Rosebell Kagumire joins JiC for the second installation in our ongoing symposium on Dominic Ongwen and the prosecution of child soldiers. Rosebell is a Ugandan journalist, communications specialist, public speaker and award-winning blogger. She has over 10 years experience working at the intersection between media and rights in crisis, women’s rights, peace and security. For previous posts in the symposium, click here.
My first trip to northern Uganda was in 2005. I was working at a newspaper in Kampala and went on an assignment. The air was still and tense, our hosts warned us not to stay late at the bar in Gulu town, the biggest town in the province of Acholiland. I had many interviews, comprising of countless horror stories from children as young as five on what they had gone through during the war. They were still ‘night commuters’ – children would leave their homes in the rural areas to spend a night in the relative safety of Gulu town where the army could protect them from being abducted. I was one of the Ugandans privileged enough not to have any direct experience with war. My parents weren’t. Post-independence Uganda saw many turbulences and the struggle for power continued. In the vacuum and absence of national consolidation, resistance and rebel movements mushroomed.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) were one of the last rebel movements to emerge and put up the longest rebellion, well known for their horrendous tactics and the terrible crimes they committed against the populations of Northern and North Eastern Uganda. The children I spoke with on that 2005 trip lived in a totally different world than me, even though we were from the same country. Besides the LRA’s violence, they also witnessed other children, as well as their siblings, parents and relatives either mutilated or die of preventable disease in internally displaced peoples camps set up by the Government of Uganda to ‘protect’ them. You didn’t have to know international criminal law to know these were crimes against humanity.
One of the teenage boys I interviewed was Simon. Simon had been recently released after a few months at a rehabilitation centre. But it wasn’t really rehabilitation, as the sheer volume of children either rescued or escaped from the LRA was too high for the available centres to provide adequate psychosocial support.
Simon had passed through one of those centres and so we sat down to hear his story. As with the heinous acts many children recounted to me, it was hard not to feel pressure rise in your chest listening to these stories. Simon was forced to kill his parents with a machete before he was abducted. The rebels threatened to kill the whole family if he wouldn’t do it. Forcing Simon to kill his parents began the process of mutating him into a child soldier. Simon spent many years with the LRA, during which he knew he couldn’t return. How could he come back to a community that knew he had killed his own parents? And what was home? His siblings, his relatives, could he ever be forgiven? These were questions that Simon couldn’t move past.
Like many child soldiers, Simon would go on to kill many more people during his time in the LRA. Finally, after five years in the bush at the age of 20 he was returned to his surviving relatives in the camp after a rescue by the Ugandan army in 2005. But the family didn’t want anything to do with him and, in the absence of proper government run shelters and psychosocial services, Simon still battled trauma and nightmares when I visited him again in 2008.
Simon’s life comes to mind when considering the proceedings against Dominic Ongwen. Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a child and rose through the ranks of the rebel group. When he was surrendered to the ICC in early 2015, my thought was that any of the children I had interviewed could have become an Ongwen. If they hadn’t been rescued, some could have gone on with their fear of return replaced with the power that the gun and rebel hierarchy bring.
We are told that Ongwen’s trial is about justice. But what does that mean for the local communities who have to heal? This includes those families whose children were abducted just like Ongwen and families whose children were abducted by Ongwen. The calls for forgiveness from some victims are not a surprise. Many know their own children are still struggling to overcome the trauma and cope with the crimes they were forced to carry out.
While some believe Ongwen’s trial will go a long way to holding LRA accountable and bring some form of justice to victims (evidenced by the more 2,000 victims who have agreed to support the trial), other victims have called for local justice measures and reconciliation. This has precedence, they claim, as top former LRA commanders were granted amnesty by the Government even though they could easily be charged with hundreds of counts of war crimes themselves. The commanders live freely in northern Uganda and many argue that, given that he was abducted, Ongwen, deserves the same pardon.
On the other hand, the ICC trial will be important for both victims and the country as a means to understand and confront what really happened in northern Uganda. Ongwen faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity include murder, persecution, torture, pillaging, conscription of child soldiers, and sexual and gender-based crimes, which he allegedly committed between 2003 and 2005 in the internally displaced camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Abok and Odek in the north. But in Uganda, while many condemn the LRA and the crimes committed, missing is the role of government which many in the north would have wanted to see interrogated — and investigated.
For the people of northern Uganda, the charge of forced marriage will be of particular significance. The Rome Statute doesn’t cover it as a crime but the prosecutor has charged it as cruel inhuman treatment. Through the prosecution of forced marriage, the sexual crimes against many women who were abducted and given as rewards for men fighting will uniquely bring out the plight of women during this war. The trial will also have to dig deeper into how one transitions from victim to perpetrator and how capable one can be, if abducted, in forming the necessary intent to commit the crimes Ongwen is charged with. The trial in general will hopefully highlight the complexity of the 20-plus year war where the lines between victim and perpetrator are sometimes blurred.
Many also hope that Ongwen’s ICC appearance and his possible trial will move the Government and other actors to finally tend to the real needs of the communities on the ground who still have no reparations programs nor reconciliation and truth-seeking processes. The communities are still in need psycho-social support and it is largely wanting. If the proceedings against Ongwen at the ICC can help increase the chances that the people of northern Uganda receive the attention and services they deserve, it holds out the possibility of being a success.