In the first piece for JiC’s symposium on The Dominic Ongwen Trial and the Prosecution of Child Soldiers, Ledio Cakaj joins JiC for this fascinating account of the life of LRA commander and former child soldier, Dominic Ongwen. Ledio is a researcher working on conflict in East and Central Africa. His book, When the Walking Defeats You; One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard, will be published in November 2016 by Zed Books.
It must be strange being in Dominic Ongwen’s shoes. Suited up in a large room in a foreign country with fancy lawyers and judges staring him down, accusing him of unspeakable crimes. No wonder he seems amused, bewildered and confused. The legal proceedings must be particularly outlandish to a man, who, snatched from his family as a child, tried to excel at whatever life threw at him, only for life to change the script over and over again. And it must be particularly frustrating for him to be compared to Joseph Kony, a man whose clutches Ongwen has tried to escape for at least the last decade.
At ten or so, Ongwen excelled at school and was expected to go far, become a teacher like his parents, a lawyer or a doctor. When fighters from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted him in the early 1990s, he was too small to walk long distances or fight, even though children already fought in the LRA ranks. It was Ongwen’s perseverance and his desire to do well and make the adults proud that saw him not only survive the hostile environment but also become a noted fighter. Had the country of its birth provided him with basic security, he might have become a noted lawyer or perhaps a doctor.
At fifteen Ongwen was exposed to – and allegedly forced to participate in – the massacre of over 300 people in the village of Atiak, masterminded by Vincent Otti, Ongwen’s mentor in the LRA. Under Otti’s guidance, Ongwen had to punish civilians who did not help the LRA, fight Ugandan soldiers, and abduct more youths to fill the ranks. Refusal brought beatings and death.
While in the first years of his life as a rebel Ongwen might have acted under duress, he was taught, and likely convinced, that the LRA’s struggle was just. Kony addressed assemblies of LRA members in true Sunday Mass style saying that the LRA fought for the rights of the Acholi people, who were abused by the Ugandan army. He swore that the Holy Spirit had forced him to save the Acholi. Kony was fond of a line from the Old Testament: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Apart from fighting for his people, Ongwen was also told he was lamony — a soldier. The world that Ongwen-the-soldier inhabited was different to the one Ongwen-the-child left behind. Being alive was contingent on killing others. To take their food, clothes, or their ability to shoot back. Survival chances increased with promotion into officer ranks as low-level fighters were the first to die from bullets or pervasive shortages of food. Ongwen obeyed orders, fought hard, and excelled in the way of the rebels. By his late teens he was a commander with bodyguards, ‘wives’ and young servants.
Ongwen was good at fighting and killing. But he never was a top commander, certainly not on par with those who had joined Kony from the start, like Kenneth Banya, Vincent Otti or Okot Odhiambo. Sadly, there were many others like Ongwen in the LRA, young men abducted as children who were eager to please the Lapwony Madit (Big Teacher) Kony. Many of them like, Ochan Bunia, Vincent ‘Binany,’ or Otim ‘Ferry,’ have died fighting for Kony. Others, like Patrick Agweng or Jon Bosco Kibwola were killed on Kony’s orders, mostly as sacrifices to appease his ego. Of the surviving ones, Okot George ‘Odek,’ who left the LRA in February 2016, told me, he worried he would be charged by the ‘World Court (a reference to the International Criminal Court (ICC)),’ like Ongwen. Similarly, Opiyo Sam, another LRA commander who returned to Uganda two years ago, claimed he does not know or understand why Ongwen was singled out by the ICC.
Growing older made Ongwen wiser to Kony’s ways, which in turn made him lose his commander status and its associated benefits handed out by Kony as he saw fit. Ongwen became openly critical with Kony and was demoted. In his mid-20s Ongwen seemed interested in leaving the LRA but he was too scared to do so, feeling trapped. He was terrified of the bad spirits he had unleashed and worried that they would haunt him if he left the rebels – and the protection of the Holy Spirit – to become a civilian once again. He was also concerned with being thrown in prison or being killed by the Ugandan authorities – a common fear for many LRA members.
Ongwen tried more than once to find a way out of the LRA, discussing defection with local clergy, fellow fighters and his ‘wives.’ In early 2006 as he contemplated surrender once more, Otti called from Congo’s Garamba Park. The LRA leaders prepared for peace talks –the Juba Talks – and Kony wanted to show full strength. He wanted all the fighters to assemble in Congo but openly suspected Ongwen, who led one of the last remaining small groups in Northern Uganda, of wanting to quit. Otti said that a new World Court – a reference to the ICC – wanted to capture and kill Ongwen but that the peace talks offered a way out. Ongwen agreed, reluctantly leaving Uganda in August 2006, the last LRA commander to make it to Congo.
As the peace talks stalled, Ongwen became reportedly depressed and resorted to alcohol, particularly after Kony allowed its consumption in the spring of 2007. In November 2007 Kony had Otti killed, effectively ending the peace process and any possibility of making the ICC arrest warrants go away, as Otti had promised Ongwen.
At the end of 2008, after the Ugandan army launched Operation Lightning Thunder against LRA bases in Garamba Park, LRA groups carried out retaliatory attacks against Congolese civilians, leaving more than a thousand dead in a few weeks. Ongwen was reportedly in charge of a group that attacked Doruma, killing many as they celebrated Christmas. Throughout 2009 and until 2014, he operated in northeastern Congo, often following river Duru into South Sudan where his troops attacked civilians, mostly to secure food. He continued to lead his own group, often refusing to liaise with Kony’s messengers or respond to Kony’s radio messages. Kony remained suspicious and critical of Ongwen. On three different occasions, he threatened to have Ongwen killed, including in October 2007 when Ongwen was the only commander to protest Otti’s execution.
In late 2014, a Kony bodyguard stumbled upon Ongwen’s group –at that point acting independently of Kony – near the Congo – Central African Republic (CAR) border. Ongwen was somehow convinced to join Kony in Kafia Kingi, a Sudanese Army controlled area in Southern Darfur, where Kony had him tortured and put under house arrest. As in previous instances, Kony said he did not want to kill him because his sister, also abducted at a young age, was one of Kony’s favorite wives. With the help of a fighter who was supposed to guard him, Ongwen managed to escape before Kony could do much worse.
Ongwen reportedly left the LRA camp barefoot and barely clothed and walked for days towards the CAR border where he was helped by cattle keepers, who took him to a Seleka group, near the town of Sam Ouandja, CAR. Not understanding Ongwen’s importance, the Seleka commander reached out, via a local merchant and an NGO worker, to the American Special Forces in Obo, CAR. A US helicopter was dispatched to transport Ongwen from Sam Ouandja to Obo where he was later handed over to the Ugandan army. After a few days in Obo at the Ugandan army base, Ongwen was flown to Bangui and then to The Hague.