Approximately 40 kilometers north of Gulu town lies the little village of Coorom, located in Lamogi Sub-County, Amuru District, Uganda. Coorom is the home of Dominic Ongwen, the former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Prior to the capture Ongwen in 2015, Coorom was just another quiet and tranquil village in post-conflict northern Uganda, struggling to re-establish itself after many years of fighting. However, after the capture of Ongwen, Coorom has risen to prominence, attracting researchers and transitional justice practitioners. In addition, since the trial of Ongwen started in December 2016, the ICC field office in Uganda has ensured that trial proceedings are screened to the residents of Coorom. Given that Coorom is largely inhabited by Ongwen’s kinsmen, this move by the ICC has attracted criticism from some people, especially those who consider themselves victims of Ongwen’s alleged crimes. This criticism is even more pronounced given that many people in Coorom that I spoke to think Ongwen deserves to be forgiven.
Asked why the court decided to conduct outreach in Coorom, Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC field outreach coordinator for Kenya and Uganda explained, “In addition to ensuring that victims and affected communities that fall within the scope of the case are provided adequate information and access to the proceedings against Dominic Ongwen, the outreach program also makes efforts to reach out to supporters or sympathizer communities and groups that show huge interest in following the proceedings. Coorom, being the birth place of Ongwen is therefore a community that has to see ’justice in motion’ – the conduct of a fair and transparent trial in a manner that guarantees due respect to the rights of all the parties and participants in the proceedings.”
The people of Coorom seem to be happy with this move by the ICC. “If anyone told me that Ongwen was so well dressed and can even take notes, I would have dismissed that as a lie. Now I see, therefore I believe,’’ said another community leader during one of the screening sessions.
I traveled to Coorom in late January to have a direct interaction with the residents there. While many of the people I interacted with were happy to be following the proceedings as a result of the initiative by the ICC, many were also direct and straightforward in voicing their opinion that Ongwen should be forgiven.
Just before I arrived in Coorom, I stopped at a large trading center called Olwal and approached a group of three youthful bodaboda (motorcycle) taxi riders who were seated by the roadside, greeted them, introduced myself, and engaged them in a friendly chat. One of the young men who identified himself as Robinson told me they had heard of the trial of Ongwen but had not had time to attend any of the community screening events being organized by the ICC field office. I asked them why, and one of his other colleagues called Godfrey told me they were too busy working to attend the trial. Another young man called Alfred who had joined us said he had been following the proceedings on and off through the radio.
We chatted for a while as I updated them about the trial of Ongwen, but there appeared to be little enthusiasm on their part. I then told them I was heading to Coorom to talk to the people there about the trial. In a move that surprised me, they immediately offered to come with me on condition that I would drop them off on my way back. I accepted as this was an opportunity to further chat with them about the trial. They piled into the car and we set off.
After we had driven for about a minute or two in silence, I asked them why they did not seem to be enthusiastic about following the trial of Ongwen.
Robinson, who was seated next to me in the front passenger seat, replied: “This trial is taking place in The Hague, at a very high level. It makes it very difficult for us to follow closely. Many people are also saying that he [Ongwen] is going to lose since he is being tried by a big court [the ICC].” His response attracted a laugh from his two colleagues in the back seat.
I then asked the other two what their opinion about the trial was. Godfrey said, “In my opinion, I think Ongwen should be forgiven because he was acting under orders of people higher than him. I am also told that he was abducted at a young age.”
Alfred concurred with Godfrey by saying, “Ongwen cannot be compared to Joseph Kony who started the war and formed the LRA. I heard that when Ongwen was asked by the judge to respond to the charges against him, he said it was the LRA to blame for all what happened and not him as an individual. I think I agree with him.”
Interestingly, the above opinion was what I would repeatedly hear from many people in Coorom for the next hour I was to spend there. We continued chatting as we drove, and a few minutes later we got to the small trading center that was the village of Ongwen. The trading center itself was so small, with only a few kiosks and huts in sight given that many people lived in the outskirts. It was also deserted with only a few women selling goods in the nearby market.
My arrival did not go unnoticed. I was soon surrounded by a group of youth and a few elderly people. I explained my mission to them and asked if they were comfortable chatting about the trial. No one had any objections, I spent the next hour casually chatting with them and walking around the trading center as I took notes. I narrowed my questions down to asking them their opinion about the ongoing trial of Ongwen and what they thought about the outreach being conducted by the ICC.
Generally, many people I talked to were happy with the live screenings being conducted by the ICC field office. A local leader said, “At least our fears are reduced when we see him in court, alive and healthy.” His opinion concurred with an earlier conversation I had had with Kamara where she had noted that, “They [people of Coorom] feel reassured seeing that Ongwen is well taken care of at the ICC and that he has a lawyer that represents his interests.”
A general consensus, however, seemed to be that Ongwen should be forgiven. The people cited reasons ranging from the fact that he was abducted and forced to fight, to saying he was acting under orders from Joseph Kony, and that he was not the only LRA commander to have committed crimes in northern Uganda.
One young man who identified himself as Jackson told me that “the program [live screening] by the ICC is enabling us to follow what is happening at the court, and we are grateful for that. However, many people are praying that Ongwen wins the case.”
Another young man called Patrick chipped in and said, “Ongwen should be forgiven because he did not join the LRA willingly. He also did not commit the crimes alone.”
I asked them why the majority of the people in Coorom were in favor of having Ongwen forgiven and if there were any people who had expressed a contrary opinion. Jackson replied before anyone else by saying, “Ongwen is our relative and the majority of people here are related to him.” A local leader called Mukora explained more patiently that “the majority of people here say he should be forgiven because he was abducted while young, but there are some few people who say he should be tried and convicted.”
In my short interaction with the few people I met in Coorom, I was not able to come across anyone with a contrary opinion.
I then asked them if they would be comfortable with having Ongwen coming back to live among them in the event that he was acquitted. This attracted mixed reactions, but the majority of people seemed to have no problem with Ongwen returning to live among them. A young man called Owiny replied, “It will be his choice. If he wants to come back and live here we shall welcome him.” Another young man called Patrick said, “I am not sure if Ongwen will want to come back and live in northern Uganda. I am sure he will be afraid because of the crimes he accused of committing. If he chooses to return to Uganda I think he will not stay in northern Uganda.”
I finally asked them how they would react to a guilty verdict given that the majority of the people in Coorom were calling for Ongwen to be forgiven.
The local leader called Mukora replied, “The people should not be saddened by a guilty verdict because that is part of the law. I only pray that people are properly sensitized on why he was convicted then they will accept the verdict.” His opinion was shared by many other people present.
Robinson, my new friend from the trip had the last word saying, “People in Coorom will not be happy with a guilty verdict, however, the law is the law and there is nothing we can do. The people will only need to understand why he had to be convicted. We also pray that if he is convicted they give him a sentence that takes into consideration the fact that he was abducted.”
As the trial of Ongwen continues, the above opinions from the people of Coorom indicate the mixed reactions that people in northern Uganda have had. It is also an indicator of the need for continuous outreach even in the aftermath of the trial. As significantly noted by Kamara, “The screening of the trial in such a community does not only bring the process closer and accessible to interested stakeholders, it’s a conduit that addresses the concerns and fears of such communities, reinforces key messages, thereby dispelling rumours and creating a better understanding of the Court’s judicial procedures.”
Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local Non-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.