A number of people in northern Uganda accuse the ex-LRA commander of maiming and killing innocent civilians.
Whereas dozens of lawyers had volunteered to defend ex-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, saying he was a victim of an abduction, a number of people in northern Uganda accuse him of maiming and killing innocent civilians. TADDEO BWAMBALE examines the events that led to the trial.
On May 19, 2004, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels marched into an internally displaced people’s camp in Lukodi village, 7km north of Gulu town and killed over 40 people.
The number of those killed was difficult to estimate since some bodies were recovered from bushes many months after the attack.
It is this attack that formed the basis for the 2005 indictment of Dominic Ongwen, a top LRA commander by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.
Ongwen, who faces trial for seven counts for war crimes and crimes against humanity, is believed to have executed both attacks as a commander of the LRA rebel outfit.
The ICC believes it has overwhelming evidence required to prosecute him for the atrocities, according to documents seen by Sunday Vision.
On January 17, he was surrendered to the ICC’s custody and transferred to the ICC Detention Centre on Tuesday last week.
His initial appearance before the single judge of Pre-Trial Chamber II took place on January 26. The opening of the confirmation of charges hearing is provisionally set for August 24.
Dominic Ongwen made his first appearance at the ICC in The Hague, on January 26, 2015
He is held ‘criminally responsible’ on three counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement and inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering.
He also faces four counts of war crimes including murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population and pillaging.
Sunday Vision revisits the brutal attack on Lukodi IDP camp and takes an in-depth look at several other attacks in which Ongwen is recorded to have taken part.
Helene Cisse of Senegal, appointed Duty Counsel (lawyer) for Ongwen
The gruesome attack is chronicled in detail by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, a partnership between the Gulu District NGO Forum and the University of British Columbia.
“At around 4:00pm, Laloyo, a local leader in Lukodi, received two unexpected visitors under the mango tree at his home. One of the two visitors (a young boy) had just escaped from the LRA and wanted to surrender,” the organisation states in a 2011 report on the attack.
Shortly before local authorities could verify the boys’ accounts, LRA rebels raided Lukodi village where the IDP camp was located and embarked on a campaign of killing and looting.
“The rebels divided themselves into three groups. The first group engaged the soldiers in combat and with time, overpowered them. The second group targeted the civilians and started killing them. The third group was taking cattle and other things that they needed to help them in the bush, such as food, clothing and other valuables,” an eye witness recounts in the report.
The rebels later fled with an unspecified number of men, women and children, and mothers were forced to trample upon their own children and set huts on fire, according to eye witnesses.
The attack on Lukodi shares a pattern with earlier attacks on Abia IDP camp in Lira district in which over 70 people were killed and another on Barlonyo IDP camp in which 300 people died.
During the LRA attack on Abia IDP camp, at least 70 people were killed, over 40 wounded and scores of civilians were abducted, according to a Sunday Vision report of February 6, 2004.
John Obong, a survivor of the attack told Sunday Vision he saw some of the victims being hacked with pangas, while 17 people were struck on the head using a pounding stick.
“I saw 17 bodies scattered in the compound with my eyes. We still expect more deaths because the rebels abducted several people and we fear they might have been killed in the bush as they were retreating,” Obong said.
Among the deceased were Ogwal Omara, Julio Okwir, Jasper Okullo, Yuventino Odong, Paul Ogwang, Opong Alobo, Okeng Ayok, Apolo Odyek Okello, Paul Okello, Kasilina Akoli, Eseza Amolo Obua, Omara Odongo, Paul Aramo, Filda Apio, Paul Ayela, Ogwang Okello, Aaron Ogwok and Wilbert Okeng.
Some of the victims were burnt in their houses and the army said the attack was led by Okot Odhiambo, another LRA senior commander. Ongwen is said to have led the attack.
Maj. Chris Magezi, the then UPDF 5th Division spokesperson, (currently spokesperson of the army’s Special Forces Command) said Odhiambo and Ongwen were operating in the area.
