Since the start of Dominic Ongwen’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) last year, different stakeholders have expressed their opinions on various issues regarding the case. Few of these opinions, however, have come from formerly abducted women and girls, despite the fact that they constitute a unique category of victims based on their experiences during the conflict. This article explores opinions from seven women who say they were abducted as girls between 1992 and 2004. All of the women openly said that Ongwen should be forgiven despite their own experiences as victims of sexual and gender based violence.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is believed to have abducted over 30,000 children (under 18) from 1988 to 2004, including girls, who were forced to become “wives” to the rebel soldiers and bear children. In addition to being charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage.
The Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) engaged seven women in a conversation to establish their views about Ongwen’s trial. All these women share a similar experience; they all say they were abducted by the LRA at a young age, spent over eight years in captivity, and were forced to bear children. One of the women who was abducted at the age of eight, recalls that she had to be carried by an LRA soldier on his back all the way to Sudan because she was too young to walk the long distance. Another does not even remember the age at which she was abducted
Ongwen’s trial started on December 6, 2016, and so far, 19 prosecution witnesses have testified. All seven women said that they were aware about the ongoing trial of Ongwen, but only four said they had been following it closely.
“I have been hearing from radio that Ongwen is in the court of the ICC for committing crimes like killing and forcing women into marriage. However, nowadays I am not following the case since I do not have a radio,” said one woman.
“Yes, I have been watching from NTV [Ugandan television station] that he has been charged with so many crimes that he committed among which is killing many people, and sexual abuse,” said another woman.
Asked if the trial of Ongwen was justified, all the women responded negatively, citing reasons ranging from Ongwen’s abduction background to the fact that Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, should be the one on trial instead.
As one of the women said, “To me, Ongwen’s trial is unfair because he was abducted as a child and grew up in captivity and whatever he did was not of his wish, but he was ordered to do them. When you were ordered to do something and you failed to do it, you would be killed. So Ongwen committed all the crimes in fear for his life. To me, if there was to be any trial, it should have started from Kony who started this war.”
According to another woman, “The [allegation] of Ongwen killing people is very true, but it is unfair because he committed them on orders from Kony. So he committed them in fear for his life, because there are many leaders who failed to carry out Kony’s orders and they were killed.”
“In the beginning Ongwen was not even a commander, but because of the execution of some commanders who were not loyal to Kony, he was made a commander. If Ongwen had not been made a commander, he wouldn’t appear in this court,” said one of the women.
All seven women were unanimous in their belief that Ongwen should be forgiven. This then raised the question of what should happen to him in the event he is convicted.
“On my side I feel the court will not find him guilty, but in case he is found to be guilty, let the court give him a simple and normal punishment but not [a sentence] which is too heavy for him,” responded one woman.
“If he is found guilty, I feel he should be jailed for some period of time after which he should be released and set free to start a new life. Even that new life might be because at the moment Dominic has no money,” said another.
Senior LRA commanders are particularly notorious for having had many wives. At the top of this list is the LRA leader Joseph Kony, who is believed to have had between 50 and 100 wives. Asked to state their opinion on whether or not Ongwen deserves to be punished for committing sexual and gender based crimes, all seven women unanimously responded ”no” to the question.
According to one woman, “To me the two wives he had was a normal number for him. He should be given a lighter punishment compared to other commanders who had very many wives.”
“Ongwen should never be punished for that because he had only two wives by that time,” added another.
Other women reasoned that Ongwen should not be singled out because all the commanders had many wives.
“It is not fair for Ongwen to be punished because all the commanders had many wives, and these wives were distributed to them to keep. The young girls would be given to them to work as baby sitters, and when they become older, they were then turned into wives,” said one woman.
“All these commanders had many wives, and if there must be punishment, then all the top commanders should be punished not only Ongwen,” added another.
Some of the other women believe Ongwen had no choice in the matter.
“It was not his wish to have many women as his wives. The [commanders] would be given those women as wives. Even Kony had many wives. And having grown up from captivity, Ongwen thought that having more women for a commander was part of life,” said one woman.
“While in captivity, Dominic could be given young girls as his wives, and he had no authority to refuse otherwise he would be killed,” added another.
“Dominic, did not have the right to refuse any wife given to him. He did not have any voice above the decision of Kony, so he should never be punished for such crimes. Only Kony had the right to decide on what he wanted and what he did not want…To protect his life, he [Ongwen] had to do what he did,” said another woman.
The women’s perspectives on forgiveness may seem puzzling, especially because they come from the very people who allege that they were victims of sexual and gender based violence. However, their sentiments are analogous to that of Ongwen’s ex-wife, who in an interview with Al-Jazeera openly called for forgiveness.
The women’s ability to forgive is remarkable given that they continue to face daily challenges as they single-handedly raise the children they returned with from captivity. While it may be difficult for some to understand why victims prefer forgiveness over punishment, the women’s comments lend credence to perceptions on forgiveness by many people in northern Uganda. For now, Ongwen’s fate lies with the ICC judges and the ruling that they will make at the conclusion of his trial.
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 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.