A former fighter of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) said he escaped the group because life with the LRA was too difficult, even though he knew he risked being killed if he was caught.
Witness P-252 told the International Criminal Court on Monday that the one year and nine months he spent with the LRA was wasted. The witness testified on Friday that the LRA abducted him during an April 2004 attack on the Odek camp for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda.
The testimony is part of the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander who has been charged for his alleged role in attacks on the Odek, Abok, Lukodi, and Pajule IDP camps in northern Uganda. These camps no longer exist, as the LRA ceased its attacks in northern Uganda in 2006. Ongwen has been charged with a total of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On Monday, trial lawyer Shkelzen Zeneli asked Witness P-252 to narrate to the court how he escaped the LRA. The witness said he escaped while the group he was with was trekking to Loyo Ajonga. He said that as they crossed one of the roads on the way he slowed down so that he was left behind.
Witness P-252 said that behind him he could hear a commander and his wife, so he lay down on the ground, hid from them, and crawled away. He told the court that when he felt it was safe he crossed the road, going in the opposite direction from his group. He said he found a mango tree that he ate from and stayed the night. In the morning, he said he heard other LRA fighters approaching the mango tree and he left, crisscrossing his path to obscure his tracks before hiding. He said he overheard the LRA fighters debate whether to try and track the person whose footprints they saw but they concluded the prints were a day old.
The witness said that he walked parallel to the road for about three days until he came to the barracks at Lalogi where he surrendered to Ugandan army soldiers.
“Mr. Witness, when did you escape from the LRA?” asked Zeneli.
“I cannot recall, but I stayed in the bush for one year and about nine months. Then I escaped,” replied Witness P-252.
Francisco Cox, a lawyer representing one of the groups of victims registered in the trial of Ongwen, also questioned Witness P-252 on Monday. Cox asked him about his life in Odek before the April 2004 attack, his life with the LRA, and his life since he left the group.
Witness P-252 is one of the victims Cox represents, making him a dual status witness. This means he is both a prosecution witness and a victim in the trial.
“You have testified you had seen people being killed for escaping [the LRA]. Why did you take the risk to escape?” asked Cox.
Witness P-252 acknowledged that in the LRA anyone who escapes and is caught is usually killed, but stated that “life was extremely difficult in the bush. We were hungry. We were dehydrated. We had to go for long distances for water. We were being pursued by soldiers.”
Cox asked him about the treatment he received for the injuries he sustained while with the LRA. Witness P-252 had testified on Friday that he was caned 80 times shortly after his abduction because another abductee had escaped. The witness also testified to being injured during an ambush the LRA had set up for Ugandan army soldiers. He said he lost consciousness for a day and a half, injured both his legs and arms, and sustained gunshot wounds.
“When you had these injuries in your body, how did you treat the wounds?” asked Cox.
“It healed by itself. I did not get any treatment,” replied the witness.
Witness P-252 told the court that LRA commanders had their wounds cleaned with warm water, and that something he could not identify was applied to the wounds before they were dressed.
“But when you are a foot solider or a newly abducted person, no one pays attention to your injury. It’s not cleaned. You will not be allowed to boil warm water to clean your wounds … For me I could not do anything, it just healed,” the witness said.
He also said he had forgotten on Friday to talk about another injury, which he obtained from carrying a hot saucepan on his head that scalded him. He said it occurred when the Ugandan army found their camp and they had to quickly leave.
“How has your time in the bush affected your ability to provide for your family?” asked Cox.
“My being in the bush has wasted a lot of time. Perhaps if I was at home, maybe I would have been able to support my family financially and not just by farming,” replied the witness. A little earlier he had told the court that he has two wives and three children.
Cox asked him how his family received him when he returned home from the LRA.
“When I came back home, I was welcomed warmly. My brothers welcomed me warmly. But life was very difficult. Especially with regards to other people. They were insulting us constantly. When I came back home, I tried to go back to school … I was being insulted a lot,” Witness P-252 said. He said it became difficult for him to return to school.
Earlier, when Zeneli was questioning the witness, he asked why the amnesty certificate the Ugandan government issued lists his date of escape as July 1, 2004, while the witness describes being with the LRA for one year and nine months.
Witness P-252 said at the rehabilitation center he was taken to he met former LRA fighters he knew and, “they told me that if you told them [the staff at the rehabilitation center] that you stayed for long in the bush, you will stay for long in the Gusco.”
Gusco is the acronym for Gulu Save the Children Organization, one of the organizations that was involved in helping rehabilitate former LRA fighters.
After Zeneli and Cox finished questioning Witness P-252, Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, began cross-examining him. Significant portions of the exchange were closed to the public so as not to reveal the identity of Witness P-252, who is testifying under in-court protective measures to keep his identity confidential.
Witness P-252 will continue testifying on Tuesday.