Within weeks of the attack on Abia camp, LRA rebels descended on Barlonyo camp in Cuk Adek village, about 25km from Lira town.
During the attack, the rebels killed children and adults, including pregnant mothers. Over 480 huts were burnt, rendering 4,810 people homeless, according to a New Vision report.
The rebels disguised their appearance by wearing green military uniforms similar to those of the UPDF as they moved house to house bludgeoning their victims, according to an eye witness.
At least 15 other people were killed about 500m from the camp. Survivors of the attack were left with deep cuts, swellings and burns, while the stench of burning bodies filled the area. The rebels also abducted hundreds of people, including young children who were reportedly recruited into the LRA as fighters, porters or sex-slaves.
UPDF soldiers looking at the scars left on an LRA attack victim
On April 29, 2004, LRA rebels commanded by Ongwen attacked Odek IDP camp, killed scores of people and abducted 12 others. The area is where LRA leader, Joseph Kony was born.
“It was 5:00 pm and most people were going about their normal day or waiting for the children to finish their school day when a group of 200 to 300 LRA fighters from the Sinia Brigade, led by Dominic Ongwen, attacked Odek camp and massacred 93 men and women including school children from Odek Primary school,” a 2014 Justice and Reconciliation Project report states.
Camp leaders and survivors said that 71 people, including 42 women, 20 children and nine men were abducted by the rebels. Some of the abducted women who were carrying their children on their back were forced to drop the children in the bush in order to carry what the rebels’ looted.
Considered one of the most grisly attacks in the history of the LRA, the rebels rounded up residents of Gang Pa Aculu trading centre, Omot sub-county in Pader district on October 23, 2002.
“Forty four fighters from the Sinia Brigade were released under the command of Commander Y and Junior Commander X to carry out their mission in Omot sub-county. The team started their operations at Par Samuelo Acak, near river Agogo...” reads an excerpt from the the Justice and Reconciliation Project’s 2010 report. Ongwen was at the time a commander of the Sinia Brigade, one of four LRA brigades.
At Gang Pa Aculu village, the victims were tied kandoya-style (hands tied tightly at the elbows from the back) using sisal ropes and chopped into pieces.
“After the massacre, the rebels then set a huge pot on three stones, chopped off the victims’ heads and limbs and stuffed the parts in the pot,” the New Vision reported on October 24, 2002.
The victims whose body parts were stuffed in the pot were Okidi Doctor and Ochan Lomoi. Other captives were executed in turns while others were told to eat roasted human flesh.
Other residents killed were: Martin Ocii, Alphonse Econg, Dennis Nyuta (a teacher at St Charles Lwanga, Kalungu) and Okello Otwoli, whose body parts were roasted and placed on a dish; Kastorio Ogwal, Nyeko Aguda, Philimeto Okech, Christine Abiya, Cantina Alanyo, Andrew Kiwel and Night Oali, all from Bar Otiba and Patongo sub-counties.
The incident was a punishment to the residents for allowing a captive to escape through their village. The captive had allegedly escaped with a gun, money and a Polaroid camera.
Juba peace talks
Between 2006 and 2008, government held a series of negotiations with the LRA group over a ceasefire and possible peace agreement.
The talks, held in Southern Sudan’s capital Juba, were mediated by Riek Machar, the then vice-president of Southern Sudan.
The talks collapsed after Kony failed to turn up for the signing of the final treaty further on 10 April 2008 at Nabanga, after making incoherent demands and sacking his representatives.
Even as negotiations continued, the LRA had begun rearming and abducting recruits and on June 5, 2008 attacked an SPLA camp at Nabanga, killing 21, seven soldiers and 15 civilians.
Several accounts show that the attack on the SPLA camp was carried by the Sinia Brigade led by Ongwen. The government of South Sudan subsequently withdrew from negotiations.
Evidence against Ongwen
Confidential documents released by the ICC on Thursday show that Ongwen is being held ‘criminally responsible’ for the May 20, 2004 attack on Lukodi IDP camp in Gulu. He is accused of ‘ordering’ the killings, abductions, enslavement of civilians and lootings during the attack on the IDP camp.
