Rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba had sent his rebel force, the Congolese Liberation Movement, into the Central African Republic to quash a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse in 2002
Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - "They tied up my younger sister, whipped her and raped her," says Ghislain Bertrand Bouanga, recalling the day when former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba's brutal militia raided his home.
"She has been disabled ever since. Her arms don't work because they tied her up so tightly. She spent a year in hospital, she was bleeding because of the rape."
Bouanga's sister is a victim of a five-month rampage of rape, murder and looting in the Central African Republic carried out by Bemba's private army in 2002 and 2003. His mother and two other sisters were killed.
Bemba had sent his militia, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) -- a rebel force that he later transformed into a political organisation -- into the Democratic Republic of Congo's northern neighbour to quash a coup against then president Ange-Felix Patasse.
On Friday, he won an appeal against a conviction for war crimes handed down by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which had sentenced him to a 18 years in jail.
Judges ruled Bemba, who in 2003 became a vice president in DRC's transitional government, could not be held criminally liable for crimes committed by his troops.
The trial was the first before the ICC to focus on sexual violence as a weapon of war and the sentence that it had handed down in 2016 was unprecedented.
- Abuses remain unpunished -
"When Bemba's troops arrived at our home, near the site of Begoua school, they raped my daughter," said Marie, not her real name, in a trembling voice, her fingers scrabbling compulsively at her arm.
"I started to weep and others arrived and raped me. When my husband intervened they killed him."
But she harbours no anger against the ICC or Bemba himself. She blames the troops for the atrocities.
"It's the fault of the troops and the commander in Bangui [the CAR capital] and not of Bemba, he never came," agreed Josephine, not her real name, who was raped by the militia.
The ICC's appeal judges on Friday declared that Bemba, who was in the DRC at the time of the atrocities, had "limited... ability to investigate and punish crimes" by his men.
"If (Bemba) knows what has happened, all he has to do is compensate us for the rapes and looting," said another rape victim, "Nelly".
The ICC on Wednesday said it had launched a one-million-euro ($1.18-million) fund to provide "physical and psychological rehabilitation, as well as material support" for victims and their families.
"You are not forgotten. The harms you have suffered are recognized and urgently call for a meaningful response," it said. It has also appealed for voluntary contributions.
Despite the legal wrangling over Bemba and the move to provide aid, the abuses remain unpunished.
"Spending dozens and dozens of millions of dollars on the ICC case to achieve this result... it does nothing to change the fate of the victims" said Bernadette Sayo, the founder of an NGO called Ocodefad, set up in 2004 to support victims of the MLC, dubbed locally the "Banyamulenge".
"We will ask the government to immediately withdraw from the ICC. The Central African Republic is no longer fooled."
For Bouanga, scarred by what happened to his sisters and mother, the ICC decision will favour today's warlords enjoying impunity in a country where the state controls only small areas of territory.
"They kill, they rape, they do everything in our country and then we will say that they are not guilty," he said.
"The ICC is worthless."