Witness Says Ongwen Threatened Acholi Chiefs Twice During Peace Talks

An Acholi chief told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Dominic Ongwen was among the people who beat him for letting a 60-kilogram sack of rice drop, the rice being part of the foodstuffs looted when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked the Pajule camp for internally displaced people (IDP).

Rwot Oywak of Koyo Lalogi also told the court on Wednesday how Ugandan government soldiers and LRA fighters on two separate occasions shot at him and other traditional leaders as they tried to negotiate peace between the two sides. He said he was injured in the leg in one of the shooting incidents and in the other one, he was injured in the arm.

The chief of Koyo Lalogi was testifying in the trial of Ongwen, who has been charged with 10 counts for his alleged role in the attack on Pajule on October 10, 2003. Ongwen also faces 36 counts for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps in northern Uganda: Abok, Lukodi, and Odek. In total, Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On Wednesday, Rwot Oywak told the court sometime between four and six in the morning of October 10, 2003 he heard gunshots.

“People were yelling. People were screaming. People were crying. Shortly thereafter I heard the door being kicked. I asked them, ‘I am a chief. What’s the problem? What’s the problem?’” said Rwot Oywak.

He said seven LRA fighters kicked down his door and that they were between 12 and 17 years old.

“The youngest was holding a gun, but the gun was actually bigger than the person,” Rwot Oywak said. He said outside his house, they gave him a 60-kilogram sack of rice to carry. It fell to the ground, and he said the LRA fighters kicked him.

Rwot Oywak said his house was at Pajule’s trading center, near the road. He said they then walked along the road for several hundred meters, and they stopped at a tree. He said here is where he saw Ongwen with a gun strapped on him, what Rwot Oywak called “an army radio,” and a long stick.

“He [Ongwen] was also firing his gun. He beat me. He kicked me,” Rwot Oywak said, explaining this happened when the sack he had on his shoulders fell to the ground. He said Ongwen walked with a limp.

He told the court that he and other abductees stayed at this tree for a while as more people were abducted.

“Whenever they abducted someone, they would bring them and say, ‘Lapwony Dominic, we have brought this person,’” Rwot Oywak said.

He said after the sun rose, they began walking away from Pajule. Along the way they saw bodies of dead people or people being beaten, and they knew those people would not live, Rwot Oywak explained. He said they got to a place called Latanya where they found the then deputy leader of the LRA, Vincent Otti, and another LRA commander, Raska Lukwiya.

Rwot Oywak said at this place Otti talked to them.

“He asked us, ‘You, the people of Pajule, you thought that we would not come from you. We are going to kill all of you’,” Rwot Oywak told the court.

Earlier Rwot Oywak had told the court that before the October 2003 attack on Pajule, the LRA would leave letters on tree trunks telling residents to leave the camp.

“If you do not leave the camps, you will be killed,” is what the letters warned, said Rwot Oywak.

“Was it clear to you why it is that the LRA wanted the people to leave the camps?” asked senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert.

“I do not know. I do not know why they wanted the people to leave the camps. Perhaps they wanted people to go to the villages to abduct people … When people left the villages, they [the LRA] no longer had food,” said Rwot Oywak.

Sometime after Otti’s threat to the newly abducted Pajule residents, Rwot Oywak said he told Otti he was a chief, something he said Otti asked the other abducted people to confirm. He said Otti then told him they are not going to kill him because they could not kill an Acholi chief. The following morning, Rwot Oywak said Otti agreed to his request that they be released. He said he thought they would all be released, but Otti decided that only some of them would be released. Rwot Oywak said Otti released him and some women and men aged 30 or older. He said most of the younger people who had been abducted remained with the LRA.

Rwot Oywak told the court that he had met Ongwen before the attack on Pajule at peace negotiations held in the chief’s village of Koyo Lalogi. Rwot Oywak said he was involved in several efforts to negotiate peace between the LRA and the Ugandan government between 2000 and 2007.

He said during one of those peace negotiations, government soldiers fired at them as they approached the meeting place. Rwot Oywak said he was injured in the leg. He told the court the explanation the Ugandan military gave was the radio of the unit in the area they were to meet in did not receive the message to let them pass because their radio was not working that day.

On a separate occasion, he said LRA fighters ambushed the delegation he was with after a peace meeting, killing some government soldiers. He said he was injured in the arm and eventually had to be taken to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to have the bullet removed.

Rwot Oywak said he met Ongwen during another peace meeting at a northern Uganda town called Palabek. Rwot Oywak said the delegation was led by a cabinet minister, Betty Bigombe, and it included members of parliament.

“On arriving there we started talking, but I think Ongwen was mischievous. He started saying things like, ‘These chiefs are being used, and we should kill them,’” said Rwot Oywak. He said another LRA commander, Sam Kolo, told Ongwen that he could not threaten chiefs.

Rwot Oywak said that Ongwen made similar threats when he and other Acholi chiefs went to meet LRA leaders in Garamba in 2006 during peace talks that were being mediated by the then autonomous government of Southern Sudan. Rwot Oywak said other LRA leaders told Ongwen it was wrong to threaten chiefs.

“According to these other LRA leaders he [Ongwen] was bitter, and he wanted to kill people and overthrow the government. He believed the talks were useless,” Rwot Oywak said.

Garamba is located between South Sudan and Congo. It is one of the places that LRA fighters and leaders converged as part of the peace process. The other place was Ri-Kwangba. Here they were provided with regular meals and shelter as the peace talks progressed.

During his testimony on Wednesday, Rwot Oywak was shown a series of photos, some of them taken during the talks in Garamba and Ri-Kwangba. In two of the photos, he identified Ongwen. Rwot Oywak was also in those photos.

Rwot Oywak will continue testifying on Thursday.