Former Congolese militia boss Germain Katanga, convicted by the International Criminal Court yesterday of complicity in war crimes, was a promising student who turned into a feared soldier known as “Simba” (lion).
The Hague-based court judges found Katanga guilty of complicity in murder and pillaging but cleared of rape, sexual slavery and using child soldiers in a 2003 attack on the small village of Bogoro in the volatile eastern DR Congo, which has seen years of civil strife.
At least 60 civilians were murdered in the early morning attack by Katanga’s forces in which child soldiers took part and village women were raped and abducted to serve as sex slaves.
Katanga commanded the Patriotic Resistance Forces (PRFI) in Ituri and later served as a general in Congolese president Joseph Kabila’s army - until his arrest in March 2005.
Just over two years later, in October 2007, Kinshasa surrendered the militia leader and he was transferred to The Hague where his trial started in November 2009.
Local non-governmental groups once told of how the bright, slender student with a direct gaze transformed into a feared warlord, motivated by revenge after several of his relatives were murdered in the conflict.
He joined the FRPI and is believed to have received military schooling in Uganda and near the town of Beni where he was allegedly trained by other rebel groups roaming the volatile area.
Katanga became a prominent FRPI leader after the militia and its allies were blamed for an attack on a hospital at Nyakunde, some 45 kilometres (28 miles) southwest of Bunia.
In the ICC’s first-ever verdict, his arch-foe Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012 for his role in the conflict, by recruiting and enlisting child soldiers.
After peacekeeping forces were deployed to the area in mid-2003, Katanga returned to his birthplace at Aveba.
In December 2004, Katanga, along with other militia chiefs in the Ituri region, was made a general in the Congolese army as part of a policy to end a five-year civil war that engulfed the vast country.
Kinshasa arrested him a few months later. After his arrest, the FRPI saw its numbers dwindle and today they are estimated at around 500 men.
Although weakened by a government forces operation last year, the group still “maintains a significant zone of instability in southern Ituri,” one Kinshasa-based diplomat said.
katanga’s Early life
Where he hails from: Born on April 28, 1978 in Aveba Town south of the Ituri capital Bunia, Katanga as a young man was described as a bright student and the pride of his father, a medic in a poverty-stricken area.
Forming defence group: Katanga is a member of the Ngiti, who together with the Lendu tribe started forming self-defence groups after a land dispute in 1999 with the neighbouring Hema tribe spilt over into bloodshed.
Katanga is married and has two children.