International war crimes judges will hand down on Friday landmark reparations to former child soldiers conscripted into a Congolese militia about 15 years ago, who were left brutalised and stigmatised by their horrific experiences.
Warlord Thomas Lubanga, 56, was found guilty in 2012 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of abducting boys and girls and press-ganging them into his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in the eastern Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He was jailed for 14 years, and has been transferred to a prison in the DR Congo to serve the rest of his sentence.
The judges also ruled that Lubanga was personally liable for the compensation due his victims, who at the time of the crimes in 2002-2003 were all under 15, with some as young as 11.
But the question of how to calculate the value of a lost childhood, which descended into a fog of violence, bloodshed and chaos, is one that has bedevilled the courts.
With the passage of time, many of the victims are now in their 30s and have children of their own.
“How do you calculate a lost youth? What it is worth? A million, half a million, five thousand euros, a thousand euros?” lawyer Luc Walleyn asked the tribunal in The Hague during hearings in 2016.
Many of the girls forced into the militia’s ranks became sex slaves and returned home with babies.
The nongovernmental organisation Child Soldiers International, which works to stop children being used in conflicts, said girls they had interviewed in DR Congo recounted “indescribable hardships, loneliness and terror — including daily threats of death”.
Many rehabilitation projects have focused on helping victims to become independent financially, by learning to sew or raise cattle. But they have not always proved the most efficient.
Being able to finish their schooling was “the most ardent wish of the girls, and the most powerful factor in promoting their social acceptance”, the group said in a court submission.
“The main issue for these girls were the stigmatisation and rejection when they came back home,” Sandra Olsson, project manager for Child Soldiers International, told AFP.
“The first thing wasn’t the fact that they needed to learn how to sew, to earn a living. The main thing was that neighbours, family, old friends would not talk to them.”
A public apology by Lubanga, who has never admitted any responsibility, would go a long way towards their reintegration.
An apology would “mean the perpetrators take on the blame”, Olsson said, highlighting the “huge guilt carried by the girls for what they had been forced to do.”
The judges will also decide Friday on the number of victims entitled to reparations.
Estimates vary, but some say up to 3,000 children may have been recruited into Lubanga’s militia.
But Lubanga’s lawyer, Jean-Marie Biju-Duval, argues that his client should not pay anything.
He says that it would be difficult to identify victims and that any payouts risked reviving tensions in Ituri, which has been “overwhelmed by the phenomenon of child soldiers”.
Lubanga risked becoming “a scapegoat” for all child soldiers, Biju-Duval said.
The Trust Fund for Victims, which administers the ICC reparations, has proposed a three-year plan and set aside one million euros ($1.2 million) for projects aimed at “reconciling the victims with their families and affected communities”.
Lubanga’s is the third reparations case to be decided at the ICC. In March, judges awarded $250 each to 297 victims of another Congolese warlord, Germain Katanga.
And in August, the court ruled that a Malian jihadist had caused 2.7 million euros in damage when he destroyed several shrines in Timbuktu in 2012.
But Liesbeth Zegveld, a legal expert who directs the War Reparations Centre at the University of Amsterdam, questioned how effective collective reparations could be.
“If you look at the applicants, almost all of them are after individual reparations,” she told AFP.
“At the end of the day, that’s what is going to empower them. They can decide for themselves about their lives, rather than being dependent on some decision-maker far away.”