A survivor described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how she lost two of her children, her mother, and an uncle during a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on a camp for internally displaced people in Lukodi, an attack that Dominic Ongwen has been charged with at the ICC.
“We saw a group of soldiers coming [to the camp], and we thought they were a group of soldiers who were coming to reinforce the [government] soldiers who were there,” said Witness P-024.
“All of a sudden, we saw so many soldiers, and there were bullets and machetes and they were cutting people,“ continued the witness. She said some of them wore uniforms, others wore skirts, and some were bare-chested.
Witness P-024 is a dual status witness, which means she is both a prosecution witness and is registered as a victim in the trial. She is represented by a team of victims’ lawyers led by Joseph Akwenu Manoba. She is testifying under in-court protective measures, including her face being distorted in public broadcasts of the proceedings. Where her testimony may lead to her being identified, that testimony is closed to the public.
Ongwen, a former commander with the LRA, is also charged for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps in northern Uganda, namely, Odek, Abok, and Pajule. All the attacks took place between 2003 and 2004. The IDP camps no longer exist, and the LRA ceased attacks in northern Uganda in 2006. Ongwen faces in total 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On Thursday, Witness P-024 told the court that as the LRA began attacking the Lukodi camp, she and her family sought refuge in their house “because they [the LRA fighters] were too many, and there was nowhere to flee. Those who fled, most of them were shot.”
She said two LRA fighters with dreadlocks entered her house, took bags of beans and cooking oil that were on the floor, and forced them out of the house. She said they later made her join seven other adults, and each of them was forced to carry bins of beans and manage goats looted from the camp.
Witness P-024 told the court she carried the bin of beans on her head, had her two-week old son strapped to her back and one of her hands was tied behind her back. She said the eight of them were made to march in single file, and she was the last in line. She said any time one of them broke the line, they would be beaten.
“The youth, they were caning us badly. They didn’t even allow you to rest when you were carrying luggage,” the witness said.
She told the court at some point the LRA fighters threw the children and babies to the side of the road, including her baby, as they continued to march away.
“Madam Witness, what made them throw the children away?” asked trial lawyer Yulia Nuzban.
Witness P-024 replied the LRA fighters told them “that the children are crying, and they would make us not carry the luggage well.”
She said they told them government soldiers will “follow us if the children were crying.”
The witness told the court at some point they heard an aircraft approach, and the LRA fighters tried to use tree branches to cover the loot as they lay on the ground. She said it was then she untied herself and ran away. Witness P-024 said she hid in a ditch and stayed there the whole night. She told the court that the following morning government soldiers found her, put her in a vehicle, and reunited her with her baby.
“I thought he was no more. I didn’t think any of my children had survived. I was already helpless. They put me in the vehicle, and they said, ‘The mother who is in the vehicle should come and pick her child’,” the witness told the court.
She said she was later taken to hospital where she stayed for 10 days. The prosecution played for her two video clips, which was she was unable to identify. One video clip, which was also shown to the public as well, showed a building with the sign Lukodi Primary School on one of its walls.
Witness P-024 was also shown two photos, which were not shown to the public, and she identified herself in one of them, and her son in the other. She said the photos were taken when she was in hospital on May 20, 2004.
When Nuzban concluded her questions, Witness P-024 was then questioned by Megan Hirst, one of the lawyers who represents her in the witness’ capacity as a victim.
Witness P-024 said that before the attack on the camp she was healthy. She said she gave birth at home to her son two weeks before the attack.
“I was not sick. I had no infection. I was even able to go to the farm,” the witness said.
“You told us that you didn’t go back to the camp [after the attack]. Why was that?” asked Hirst.
“It was impossible to stay. I was weakly, and I needed to stay near a medical facility. I had malaria all the time. I was also epileptic,” the witness replied.
She said to date her thigh and ears continue to pain.
“I am not able to dig with ease, but I have no option. I go and dig a little,” said Witness P-024.
Hirst asked her about her possessions that were destroyed when her house was set on fire during the attack.
“I had one cow which I had just bought, and it was pregnant. I had eight goats also. They [neighbors] told me the cow vanished, and the goats were burnt in the fire,” said the witness.
“What about money, had you any savings in the house?” asked Hirst.
“I had some money the house. I had just sold come cotton,” answered the witness.
“After the attack were you able to reclaim any of your possessions from the house?” asked Hirst.
“No. The way I was taken to hospital, that was it,” the witness replied.
Witness P-024 said her son had epileptic fits for five years, which she believes was caused by him remaining exposed in the cold for a whole night when he was just two weeks old. She said doctors had told her that there was nothing physically wrong with her son. She said her daughter has a problem with her eye that began after the attack and persists to date, “but she is living with it.” Witness P-024 said her children are not in school because she has no money to pay for their school fees.
Thursday began with Witness P-314 still on the stand, answering questions from Charles Taku, Ongwen’s lawyer.
Taku asked Witness P-314 about a statement he made to prosecution investigators that a woman identified as Min Salim was Ongwen’s wife.
“Witness, may I put it to you that Min Salim was [LRA leader Joseph] Kony’s wife who died in 2001. Min Salim was never Ongwen’s wife and was never in Ongwen’s house. What do you say to this?” asked Taku.
“That means that you know it better that she never stayed there,” replied the witness.
Taku then asked him about how radio communications between different commanders was managed. He asked the question in relation to a radio operator called Otto, who was the witness’s superior when Witness P-314 was in the LRA.
He asked the witness whether Otto was the one who decoded what was said over the radio and then told Ongwen in plain language what was said. He further asked whether Ongwen would then dictate a response and Otto would transmit it in code.
“It is exactly that way,” the witness replied.
Witness P-314 concluded his testimony at the end of Thursday’s first session.
Witness P-024 will continue to testify on Friday.