Anushka Sehmi joins JiC for this contribution to JiC’s symposium on the life and trials of Dominic Ongwen. Anushka is a member of the external team of lawyers led by Joseph Manoba and Francisco Cox, representing 2,564 victims participating in the case against Dominic Ongwen before the International Criminal Court. The views below are provided in a personal capacity.
Warning: This article details acts of severe violence that some may find disturbing.
An especially long and hot day comes to an end in Gulu town, in northern Uganda. The sun is just starting to set. The unceasing gusts of wind leave a fine brown film of dust on my laptop. I promise myself to clean it once I get back to the hotel. My colleagues and I have just finished interviewing several victims participating in the case of Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal court (ICC) in order to establish whether they would be interested in presenting evidence as witnesses in the trial.
One of the people we interviewed, Peter (pseudonym) describes in detail how he was abducted from Abok IDP camp in June 2004 by Dominic Ongwen’s Sinia Brigade. At the time, he was at home sleeping in the hut that he shared with his siblings and parents when the camp was attacked by the LRA. All he remembers is being woken up to the sounds of screams and gunshots. His parents and siblings were nowhere to be seen. Laden with a large bucket of salt that had been looted from the camp, Peter was forced to march long into the night along with the other camp residents who had also been abducted. Peter was 12 years old at the time and had been attending Abok Primary School prior to the attack.
He described how, from the moment of their conscription, the new abductees were taught to live in terror. Punishments were inflicted publicly (and sometimes collectively), as a means of terrorising other recruits. Aspart of his initiation into the LRA, Peter was beaten every day with a cane in order to “remove the civilian” from him. After enduring two weeks of these beatings, Peter and others who had been abducted commenced their formal training.
During the interview, Peter pauses and then hesitantly mentions that one of his fellow abductees tried to escape after two weeks. The boy in question was around 15 or 16 years old. The would-be escapee was found by senior commanders in the group and dragged in front of a tree, near where Peter and two other boys who had been recently abducted were standing. The choice was simple: either beat this boy to death or be killed.
“I was scared. The boy was brought to me because I was the youngest.”
Peter and the other two boys complied with the order and, using the wooden sticks they had been given as part of their training, hit the boy on his head repeatedly, eventually killing him. All he could think of at the time was that he would be killed if he did not comply with this order. The boy’s body was dragged away by two other abductees on the orders of one of the commanders. Tragically, this was not the only time Peter was forced to kill someone in this manner; it happened several times during his two years in the Sinia Brigade.
Two years after his abduction, Peter was finally able to escape during an LRA ambush with the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF). Miraculously, the ambush took place near the village where he grew up, and after evading both the UPDF and the LRA, he walked towards where his parents used to live. Starving, he was digging up cassava roots in one of the fields his father used to till. It was still early morning and he saw a man in the distance staring at him intently. He recognised his father from a distance of 30 meters away.
“I kept calling him twice “Baba Baba”, he wanted to run away and I moved towards him. When I was near him he started crying and I kept telling him not to cry because I was back.”
Peter’s story is not exceptional and the ICC Trial Chamber has heard from many Prosecution witnesses who described the brutal manner in which they were initiated into the LRA. Ben, (pseudonym), a participating victim, was also abducted from Abok IDP camp when he was 10 years old by Ongwen’s Sinia Brigade. They dragged him outside and tied him around the waist to others who had been abducted from the camp. He was given a heavy bag of beans to carry which had been looted from the camp. During his abduction, he was forced to have sexual intercourse with the corpse of a girl who had been killed by the rebels for failing to carry the heavy load that she had been given. He managed to escape from the LRA three months after his abduction.
Tom, (pseudonym), a participating victim who had been abducted several times by the LRA, was first abducted in 1989 when he was around 9 years old. He also underwent the horrors of the initiation process into the LRA and was unable to escape for 6-years. As a child he recalls being told that if he tried to escape his whole family would be killed. He told us that as he grew older it became more and more difficult to carry out the “work” and harder to believe the words of the senior commanders.
“I had started to become difficult even when they would assign us “work”. I would say that I was too sick to go out, I would also refuse to eat with the rest when they returned because they would have blood on their bodies.”
The brutal initiation practices in the LRA – either being forced to kill or the desecration of dead bodies – were principally utilised as instruments of control. They served multiple purposes: desensitizing the newly abducted to extreme violence; breaking down their psychological defences; and ensuring that they would be unable to return to their communities out of fear of stigma and punishment. Such acts of violence were used as a means to terrorise, shame and thereby control these children.
Many commentators familiar with the Ongwen case have pointed out the complex issues that arise as result of the victim-perpetrator dilemma in this case. Dominic Ongwen was also abducted as a child and grew up within the unforgiving confines of the LRA. However, for Peter, who was abducted at a similar age as Ongwen, the victim-perpetrator continuum poses no dilemma.
“He should be sentenced to death.”
I point out to Peter that the possibility of a death sentence does not exist within the framework of the ICC Statute.
“Then life imprisonment.”
For Peter, Tom and Ben who were all abducted at a young age, the fact that Dominic Ongwen was also abducted at a young age is irrelevant. Giving the examples of their lived experiences of the LRA, they argue that even though Dominic Ongwen was abducted at a young age, rising through the ranks of the LRA involved an element of choice.
A choice to “work hard and abduct people in order to climb the ranks.”
For Peter, there is a difference between him and other child soldiers like him, who carried out acts of violence against their will, escaping when they had the chance, and Dominic Ongwen who “worked hard” and rose through the ranks of the LRA leadership. The narrative of Dominic Ongwen as a victim who should not have been prosecuted by the ICC ruptures as soon as he begins to take a more proactive stance within the LRA hierarchy, according to the interviewees.
Alcinda Honwana has argued that child soldiers are not ‘empty vessels into whom violence is poured.’ The constraints under which they act does not necessarily result in the dissolution of their agency and they maintain a level of ‘tactical agency’ whereby ‘[T[hey can pretend to be ill to avoid certain tasks; they can plan to escape; they can deliberately fail to perform their duties properly.’ And with this agency comes responsibility for their actions.
Peter ends the interview by expressing the hope that Dominic Ongwen will be convicted and sentenced accordingly.
“If it was not for the war I would have had a brighter future. I want the judges to remember the young children so that they can remember that we have a voice.”
Participating victims have welcomed Ongwen’s conviction as one step forward towards the vindication of their right to truth, justice and reparations. At the same time their concept of justice also encompasses economic justice where they are able to live a dignified life, insulated from further human rights violations and violence. Furthermore, given that the communities in northern Uganda were doubly victimized by both the LRA and the UPDF, redress for crimes committed by Yoweri Museveni’s UPDF also remains high on their agenda.