It has been nearly five months since the trial of Dominic Ongwen started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and one topic that has been a source of controversy, even before his surrender and transfer to the ICC, concerns his origin. This is because two separate families claim him as their son.
Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks that took place between 2003 and 2004 in the internally displaced persons camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage. Ongwen surrendered to the Séléka Forces in Central Africa Republic (CAR) on January 6, 2015.
Two separate families in northern Uganda both claim kinship to Ongwen. One of these families is based in Coorom Village, Lamogi Sub-County, Amuru District, while the other is based in Acutomer Gem Village, Awach Sub County, Gulu District. In this article, we shall refer to them as the families from Coorom and Awach, respectively.
On January 26, 2015, during his first appearance before the ICC, Ongwen introduced himself in this way: “My name is Dominic Ongwen YY. I am a citizen of Uganda. In Uganda I come from northern Uganda. In northern Uganda I come from Gulu [district]. In Gulu our home is in Amuru district, in Kilak County, in a small place called Coorom.”
Amuru was originally part of Gulu until it was declared a district in 2006, which is the reason why Ongwen referred to both Gulu and Amuru as his districts of origin. Based on this introduction, Ongwen’s origin is officially recognized and stated in the ICC’s records as Coorom. Since the start of his trial, the ICC field office in Uganda has been conducting community outreach and screening of trial proceedings in Coorom to ensure that Ongwen’s kinsmen follow the trial proceedings.
Despite this, a family in Awach has also insisted that Ongwen is their son. To get more information regarding this topic, field researchers from the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a civil society organization based in Gulu, traveled to Coorom and Awach last month to get the two families’ perspectives.
In Coorom, we interacted with four people claiming to be relatives of Ongwen: a nephew, an uncle, and two cousins. In Awach we talked to two people who also claimed to be Ongwen’s relatives: a brother and an uncle. To protect their identities, their names have not been used in this article.
According to the family from Coorom, Ongwen’s mother was Rossette Lalar and his father was called Paul Opobo (both deceased). They also say Ongwen was the first child out of a family of six children.
“There were five children, though not all from one mother because Ongwen’s father had two wives. The children are: Opiro Jacob, Ojara Charles, Ayiga Patrick, Aoi, and Bilen. Out of these, four are still alive, but Bilen is dead. Ongwen is the first child,” explained Ongwen’s uncle from Coorom.
On the other hand, the family from Awach claims that Ongwen’s parents are Owiya Ronald (now deceased) and Acayo Alissandro Owiya, who is still alive and lives in a place called Kabedo Opong in Gulu Town. While we were not able to physically locate Acayo, we obtained online access to a television interview she conducted with the National Television (NTV) Uganda in 2015, in which she said Ongwen was her son.
In an interview with the Daily Monitor in 2015, one of the relatives from Awach who claims to be Ongwen’s biological brother, said, “My brother’s name was previously Dominic Okumu Owiya, but due to fear that the rebels could trace his family members in case he escaped from captivity, he could have changed his name to Dominic Ongwen.”
“We were born in a family of 10, and Ongwen was the fifth born. His abduction at a tender age robbed him of his innocence, but after surrendering, we are shocked to hear that there is another family claiming him. We are ready for the DNA test if they continue with their claims,” he added.
Asked for their comment about another family in Awach also claiming Ongwen as their son, Ongwen’s cousin from Coorom said:
“We have heard about that family in Awach also claiming that he is their son, and it is not totally a good thing to hear that someone is claiming your brother to be theirs. In 2006, a DNA test was conducted with Ongwen’s children here in Coorom when rumors emerged that he had died. This is clear evidence that he is our relative. I feel so bad to hear that those in Awach are also claiming that Ongwen is their son.”
Another relative from Coorom added, “I have one thing to put across clearly. For us we know that this is our child, and all the records prove this fact. Even at the beginning of this trial, Ongwen was asked by the judge to tell where he comes from, and he said Coorom. Awach was not part of his introduction.”
Asked to comment on the fact that Ongwen had identified himself with the family from Coorom, the family from Awach had this to say:
“I have heard about that family in Coorom also claiming that he is their son, but I am very sure that Dominic is from here. Perhaps those people are struggling because of benefits that could come out of the trial, such as support from the government. We have a relative here [in Awach] who was also abducted by the rebels, and when she came back, she told us she saw Ongwen with the LRA. She is called Min Tata,” said a relative from Awach.
In September 2005, following media reports that Ongwen had been killed in Soroti district in northeastern Uganda, the government requested the assistance of the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to conduct DNA tests to identity the body. The ICC conducted DNA tests on the corpse, but the results turned out negative. The family from Coorom who participated in this test, frequently referred to their involvement as proof that they were Ongwen’s true relatives. We informed the family in Awach about this DNA test and asked for what proof they had.
“The tangible proof we have is his [Ongwen’s] wife from the bush whom he himself sent back home here to keep his child,” said a relative from Awach.
We were not able to speak with Ongwen’s wife and child who were said to be living in Awach, and the other family members we spoke with said they had not communicated with Ongwen since his arrest. The family from Coorom, however, said they had been in touch with Ongwen through phone calls since his he has been in ICC custody.
“We always talk to him on phone. The last time we talked to him was on Wednesday, April 19… and he advised us to be calm and remain strong despite the court proceedings. He also reassured us that he was fine,” said Ongwen’s cousin from Coorom.
Amid this controversy, media reports have equally failed to establish Ongwen’s true origins. In December 2016, Deutsche Welle (DW), an international broadcaster in Germany wrote: “Only a few people know his real name. And when it comes to his past, it is hard to sift fact from fiction. When he was abducted by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) on his way to school aged maybe 10, maybe 12, he told them his name was Dominic Ongwen. He hid where he came from, telling the LRA that his home was a village many miles away.”
However, with Ongwen himself having clearly stated that he comes from Coorom, questions have arisen about the validity of the claim that the family in Awach continues to make. Ongwen’s origins may not be relevant at this point for determining the outcome of the trial, but it is certainly important for setting the record straight and enabling both families to move on with their lives.
Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the Co-Founder of 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.