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Congolese warlord known as the 'Terminator' finally going to trial in The Hague

Bosco Ntaganda, a Congo militia leader known as "The Terminator," waits for the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. Ntaganda's charges include murder, rape and sexual slavery allegedly committed in the Ituri region of Congo from 2002-2003.

MICHAEL KOOREN/POOL

By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | The Washington Post | Published: September 2, 2015

He wasn't called the "Terminator" for nothing.

Bosco Ntaganda was one of the most brutal rebel leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The forces he commanded have been implicated in ethnic massacres, rapes, torture, and in recruiting hundreds of children, some as young as seven, to fight on the front lines. He has been wanted for war crimes since 2006.

On Wednesday, Ntaganda is scheduled to face trial before the International Criminal Court at the Hague. He's charged with a total of 13 counts of committing war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity. The allegations against him include murder, rape, sexual slavery of civilians, pillaging and the conscription of children into his forces.

The human rights community and ordinary Congolese have been waiting for this day for nine years. And the rest of the world should care for this reason alone: Since 1998, the conflict in the Congo has claimed an estimated 5 million lives, many from disease, starvation and other war-related reasons. That's more casualties than the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined -- more than any conflict since World War II. Hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars have gone toward funding the world's largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo.

The international community has failed to stop the war largely because of men like Ntaganda who've managed to perpetrate abuses with impunity.

Now, many human rights activists hope that the prosecution of Ntaganda will send a warning to all the other warlords, rebel commanders and generals who continue to plague the Congo and prolong the war.

Born in 1973 in neighboring Rwanda, Ntaganda was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel ethnic Tutsi group that would go on to stop the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when ethnic Hutus massacred more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. Ntaganda would later take part in the Rwandan military foray into the Congo in 1996. By 1998, during Congo's so-called "second war," he had joined a Congolese rebel group backed by Rwanda. He would later jump from one militia to the next before joining the Union of Congolese Patriots or the UPC in 2002. The militia protected the interests of the ethnic Hemas in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo.

It was in Ituri where Ntaganda and his forces are accused of committing the atrocities for which he's on trial. He was the chief of military operations under the UPC's leader, the warlord Thomas Lubanga. I remember that time. In 2003, I was in Ituri, in the town of Bunia, where Lubanga, Ntaganda and their largely ethnic Hema forces were fighting against the ethnic Lendus. I was working for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain back then, and found myself quickly taking cover at the local U.N. base, along with hundreds of civilians seeking refuge from the crossfire between the two tribal militias. There were many child soldiers in Bunia, clutching AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and beer bottles. I didn't meet Ntaganda, but I did interview Lubanga. He claimed the children were orphans that his militia was caring for.

Of course, neither I nor the international community bought Lubanga's explanation. He was the first Congolese warlord to go to trial before the International Criminal Court. In 2012, he was convicted of recruiting and deploying child soldiers, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Ntanganda was also accused in the case, alongside Lubanga. But he managed to flee and escape justice.

Subsequently, Ntanganda formed other militias, and lived brazenly out in the open, as if to taunt the international community. But in March 2013, in a bizarre twist of events, Ntaganda walked into the United States Embassy in the Rwandan capital of Kigali -- and turned himself in. He asked to be transferred to the Hague. It's unclear why he did so, but it may have been related to fighting between two factions of his then-militia, the M23. Ntaganda's enemies inside the M23 had apparently gained power, and he feared for his life.

On Wednesday, the opening statements begin in his trial. And those who care about the Congo will be closely watching.
 

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