A former fighter with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how new abductees are initiated into the LRA with a mix of ritual and harsh punishment.
Witness P-264 also narrated to the court on Monday what happened during an attack on Odek where a camp for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda was located.
The witness was testifying on his first day in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the LRA. Ongwen is charged with attacking Odek and three other camps for internally displaced people that occurred between 2003 and 2004. The other three camps are Pajule, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen is also charged with forcibly marrying seven women and conscripting child soldiers.
Before Witness P-264 began his testimony on Monday, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said Trial Chamber IX decided to allow the witness to testify about any acts he may have committed while with the LRA and that testimony would not be used against him either directly or indirectly in any proceedings before the ICC so long as he told the truth.
Judge Schmitt also said the witness had received similar assurances from the Ugandan government. The judge said the court would hear in private session any testimony about acts the witness committed in a country other than Uganda or when he was 18 years or older. In addition to this decision, Witness P-264 has a legal adviser, Fabian Raimondo, to guide him when he is giving self-incriminating testimony.
On Monday, Witness P-264 told the ICC that soon after he and others were abducted by the LRA, they were initiated to the group in a ceremony that was conducted in the evening. He said he and 20 to 30 other new abductees were told they were going to be anointed. The witness said a specific commander was in charge of the ceremony and that commander decorated the place where they were to be anointed.
“In the evening we were all summoned to go there. We were bare-chested. We were told to start clapping, and we started singing a [Christian] praise song. And shea oil was taken out,” Witness P-264 said.
He said the commander made the sign of the cross as he put the shea oil on their foreheads. The witness said the commander did the same thing on their feet. He said the commander then told them the effect the oil would have on them.
“If you want to escape that thing will make you confused, and you will rotate and go back to where you came from,” said Witness P-264, explaining what they were told.
“We were told that if you go to battle that it will protect you from bullets,” said the witness.
He said among the people he was initiated with there were some who were grown, others who were still children, and others who were his size. He said he could not estimate their ages.
Witness P-264 said that new abductees were also caned as part of their initiation into the LRA. He said each abductee received 100 to 200 strokes of a cane. He told the court he was not caned immediately after he was abducted but later when he attempted to escape.
The witness said he was caught, his hands were tied, and he was blindfolded. Witness P-264 said that as this occurred people he called “veteran soldiers” were sent to get two types of sticks: a club and cassava stems. They were also asked to find a machete. He said he was asked to choose one of them. He said the LRA fighters commented that he had not been initiated because he had not been caned after he had been abducted.
“They told me that they should begin by rubbing my neck with the cassava stems. Somebody was holding my feet. Somebody also stepped on my chest. I told them that I had a dream I want to go back to school. They told me that in the bush, ‘We also have schools if you want to go to school,’” the witness said.
“They started beating me with the machete. They beat me on my back. They beat me on my buttocks. My buttocks were bleeding. My chest was bleeding as well,” he continued.
He said they then told him, “Look at the sun for the last time,” before removing his blindfold. Witness P-264 said soon afterwards people started screaming that there is a helicopter, and it started bombing where they were.
The witness said he was left tied up, so he rolled until he got into a cassava field. He said this is where the LRA fighters who had fled the helicopter bombing found him once the helicopter left the area. He said they untied him and gave him a bag to carry. He told them he could not because he was weak, but they asked him whether he wanted to do die.
“I was in extreme pain and I was afraid, so I carried the bag. I carried the bag and I fell down,” Witness P-264 said, explaining he was only able to carry it for a short distance. He said the bag was given to someone else to carry, and a girl cleaned his wounds with warm water.
Witness P-264 told the court that at the time they were abducted one of the abductees escaped. He said the abductee who escaped was a friend of his. The witness told the court the LRA fighters went looking for him, but they returned without the escaped abductee.
“They told us they found him, and they killed him. They told us if we are in doubt about that they would send us to his funeral,” Witness P-264 told the court. He said when he successfully escaped from the LRA and returned home he found out that his friend was still alive.
Later in the day, Witness P-264 described to the court the attack on Odek. He said all the commanders of Sinia brigade meet before the attack to discuss how they would conduct the attack.
The witness told the court he knew about this meeting because he was an escort to one of the battalion commanders, and he carried the commander’s chair to the meeting venue, placed it where his commander was to sit and then left to sit some distance away. Witness P-264 told the court that he was an escort to Ben Acellam who was the commander of the Oka battalion. Oka was one of three battalions in Sinia brigade, which the witness said Ongwen commanded.
He said once the commanders finished their meeting they gathered the fighters of the different battalions to give them instructions. He said they were told to go loot food and be aware that there were soldiers at Odek.
“They said that when you get people who can be recruited to the ranks of the LRA abduct them. We were also told to abduct civilians to carry food,” said Witness P-264.
The witness said before they went they were anointed as happened whenever the LRA went into battle. He also said spies were sent ahead to locate the barracks and the camp and return with information about Odek.
Witness P-264 said they then marched to Odek, and when they got close they split into three groups. He told the court one group went to the camp to go and loot food. He said another group went to attack the barracks, and a third group stayed behind to receive any people abducted by the other two groups.
The witness testified that he was part of that group that went to the camp, and when they got there they saw government soldiers. They exchanged fire and the soldiers ran into the homes of the civilians. Witness P-264 said his commander, Acellam, then instructed them to approach the homes with care. He said Acellam told them that if they found a house with the door closed, they should just shoot at the house.
Witness P-264 told the court he came across a civilian drinking with government soldiers, and he shot the civilian.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt asked him why he did not shot the soldiers.
“My intention was to shot at soldiers, but sometimes civilians get caught up in the crossfire,” replied the witness.
Earlier Judge Schmitt asked the witness what he felt when he went into battle for the first time in his life.
“The very first time I went to battle I was extremely frightened. After the battle some of my colleagues and other LRA fighters sustained injuries. The truth is I was scared. I was afraid of sustaining injuries as well,” he said.
He said after his first battle he and his fellow fighters were given a talk to “boost our morale.” The witness said they were told not to be frightened and not think about home because that is what would get them shot and killed.
“After that I kept on thinking and thinking about the instructions that we had been given and I decided not to think about home and I decided to follow the instructions we were given,” Witness P-264 said.
The witness will continue testifying on Tuesday.