“The Prosecutor alleges that, on or about May 20, 2004, the Lukodi IDP Camp was attacked by an armed group who first attacked the local defence forces and then started “shooting and beating civilian residents, burning huts and looting”; that according to the United Nations, the attack resulted in 41 people being killed and in an unknown number being abducted and injured; that, according to Ugandan authorities and local hospital records, the attack resulted in the death of at least 40 civilians, the injury of at least 13 people, the abduction of at least six people, as well as in approximately 210 civilian houses being burnt,” the document reads.
During the attack, Ugandan authorities reportedly intercepted radio broadcast and short-wave radio messages of LRA commanders, in which Ongwen identifies himself as a mastermind.
The ICC confirms that evidence of Ongwen’s hand in the attack is ‘shown by recordings of intercepted radio communications, accounts from former LRA members, witnesses and victims.’
“…the evidence submitted, including intercepted radio communications, suggests that the attack was carried out in fulfillment of Joseph Kony’s orders and that Dominic Ongwen acknowledged that he was the commander of the LRA forces that attacked the Lukodi IDP Camp ,” reads a non-redacted (unedited) arrest warrant for Ongwen.
The ICC describes Ongwen as a member of the LRA “Control Altar” responsible for devising and implementing standing orders to attack and brutalise civilian populations.
LRA forces are divided into four brigades named Stockree, Sinia, Trinkle and Gilva. The groups have conducted mass killings in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and CAR.
ICC documents state that: ‘…in his capacity as Brigade Commander of the Sinia Brigade of the LRA, Ongwen ordered the commission of several crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court...’
The U N estimates that between 1987 and 2012, the LRA killed more than 100,000 people, abducted 60,000 to 100,000 children and displaced more than 2.5 million civilians.
David Pulkol: On why Ongwen should be tried
Pulkol: "Why didn’t he leave the LRA when many others did?"
David Pulkol, the former director of the External Security Organisation, says Ongwen cannot play victim of the LRA war since he committed the offences as an adult and had chance to escape.
“The LRA were not meant to face the UPDF in battle, so they relied on disposable fighters, who were abducted children. That gave Ongwen a chance to defect during such battles,” he says.
Pulkol says Ongwen had the opportunity to renounce rebellion during the Juba peace talks since he was the senior LRA commander operating in northern Uganda at the time.
“He had risen to a position of authority within the LRA and it cannot be said that he was under influence of Kony. Why didn’t he leave the LRA when many others did?” Pulkol asks.
Journey into terrorism
Those in support of Ongwen’s trial for war crimes cite his personal conduct that saw him rise rapidly in LRA rebel ranks.
He promoted the rank of ‘Major’ at the age of 18 and ‘Brigadier’ by his late 20s. Between 1997 and 1998, he worked as the LRA’s commander of the mobile forces.
Known as the White Ant (having been born at the time of the white ant), he was regarded a brave and ruthless warrior, a description given away by his trademark dreadlocks and boyish face.
He gained the confidence of Kony and executed the LRA’s military offensives in 2002 and 2003 in several districts in northern Uganda.
The US offered a $5m (sh14b) reward to individuals who provided information leading to his arrest, transfer or conviction for war crimes or crimes against humanity.
In 2005, he became the youngest person in the world to be indicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The other LRA commanders indicted for war crimes are Kony, Odhiambo, and Vincent Otti (although he is believed to have been executed by Kony in 2007).
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former senior LRA commander says Ongwen led the 1996 operation where over 100 girls were abducted from St Mary’s College Aboke.
The former LRA chief says Ongwen was the one who decided which girls should be released, and which ones to remain in captivity.
Florence Ayot, who escaped from the LRA in 2005 after over 15 years in captivity and served as Ongwen’s wife revealed in several media interviews that she bid Ongwen when she fled.
Victim or perpetrator?
