (212 euros).

"How can you only give 200 dollars to a victim?" asks Bosco-Lalo. "It's like adding insult to injury. So we think that the ICC should change its method."

"Actually, in the Katanga decision there were two folds, the 250 dollars that were given, were given as a symbolic reparation, and they were to be joined with collective reparations [one million in total], so they weren’t the only thing that were to be joined by the judges," El Abdallah clarifies.

Uganda, Rwanda accused of interference

If the ICC's methods are under scrutiny, it's also because there's a feeling it has gone after the wrong man, explains central Africa specialist Phil Clark.

"In many ways Thomas Lubanga doesn't fit the bill," he told RFI.

"In terms of the conflicts in Ituri in the early 2000s, Thomas Lubanga was really a middle-range actor," he says of the conflict that opposed the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups.

"He was really a puppet, whose strings were being pulled by the governments in Kampala and Kigali."

In 2003 rights groups such as Human Rights Watch accused Uganda and Rwanda of stoking tensions in Ituri.

"It's because of that external involvement that we saw rape, pillage and other major crimes on the scale that we did," continues Clark.

"So in many ways the ICC is not telling the full story of that conflict and why it happened."

The International Criminal Court has said it will work with locals in the DRC to better explain its decision.

With Lubanga himself not having the money to pay the compensation, the Trust Fund for Victims is already on the hunt for donors to make up the 10-million-dollar sum.

But finding the money is not the main challenge, reckons Luc Walleyn.

"The real problem is to start to give the feeling of justice to the victims who have been waiting more than 10 years for some form of compensation, that's the real problem," he comments.

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