Why Community Members in Barlonyo ‘Feel Left Out’ of the Ongwen Trial

Located 26 kilometers north of Lira town is the tranquil village of Barlonyo. It is a quiet trading center that lies inconspicuously next to the River Moroto, in Lira district, in the Lango sub-region of Uganda. Behind its quiet and tranquil facade, Barlonyo harbors a dark past brought about by a massacre perpetrated by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in February 2004. For this reason, Barlonyo is also home to a monument bearing the remains of 121 LRA victims.

Late in the afternoon on February 21, 2004, LRA rebels, allegedly under the leadership of Okot Odhiambo, attacked the Barlonyo internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp, subdued the small contingent of Ugandan government soldiers based there, and engaged in a burning and pillaging spree that left hundreds of civilians dead.  According to the Justice and Reconciliation Project’s 2009 report on the Barlonyo massacre, camp residents were burned alive inside their homes, hacked, stabbed, clubbed and shot. The bellies of pregnant women were slit open, with their babies thrown into the fires. Those who were not killed were abducted and marched north into Acholi land where many died in captivity. LRA Commander Okot Odhiambo allegedly ordered his soldiers to “kill every living thing.” In the space of less than three hours, over 300 people were brutally murdered and an unknown number were abducted.

While official narratives indicate that Odhiambo led the attack, residents of Barlonyo strongly claim that Ongwen was also present. Ongwen is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with 70 counts of war crimes, and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in the four former IDP camps of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok. Barlonyo does not feature anywhere in his indictment, a factor that has not gone down well with many community members living there. In interactions with community members of Barlonyo in May 2016, and a follow-up visit in February 2017, the following perspectives emerged on why they feel left out Ongwen’s trial.

The residents of Barlonyo felt that Ongwen played a key role in the 2004 attack on their village. A community member who was present during the Barlonyo massacre remarked, “We saw him [Ongwen] during the attack on Barlonyo. LRA soldiers came shouting his name when they attacked us, so it is not clear why Barlonyo wasn’t included among the communities where he operated.” Another individual who was also present during the massacre noted: “I saw Ongwen three times. I saw him physically.”

One community member provided a brief narrative of the massacre saying, “The LRA camped in a nearby village. They came in two groups and surrounded the camp and started shooting on the soldiers, who were very few. The soldiers were overpowered and ran away. His [Ongwen’s] name was being mentioned time and time again when people were torching houses. They were shouting his name and shouting that every living thing will be finished. They were blowing whistles and making a lot of noise. Some were abducted that day and [upon returning] confirmed that they saw Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo.”

Despite the above claims, Barlonyo does not feature in the list of incidents that Ongwen is currently charged with. Furthermore, it is also a known fact that Barlonyo was one of the key investigative locations for the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) in the early days of the investigation in northern Uganda. According to those interviewed and public records, it had in the past been targeted by ICC investigations.

Community members could therefore not understand why, despite this evident local knowledge, Barlonyo had been excluded from the incident selection of the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP).  As one male participant noted, “Barlonyo’s name is not mentioned [in the ICC indictment]. The evidence is clear, so why is Barlonyo not included? The ICC comes here every time asking for information from victims, but Barlonyo is still excluded. Even Bensouda [Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the ICC] was here but nothing has been done.”

Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC field outreach coordinator for Kenya and Uganda, explained the OTP’s position as follows: “[W]hen they [OTP] were bringing charges against Dominic Ongwen it was guided and constrained by the evidence in its possession… During the OTP outreach in Barlonyo in 2015 and 2016, the OTP explained that they had no evidence of Ongwen’s presence in Barlonyo and there was an appeal for anyone who could provide such evidence to do so. The OTP field investigators interacted with many villagers thereafter and still came up with nothing.”

In addition, the community members also claimed that despite having had several interactions with the ICC field outreach teams they had never received an explanation as to why Barlonyo was not included in Ongwen’s indictment. As declared by one community leader we spoke to: “All of us have met the ICC. They came several times starting from the beginning of the case [against the LRA in northern Uganda].” However, with Ongwen not being charged with any crimes that occurred in the village, it appeared that the appreciation for these interactions may have dwindled. Echoing what seemed to be a shared opinion, the same elder said that “the ICC should not come back here to do screenings and outreach again, if Barlonyo is not included.”

The ICC did confirm that several outreach events and meetings have taken place in Barlonyo before Ongwen’s transfer to the court and after but refutes the claim that no explanation was provided as to why the village was not included in the indictment. “The Prosecutor visited Barlonyo after the surrender of Ongwen and held a community outreach meeting with them. The Prosecutor explained the scope of the case and why it was limited to Lukodi at the time,” said Kamara.

Another concern that emerged from my Barlonyo consultations was that Ongwen is represented by a lawyer originally from Lango sub-region where Barlonyo is located.  One community member said, “We have seen lawyers defending Ongwen, but the truth is that he committed terrible atrocities. Despite that we only see him defended. Krispus Ayena Odongo [one of Ongwen’s lawyers] is a man from Lango. We are not happy he is defending him. Krispus Ayena is defending Ongwen, even though he knows Ongwen committed atrocities even against his own people. He only wants money.” Under international law and the rules of the ICC, Ongwen has a right to counsel. Community members however did not view it in this way and associated the involvement of Odongo with financial gain.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when asked to explain what specific expectations they may have of the Ongwen trial, the Barlonyo community focused on their fears: the fear of not being recognized as a place of atrocity and suffering, the fear of being excluded from any possible reparation scheme as well as the fear that justice would never be realized for the victims of the Barlonyo massacre. One member had a different take, suggesting that the Ugandan government should be held accountable for the Barlonyo massacre. He said, “If Dominic Ongwen wins the case, the government of Uganda will stand to answer because they had the responsibility to protect their citizens. We will take the government to court.”

However, the community members reluctantly conceded the fact that Ongwen is being tried also for thematic crimes, i.e. crimes not related to specific incidents but rather to specific types of conduct, such as the LRA practice of committing sexual and gender-based violence and of using of child soldiers, is a positive development that they hope will also cover Barlonyo.

Overall, despite Barlonyo’s exclusion from the charges against Ongwen, the community members in Barlonyo confirmed their belief in his overall responsibility and in the value of his trial. At the same time, they stated their clear disappointment at not being included in the trial process and expressed a request to be “told” who had committed atrocities in their village, if not Ongwen.

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.