ICC awards 'symbolic' $250 each to Congo war crimes victims

Jo Biddle with Marthe Bosuandole in Kinshasa
Former Congolese warlord Germain Katanga was jailed for warcimes by the ICC in 2014. On Friday the Hague-based court took the landmark step of awarding compensation to some of his victims

In its first such decision, the International Criminal Court on Friday awarded $250 dollars as "symbolic" damages to each victim of a former Congolese warlord, a sum swiftly dismissed as meaningless by those who lost homes and loved ones in a militia attack on their village 14 years ago.

The reparations order was a landmark step for the tribunal, set up in 2002 to prosecute the world's worst atrocities, marking the first time it has placed monetary values on the harm caused by such crimes.

Presiding judge Marc Perrin de Brichambaut acknowledged at the tribunal in The Hague that the amount of $250 to each of the 297 victims of Germain Katanga "does not make up for the totality of the crimes", estimating the total damage caused at $3.7 million.

But in unveiling the collective and individual reparations, he said he hoped it would bring some "measure of relief" and help victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo rebuild their lives.

The ICC sentenced Katanga to 12 years in jail in 2014 after convicting him of five charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the February 2003 ethnic attack on Bogoro, a village in troubled Ituri Province.

He was accused of supplying weapons to his militia which went on a rampage, shooting and hacking to death with machetes some 200 people.

Katanga, who watched the proceedings by video-link from a jail in Kinshasa where he is on trial over separate charges, was also found liable for $1 million in compensation, though the court recognised that he was penniless, or "indigent", and had no home or possessions.

It asked that he consider making a public apology or writing a letter to the victims, or even attending a public reconciliation ceremony.

- 'Two days of beer' -

"These individual reparations don't have any symbolic value. Today $250 doesn't mean anything in the DRC," Salomon Kisembo Byaruhanga, a local tribal chief, told AFP.

"Those who will get it will most likely waste it all away on beer in two days," he added, saying it would be far better to rebuild a village or construct a memorial.

Perrin de Brichambaut said the court had assessed the total damage at $3,752,620, and said collective reparations should go towards projects to help the victims with housing, education and "income-generating activities".

The court asked the Trust Fund for Victims, an independent body set up under the tribunal's founding guidelines, to consider using its resources to pay for the reparations and to come up with a plan by late June.

Court officials said the fund could release up to $1 million for reparations in the case.

Legal representatives for the victims had assessed the damage at $16.4 million in a filing to the court last year. They calculated that 228 homes were destroyed, that the school was lost and that hundreds of cattle and other livestock had fled or been killed.

In its ruling, also watched via video-link by victims in Bunia, the provincial capital of Ituri Province, the court set the cost of each destroyed Bogoro home at $600, while the value of each harvest lost that year was $150.

Victims who suffered psychological harm after the death of a loved one were entitled to $8,000 for a close family member, or $4,000 for a more distant relative.

- 'We've buried our dead' -

"What will $250 change in our lives?" asked Jean Bosco Lalo, a coordinator for the Ituri Civil Society group of local associations.

"Our communities have already turned the page. Everyone has rebuilt their homes. We've buried our dead."

The Trust Fund for Victims has $5 million available, of which $1 million has been set aside for the case of Thomas Lubanga, sentenced in 2012 to 14 years for conscripting child soldiers in the DRC.

In October, judges approved "symbolic reparations" to create a "living memorial" to remember and raise awareness about child soldiers. But a final decision on collective reparations for Lubanga's victims is still awaited.