Kjell Anderson joins JiC for this first post in our ongoing symposium on The Life and Trials of Dominic Ongwen. Kjell is the director of the Master of Human Rights program at the University of Manitoba, and the author of Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account as well as a forthcoming book on Dominic Ongwen.
The story of Dominic Ongwen troubles our essentialist stereotypes of the pathological war criminal: relentless men who are either indifferent to human suffering or, more typically, actively seek it out. Of course, this image is already a gross oversimplification that fails to account for the diverse backgrounds and motives of perpetrators of international crimes. There is a burgeoning literature, including my book Perpetrating Genocide, that repudiates these misguided perspectives.
Yet Ongwen’s story is particularly troubling. In this piece, I will draw from research I have conducted for my forthcoming book on Dominic Ongwen (The Dilemma of Dominic Ongwen, Rutgers University Press, 2021). This ongoing research project has included (anonymized) interviews with approximately 90 individuals in northern Uganda in 2009 and 2018, almost all of whom have personal and direct knowledge of Dominic Ongwen. They include family members, former LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) fighters, people working on his trial, and victims. The former LRA encompass individuals involved in his abduction, individuals he abducted, senior commanders who were his superior officers at various points in his LRA ‘career’, his ‘wives,’ and his subordinates within the LRA. I will draw from my interviews to offer an impression of Dominic Ongwen’s life before his trial.
Dominic Ongwen had a typical Acholi childhood. He was born in 1975 in Coorom – a tiny village around 40km southwest of the regional centre of Gulu. The village is one of several in the area, with clusters of mud-brick houses, set amidst packed earth compounds. Beyond the compounds, with chickens pecking in the soil, there are tall green grasses shaded by canopied trees. In this village hinterland, one finds gardens of root vegetables and leafy greens. Beyond this, one would find the lum (the Bush), the domain of spirits, and the LRA, during Dominic’s childhood. Yet, a cousin described Dominic’s childhood as “peaceful, loving, and welcoming.”
Dominic’s life was thrown into disarray one morning in 1987. He, and several of his classmates were abducted on their way to school. His cousin described her despair on discovering that he was missing: “I had come to town to buy salt; when I returned, I found that he was already abducted. This incident really depressed me; I cried for one week, I could not eat. I did nothing for over a month.”
Ongwen suffered terribly during his first days in the LRA. Like other abductees, the LRA fighters bound his hands, forced him to carry heavy loads, and constantly threatened him. Yet, the wife of a then senior LRA commander recounted that Ongwen adjusted relatively quickly to this highly abnormal context; she warned him “If you escape from here, you will not reach home. The animals will eat you. Others don’t listen, they just escape and don’t reach home. But for him he used to listen and obey.” Ongwen’s survival instinct and dutiful nature (mentioned by numerous interview subjects encompassing all stages of his life) paradoxically contributed to his survival, as well as to his eventual identification by the Office of the Prosecutor as one of those “the most responsible” for LRA atrocities; this process of case selection at the ICC is also guided by purely pragmatic factors, and one can very well imagine other LRA personnel who were more responsible than Ongwen but not charged.
Like all LRA “recruits,” Dominic Ongwen underwent extensive training and an indoctrination process. He gained notice from Joseph Kony, who apparently saw Ongwen as a reliable and capable young officer. Ongwen was close to Kony, but according to Kony’s former chief of security “Kony was like a chameleon – he would change at any time to a different colour.” One of Ongwen’s wives recounted that Ongwen’s demeanour changed completely when in the presence of Kony.
Ongwen’s prowess on the battlefield was renowned within the LRA: he was a courageous fighter and seen by many of his colleagues as a fair and adept commander. As one fighter recalls: “He was indeed a great fighter. He used to shoot using this gun which is placed on the ground. With magazines strapped all over his body. He was very committed to his work, he would fight whole heartedly.”
I have the sense the Dominic was widely admired and respected within the LRA, yet one must approach these insider perspectives with a degree of caution. This is not to say that they are untrue, only that they are often still shaped by the values of the LRA, ones strongly imprinted on the minds of young abductees. Many of these former LRA are quick to deny that Ongwen was ever involved in “atrocities” or “killing civilians” but it becomes quickly apparent that the LRA operated as its own moral universe. The LRA was not a morality-free zone as it is sometimes represented in popular pieces on child soldiers. Rather, it was a group that was replete with rules, indeed with morality.