Ongwen in the Central African Republic on January 14. (Photo credit: Reuters)
Since Ongwen’s surrender to security forces in the Central African Republic, the start of his trial at The Hague has been dominated by a narrative of sympathy for his capture by LRA rebels.
Ongwen’s relatives and religious leaders in Acholi sub-region have launched a fervent appeal for amnesty as soon, arguing that he is a victim of LRA’s mass abduction campaign.
Born in 1975, Ongwen was recruited into the LRA as a child soldier. He studied at Kaladima Primary School, where LRA rebels abducted him along with other children in 1989.
He grew up under tutelage of Kony’s deputy, Vincent Otti, who trained him to be a brutal killing machine. Ongwen reportedly started serving as one of the LRA officers in 1995.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama, on behalf of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative said in a statement on Tuesday Ongwen should instead be subjected to traditional Mato-Oput rituals.
Army spokesperson, Lt Col Paddy Ankunda maintains that Ongwen should be held responsible for the atrocities he committed as an adult.
“We regret the fact that he was abducted, indoctrinated and turned into a killing machine. But two wrongs do not make a right,” Ankunda stated. “Ongwen’s delivery to the ICC is an opportunity for the victims in the North to get justice, but it is also a chance for him to get a fair trial.”
Ankunda revealed that Ongwen snubbed several calls by the government to renounce rebellion and surrender to authorities, in exchange for amnesty.
“I was part of the delegation to the peace talks and we gave him a safe corridor. We established an assembly point. He dodged this and instead reported to Kony in Garamba,” Ankunda says.
Ongwen was known as a volatile and brave fighter, according to LRA Crisis Tracker, a website set up by rights organizations Invisible Children and partners to monitor the LRA’s atrocities.
Daniel Bekele, the Africa director at Human Rights Watch, says Ongwen’s arrest and trial at the ICC is ‘a major opportunity to advance peace and justice for LRA’s long record of atrocities.’
Former Otuke County MP Omara Atubo, whose area bore the brunt of the attacks, says Uganda should focus on eliminating the conditions that gave rise to the likes of Ongwen.
Maj. Chris Magezi, a former spokesperson of the UPDF 5th Division in northern Uganda, says Ongwen refused to take advantage of amnesty offered by the Government.“He was not the only child who was abducted by the LRA. Many of them fled but Ongwen continued fighting. He knew what he was doing,” he says.
Magezi cites, among several other LRA commanders who renounced rebellion, Brig Sam Kolo, who later went back to school and recently graduated with a masters in business administration at Gulu University.
During the 2004 LRA attacks, at least 22 LRA rebels surrendered to the army, including eight at Namokora in Chua County in addition to six at Ngomo-Romo in Kitgum district. Eight rebels gave up arms at Atanga in Aruu subcounty in Pader district. Among them were Maj. Celsion Okot, his soldiers and Lt. Patrick Okot.
ONGWEN’S VICTIMS SPEAK OUT
Ataro says her ears were cut off by the LRA rebels
Ataro is a resident of Laminadera’s home is about 20km north east of Gulu town. Mounds are spread across her compound, shielded by brown grass.
The mounds are graves for Ataro’s six children, whom she says were butchered by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in an operation commanded by Ongwen.
Inside one of the three grass-thatched huts in her compound, Ataro tries to make fire to prepare an early lunch for her only surviving son only identified as Akena.
To talk to Ataro, 78, one must shout, lest she will not hear. Ataro’s both ears were in 1998 cut off by rebels in Ongwen’s Sinia Brigade that had camped in Got Atoo, near her home. During the operation, Ongwen is said to have led the campaign by the LRA to cut off civilians’ ears and lips, accusing them of supporting the UPDF.
“They killed three of my children in my presence and then soaked me in my children’s blood before slicing off my ears. Earlier in 1996, the rebels from the Sinia Brigade killed my husband who had gone to look after the animals. The rebels who camped at Got Atoo had camped in her home for three days. They had no mercy on me. They torched all our hurts and left me helpless. To me, Ongwen’s trial at The ICC will make victims like me to be at peace with ourselves.”
