Lukodi village is located approximately 17 kilometers from Gulu town. It was the scene of a horrendous massacre by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in May 2004, leading to the death of over 69 civilians. Dominic Ongwen is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in part due to what happened here.
Ongwen’s trial before the ICC started on December 6, 2016. He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage.
To commemorate the attack on Lukodi, memorial prayers are held annually on May 19 at which thousands of community members usually participate. This year, however, a low turnout was registered, with some victims citing dissatisfaction with the slow pace of Ongwen’s trial, among other reasons. However, for many victims and survivors who lost their relatives during the massacre, the prayers still remain important for remembering their loved ones.
As one community member said, “The prayers have helped me to cope with the past. Having lost relatives during the massacre, the prayers help me to feel better and gives me hope that what happened back then will not happen again. It is a way of counseling for me.”
Wilson, a community member who was involved in organizing the prayers said, “The prayers make us feel more secure knowing that Kony is now far and that he will not come back. Also, now that Ongwen is in court, it feels safe to speak about anything, unlike in the past where even just having an interview like this one with the press would make us fear that our names would be published.”
Despite the significance of the prayers and the ongoing trial of Ongwen, this year’s memorial prayers experienced lower than normal attendance by community members, local leaders, and representatives of civil society organizations. Although the day was graced by the presence of Gulu Municipality Woman MP, Hon. Betty Aol Ochan, many community members felt participation had not been good compared to the previous year when the function was attended by the Acholi Paramount Chief, Rwot David Onen Achana, representatives from the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, the victims’ legal representatives, and over 10 representatives of civil society organizations. On this occasion no representative from the ICC was present, and only three civil society organizations were represented.
Given that Ongwen’s trial recently kicked off at the ICC and that over 4,000 victims (the majority of whom are from Lukodi) have registered to participate in the trial, it is difficult to understand and explain the low turnout at this year’s memorial prayers. If anything, the ongoing trial of Ongwen should have motivated the community members to attend in large numbers.
Some community members blamed the poor attendance on lack of support from local leaders who neither participate in the preparations nor attend the event.
David, a local leader from Lukodi said, “The problem is that government leaders are still not getting involved in the prayers. Even our local leaders here in Lukodi are not participating in these prayers yet it is a good thing. The turn up has not been good this year because of the rain, but there is hope that the next year will be better. However, the prayer is helping us to have courage and we expect the trial of Ongwen to conclude well.”
Sunday, a community member who has attended the prayers for the last four years running, noted that the attendance was low compared to the previous year. “It is different this year. I have been attending these prayers for four years now and as you can see the number of people has reduced. I think people are just losing interest in the prayer since they have been coming for the prayers ever since but they feel they are not gaining anything out of it.”
Wilson, another community member agreed with Sunday but emphasized the significance of these prayers for the survivors. “This year is different. The turn up is poor though a number of factors could be responsible. It could be loss of interest among the people, while others may no longer be considering the prayers important. However, I know that to the survivors it is important and they always come,” he said.
Other community members blamed the lack of interest in the trial process of Ongwen, which they felt was dragging.
One community member called Joseph put it bluntly, “The number of people who attended have reduced compared to the past because people are discouraged that Ongwen’s court case is taking so long to be ruled, and they are beginning to think that many victims will not benefit from this trial.”
Gloria, another community member said, “People expect to hear some good news that will encourage them and make their heart have peace. But the trial is delaying and this is discouraging people.”
Gibson, a community leader said, “People are praying in memory of their loved ones and even if Ongwen was not on trial, people would still pray. However, people are few in number compared to last year because they have doubt in the trial of Ongwen. They feel it is the same story every year, and yet they want the trial to go quickly.”
Asked whether future prayers will hold more meaning for them given that Ongwen is on trial, many community members replied in the affirmative, although they emphasized the need for more support from local leaders and civil society organizations.
“With the trial of Ongwen now underway, we need to continue with future prayers because it will help in uplifting people’s dignity especially after the loss of our dear ones. The prayer, just like the trial, helps in providing psychological healing. The NGOs should provide more support for the day, since it has been a challenge for the team to organize for the prayers,” said David.
Sunday agreed with David: “It will be good to hold future prayers even after the trial concludes because it gives people hope and courage to move on positively with their lives. To improve the prayers, there is need for the youth to get more involved. There should be other activities for the day besides the prayers, for example a football match to make the day more lively. There is also need for support from the different stake holders.”
“Now that someone is being tried for the Lukodi massacre, future prayers will hold more meaning, but the resources are not enough to sustain this program by the community. So there is need for our leaders to come in and support it. It will be good if we have a center for memory set up here. It will make people to keep coming,” said Wilson, a community member who was involved in organizing the prayers. “The organisation of this prayer should not be left on the people of Lukodi only, but the district leaders and NGOs should also come in to support the program,” he added.
For other community members, however, the conclusion of Ongwen’s trial was vital for motivating victims to attend future prayers. As Wilson best put it, “In [the] future, the prayers will not be meaningful as long as Ongwen’s trial is not concluded, and if the victims have not received reparation.”
The above views underscore the importance of the memorial prayers to the victims of the Lukodi massacre given that it is one of the few existing ways to publicly remember the victims who perished. With the trial of Ongwen now underway, the speed with which the trial is concluded, coupled with the outcome may influence future attendance at the memorial service. This feedback also demonstrates the need for the ICC and civil society organizations to be visible in supporting those affected by the Lukodi massacre as there is no clear end date for Ongwen’s trial.
Lino Owor Ogora has worked with conflict affected communities in northern Uganda since 2006. He is the Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local NGO based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in Northern Uganda.