As the trial of Dominic Ongwen continues before the International Criminal Court (ICC), significant questions remain about how reparations for victims of sexual and gender based (SGBV) crimes will be approached.
Ongwen was initially charged with seven war crimes and crimes against humanity, none of which were SGBV related, but after surrendering to rebels in the Central African Republic in 2015, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced the introduction of 63 additional charges. Among the additional charges, Ongwen is facing 19 counts of SGBV crimes, including rape and forced marriage. This article focuses on reparations for survivors of LRA-perpetrated SGBV crimes.
The LRA is known to have abducted over 30,000 children below the age of 18 from 1988 to 2004, including young girls, who were forcefully given away to senior commanders as “wives” and forced to bear children. The comment of one formerly abducted woman who was abducted at the age of eight years summarizes the ordeal that females abducted by the LRA went through.
“The commanders used very young girls’ sexually; they use to refer to them as kavera (polythene bags to symbolize virginity). Whenever a commander was given a new girl he would say, ‘I have got my kavera; I will open it on Christmas.’”
The Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) spoke to seven women who were abducted as girls by the LRA to seek their views on what kind of reparations they would like from the ICC. Many of these girls were given away to LRA commanders at a very young age following their abduction. One of the women recalled how she was only thirteen years old when she was given away to an LRA commander. All of the seven women interacted with Ongwen at some point during their abduction. All of them bore children and returned with their children from captivity.
Life after the LRA
The post-abduction experiences of the women following their reintegration into the community has come with its own challenges, key among them being the difficulty in raising their children on their own, often with little or no support at all from the men who abused them while in captivity. In many cases, the women tried to remarry, only to be abandoned by the men on learning that they were former abductees.
“I returned with three children from captivity. I started raising them on my own because their father was killed from the bush. Life became so hard, so I decided to get another husband with whom I had three more children. But when this man learnt that I was from the bush, he left me with the children. Now I am struggling with [all the six] children on my own,” lamented one woman.
In some cases where the women have succeeded in remarrying, they still often have to meet the basic needs of their children on their own without help from their new husbands.
One woman explained: “After returning from captivity, I took care of my three children alone, but as a young mother, I felt there was need for a man in my life. Therefore, I decided to get a husband with whom I had my fourth child. I lived with him harmoniously, but he never provided for the children any basic needs. I am the one providing all the basic needs for the children without help from him.”
In rare cases the women are sometimes lucky when they escape from captivity with their husbands who then take up the responsibility to look after them. However, this arrangement can be short lived.
“I returned from captivity with the father of my child. I gave birth to one child while in captivity, and when I returned, I had two more children with him. We stayed together for five years until we had a misunderstanding. He shot me in the hand, and I left him. After separating with him, I got another man with whom I had one child. But now I am staying alone because even the man I got was not treating me well,” said one woman.
Due to the enormous challenges they face in their post-abduction life, it is not surprising that some of the women believe they had a better life while in captivity where they did not have to struggle with the day to day realities of struggling to meet the basic needs of their children.
In the words of one woman, “I have faced a lot of hardship that I should say is more than that we faced while in captivity. I say this without fear that if Kony came back today to abduct people again, I would personally join him back. I know many of my fellow sisters would do the same because life is so hard here. I have two children, but I cannot take them to school. Here everything needs money, and I cannot find that money which is enough to pay school fees and provide all the basic requirements. Sometimes my children and I even sleep hungry without any food to eat. I thought the government cared but it seems the government does not.”
What Types of Reparations are Needed?
The above comments are representative of many of the post-abduction challenges that SGBV survivors face and are also an indicator of the special assistance these survivors require. Asked to state the kinds of reparations that they would like to receive from the ICC, the women identified various needs ranging from money, basic childcare necessities – including food and medical care, education, and livelihood opportunities.
On the top of their list was the request for financial incentives, which they believed would help them meet their basic needs.
One woman said, “I would love [it if] the ICC gives me money because with money I can do so many things. This is also because most of the things we want to get or even that which the ICC will provide will be bought with money; for example paying school fees and buying clothes for my children.”
Another woman said, “To me I feel there is no other payment I need apart from money. This is because with money I can do anything like paying school fees for my children, buying for them uniforms, and opening up a business.”
Medical care was also identified as an urgent priority because of the health complications that many women and children continue to face in their post-abduction life.
“I want the ICC to help me in meeting my medical expenses. I have a lot of injuries which I got while in the bush [including] … bullets which are still in my body, and to treat these wounds and remove these bullets are very expensive,” said one of the women.
Other key priorities were land and housing. Many of the women expressed enormous challenges in meeting the cost of rent for their homes.
One woman said, “For me, I want the ICC to buy … land where I can settle with my family because right now I don’t have land, and I am renting. Another thing I would ask is that the ICC builds for me a house where I can live with my children. I do not want to be renting for the rest of my life because it is very expensive.”
Another said, “Personally, I have two children all of whom are boys. Their father was a rebel commander who died without telling me where their home was. I only heard that he was from Kitgum, but I do not know the specific place in Kitgum. I have no home to take these children to so that they can be given land by their paternal relatives since they are all boys. If the ICC could, let them provide me with [land], and I will feel at peace to start a better life.”
Ongwen’s dual victim-perpetrator status as a formerly abducted person turned senior LRA commander has continued to attract mixed reactions from different stakeholders regarding whether or not his trial is justified. However, that has not stopped over 4,000 victims from registering to participate in Ongwen’s trial. While is not immediately clear how many participating victims are formerly abducted women or the types of reparative mechanisms the ICC will put in place if Ongwen is found guilty of SGBV crimes, given the challenges that these survivors face, special reparative mechanisms will be central in fostering justice for them. The ICC must strive to address the needs of this unique interest group.
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.