This post was written by Lino Owor Ogora, Director, Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives, an NGO based in Gulu District, Uganda, that works with children, youth, women, and communities to promote justice, development, and economic recovery in Northern Uganda. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
On May 19, residents of Lukodi village in northern Uganda commemorated the 12th anniversary of the Lukodi Massacre. The prayers are held annually to remember the victims who lost their lives almost 12 years ago when Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels raided Lukodi village. This attack resulted in the indiscriminate killing of several civilians, destruction of property, and the abduction of children. During the memorial, an International Criminal Court (ICC) representative also revealed the trial of Dominic Ongwen may commence on December 5 of this year.
Unlike previous commemorations, this one was different because Ongwen, the ex-LRA commander alleged to have led the attack against Lukodi, is currently in the custody of the ICC.
Another factor that made this particular anniversary of the Lukodi massacre significant was that for the first time ever, the ceremony was graced by Rwot David Onen Acana II, the Acholi Paramount Chief. Also in attendance were representatives of the ICC from the Office of the Prosecutor and the Victims’ Participation and Reparations Section. Victims’ legal representatives Francisco Cox, Joseph Akwenyu Manoba, and Jane Anywar Adong were also present. Members of civil society in Gulu, the media, traditional and religious leaders, and community members of Lukodi were present at the function as well.
Representatives of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) attended the ceremony and interacted with two survivors of the massacre. We asked them whether after 12 years there had been healing and recovery for survivors of the massacre. They said:
How can I recover without reparations? I lost my father, mother, and two of my children during the massacre. It was not by choice that we were residents of Lukodi; we were born here, and the massacre found us here. We therefore strongly demand for compensation (Male Survivor).
A woman can only recover from the death of her newly born baby after she gives birth to another one. We can only recover when compensation is made for our relatives, property, and the dignity we lost (Female Survivor).
The ceremony commenced at noon with prayers led by Bishop Nelson Onono Onweng, the retired Bishop of Gulu Diocese. Thereafter, local leaders, civil society representatives, and religious and traditional leaders were given an opportunity to make a few remarks.
Speaking on behalf of the ICC Prosecutor, Mr. Paul Bradfield revealed that the prosecution team was considering December 5, 2016 as the possible date on which the trial of Ongwen could commence. He also noted that the commemoration day was not only significant for remembering those who lost their lives, but also for ensuring that those who committed the crimes should be held accountable. He said that the ICC Prosecutor “remains determined and committed to see that justice is done for people in Lukodi.” The ICC Prosecutor also asked victims to be patient given that the trial would take time.
Mr. Francisco Cox, one of the victims’ legal representatives, reassured the people that they would do all in their means to “take victims voices to The Hague” and remind the ICC of the need to move out of the comfort zone and respond to reparations needs on northern Uganda.
Asked if they felt the ICC would deliver justice for victims in Lukodi, the two massacre survivors had this to say:
If the trial does not bring about justice and we are not compensated the Government of Uganda must explain the circumstances under which we lost many of our relatives on that day (Male Survivor).
The Court [ICC] is unpredictable, but we believe Ongwen cannot win the case with all the evidence against him. We are hopeful that the ICC will bring justice for the people of Lukodi (Female Survivor).
Civil society representatives were also given an opportunity to speak. Mr. Francis Nono from the Refugee Law Project noted the importance of documentation as a means of gathering evidence and also pursuing justice for victims of conflict. Mr. Oryem Nyeko from the Justice and Reconciliation Project noted the importance of memorial days and called upon all stakeholders to continue having memorial days in whatever way possible. The representative from African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET) noted the importance of health rehabilitation for victims, and a representative from FJDI noted the need to continuously advocate for reparations from the Government of Uganda, which bears the primary responsibility for implementing a reparations program.
Rwot David Onen Acana II, the Acholi Paramount Chief and Chief Guest of the day expressed support for the ongoing trial at the ICC. In a particularly moving narrative, he told the people about how Ongwen had saved their lives during the Juba Peace talks. According to Rwot Acana, the incident occurred when religious and traditional leaders had gone to meet with the LRA, and there was a plot to kill them all and blame it on the Government of Uganda. He said that Ongwen had been one of the LRA commanders who pleaded with Joseph Kony not to kill the religious and traditional leaders. The Paramount Chief said that because of this incident he would ideally have advocated for Ongwen to be pardoned. However, given the fact that Ongwen had committed crimes, he needed to be held accountable.
The Paramount Chief also noted that conflict had taken its toll, leading to the erosion of morals and increase in crime in Acholi. He lamented the fact that people had rejected formerly abducted persons and children born in captivity, denying them access to land. He decried the land conflicts that were taking place in the aftermath of the conflict saying: “The land of Acholi has soaked up the blood of innocent people, so issues related to land should not be handled in a joking way.”
The Paramount Chief called upon all people to support the trial at the ICC. He noted that while some people would be happy with the outcome of the trial and others would not be happy with it, but at the end of the day justice would have prevailed.
The comments of the Paramount Chief carry a lot of weight given that he is the traditional Acholi leader. It also dispels the widely held belief that many people in Acholi do not support the ICC. His comments come at a crucial time when the ICC is preparing to commence the trial of Ongwen. It is therefore a big boost for the ICC in the region.
With the prosecution aiming to commence the trial of Ongwen before the end of the year, victims in Lukodi are optimistic that the outcome will result in reparations for them. Asked what the people want for reparations, the two massacre survivors had this to say:
Our Children are suffering. We want the following reparations: sponsorship/ scholarships for our children to go to school, good health facilities and vocational institutions. Reparations should not be left for the ICC alone. The Government of Uganda is the first responsible body to compensate us. If there is no money for reparations then the Government of Uganda should give us livestock so that we replace the ones we lost during the conflict.
We want the Government of Uganda to compensate us in monetary terms and the money should be paid directly to every member of Lukodi because the Government failed to protect us.
The above comments are strong indicators that victims in northern Uganda have high expectations that the ICC will deliver justice for them.