Geoffrey Okello, 52, a resident of Laminadera
Okello and another resident of Laminadera village
“Both Ongwen and the Government should be held responsible for the suffering the people of Acholi. I am not ready to forgive either of them. Being the vice LC1 chairman at the time, I was on the list of those to be killed. The chairman, David Oling, and I were captured by the rebels.
"I escaped from the rebels. Ongwen came himself and rounded everyone the following day on Sunday at Laminadera Catholic Chapel and asked the people to cook the body of Oling as Sunday offertory. Fortunately, a UPDF unit was fast-approaching and the rebels left before the body of Oling could be put on fire.”
(Additional contribution to the story by Jolly Tobbias Owiny)
ONGWEN WAS KONY'S IN-LAW
LRA leader Joseph Kony
By Dennis Ojwee
Former operations commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army Dominic Ongwen (Otto Dominico) is a son of Kaladima, Lamogi clan in Amuru district. He attended Primary Four (P.4) at Kaladima P/S from, where LRA rebels abducted him alongside other children and people in 1989. He was said to be about 13 when the rebels abducted him.
Former LRA commanders said Ongwen grew up in the hands of top LRA commanders while he was still a young boy and was trained to adopt the behaviour of brutal commanders who never spared anybody once ordered by their superiors. According to former senior LRA commanders, Ongwen became Kony’s appointee as one of the LRA officers in 1995 and served it until 2009.
Ongwen is blamed for leading massacres and causing mayhem during the time when over 30,000 people in Acholi and Lango had been sent into internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps.
Ongwen was remembered for leading the brutal massacre of 47 innocent people who had taken refuge at Odek IDP, Odek sub-county, in Omoro County, 64km east of Gulu district on April 29, 2003. Odek is the place where the LRA leader Joseph Kony was born on August 10, 1962.
Other massacres reportedly commanded by Ongwen include: Pagak(29), Lukodi(46), Koch Goma(20), Namkora - Lamwo)(412), Achol-Pii Refugee camp(37), Lalogi, Omot - Pader(15), Pabbo(17) and Lagile - Aruu in Pader(15), among others between 2001 and in early 2004 by the LRA rebels.
Ongwen was the commander in-charge mobile operations when the LRA cut off peoples’ lips, especially the first female victims at Bolo parish, Awere sub-county in Aruu County, Pader district in March 1998.
Ongwen is a brother-in-law to Kony. His younger sister, Lily Atong, currently in Gulu was said to be one of Kony’s most beloved forced 38 ‘wives’ (concubines).
Ongwen was appointed a platoon and battalion commander before Kony rewarded him for his brutal commandeering with a promoted to operations commander in 1997 until 1998.
He later became the LRA commander of the mobile forces, the latest top LRA ranks he served until he split from the main Kony’s camp in late 2012.
LRA commanders captured or surrendered:
1. Brig. Kenneth Banya, former LRA spokesman
2. Brig. Sam Kolo Otto (graduated with a degree in business administration — Gulu University)
3. Lt. Col. Francis Okwanga alias Alero
4. Capt. Ray Apire and Odong-Cow, not real name
5. Capt. Sunday Otto
6. Brig. Odonga-Acellam
8. Makac-Opiyo currently in the UPDF
9. Francis Oyat alias La-Paicho
10. Capt. Raymond Acama
11. Lt. Col. Charles Otim Munu
12. Capt. Arop
13. Thomas Kwoyelo-Latin-ni
Former LRA commanders confirmed killed:
1. Raska Lukwiya
2. Brig. Vincent Otti who had been indicted by the ICC
3. Acel-Calo-Apar (one commander equals to ten people) killed in 2002 in Pader
LRA commanders still with Joseph Kony:
1. Lt. Col. Bwone-Lubwama
3. Acellam Smart (not Caesar Acellam who was captured in 2009)
Why Ongwen is facing trial at The Hague