This is apparent, for example, when examining the prevalence and nature of sexual violence within the group. The LRA expressly prohibited rape, and individuals who carried out rapes could be punished quite severely. Yet, forced marriages were not considered to be rapes by the group, despite the lack of consent from the “wives.” Accounts of the LRA are replete with appalling stories from these so-called “bush wives,” and perhaps the most disturbing testimonies from the trial came from these women. One former “wife” recounted to me that “…the most painful thing was being forced in marriage to a man, which we all went through. Because it is even hard to give birth when you are still young. In my first birth, I had basically died, they were even planning to bury me; it was the morning coldness which awoke me. Since the marriage is not in your interest, even the children born you don’t love them so much. That is all I can say because when one cannot talk about all the experience they had since it may begin to remind you of the trauma you had.”
It is wrong, however, to represent women in the LRA only as passive victims. Many women took great pride in their role as fighters within the group. Amongst Ongwen’s “wives” one also finds diverse perspectives: some testified for the Defence and some for the Prosecution. One of these former wives (who may or may not have testified at trial) remembered Ongwen fondly, saying “I still miss him.” Dominic was, for some of the wives, the best possible outcome within a horrifically abusive system. He was younger than many of the other commanders and possibly less brutal. Yet, Ongwen’s less brutal disposition is also belied by testimony in the trial that details with agonizing intimate detail Ongwen’s alleged personal role in the rape of underage women.
This brings us back to the issue of atrocities within the LRA. If we take an inside-out perspective from within the perpetrator group (the LRA), atrocities take on a very different form. From within the group, acts of atrocities meant random violence. LRA violence against captured Ugandan Army (UPDF) soldiers was not an atrocity; slaughtered villagers were not civilians but government collaborators. The LRA, after all, was facing a government that was itself guilty of atrocities. This creeping hostility towards the local population from the LRA was also rooted in just-world thinking, whereby all enemies of the LRA were contaminated (in a spiritual sense), and all individuals who suffered the atrocious violence of the LRA must have been deserving. The group became more and more isolated from the population it claimed to represent – never a good sign for compliance with international law or humanitarian norms.
The same interview subjects who denied Dominic’s role in atrocities, would sometimes give accounts of Dominic’s actions that would undoubtedly be seen by us as crimes and even atrocities. Yet, these same former fighters saw themselves in Ongwen. He was an abductee, a model fighter and an effective commander, and to attribute guilt to Dominic Ongwen meant accepting their own culpability for acts committed under highly coercive and brutal circumstances. There are prodigious accounts within the trial and the scholarly literature on the LRA of the harsh consequences of disobeying orders or attempting escape. This atmosphere of fear and surveillance was intensified by the spiritual beliefs of the group, which included the idea that Joseph Kony had the power to read their minds and that wrongful acts within the LRA framework could result in immediate ‘karmic’ punishment. For example, if you committed an act of sexual misconduct, like having sex with one of the wives of the commanders, your genitals might be shot in the next engagement. The LRA abductees did not just ‘go through the motions’ of adhering to the LRA worldview – these were deeply held beliefs, which many former LRA still maintain to varying degrees.
There is a broader issue of Ongwen’s trajectory within the LRA and whether he was: one, a victim who survived a brutal and coercive system, or two, a model LRA fighter with an aptitude for cruelty. In my view, this is a false dichotomy arising from the adversarial structure of the criminal trial. If I have learned anything from years of studying and speaking with perpetrators of mass atrocities it is simply that “cruel men can do kind things and kind men can be cruel” (as ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in her opening statement). This is scarcely a contradiction – our actions are all shaped by many considerations and motivations. This multidimensionality of human character reaches extremes in the context of mass atrocities, yet it should be familiar to us all. Dominic Ongwen was undoubtedly kind to many LRA recruits, and he was undoubtedly unkind to others.
Going beyond the narrow bounds of criminal culpability, where does this leave us? How should we feel about Dominic Ongwen? I spoke to a man who was abducted by Dominic Ongwen when he was 14 years old, who went on to abduct other children – “even my hands are not clean.” I asked him how he reconciles his positive feelings for Ongwen (who he says was “like a father figure”) with the fact that Ongwen took him from his home as a child. He laughs, and says, “it is very difficult to balance all that!”