A Ugandan army colonel described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the first time Dominic Ongwen, who is on trial at the court, came out of the bush. Ongwen, who was a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), emerged from the bush as part of a ceasefire deal between the government and the LRA.
Colonel Joseph Balikuddembe told the court on Wednesday that Ongwen first sent an emissary with a letter written in Acholi addressed to him, asking for safe passage to an assembly point in southern Sudan, Owiny Kibul, which was part of the ceasefire deal.
Balikuddembe said this happened in 2006, possibly in November. He said at the time he was commander of the 601 brigade of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), which was responsible for parts of northern Uganda where Ongwen was active. Balikuddembe told the court that during this time Ongwen was commander of the Sinia brigade of the LRA.
The colonel is the third member of the UPDF to testify in the trial of Ongwen, who has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed between July 1, 2002 and December 31, 2005. The charges include attacks on four camps for internally displaced people: Abok, Lukodi, Pajule, and Odek. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Wednesday, Balikuddembe told the court that he was assigned to two different UPDF divisions in northern Uganda during the attacks on Pajule, Odek, and Abok. He said the attack on Pajule occurred on Uganda’s Independence Day in 2003 and the other attacks took place in 2004.
Balikuddembe said when the Pajule attack happened he was posted with UPDF’s 301 brigade and was stationed at Patongo. He said his position then was brigade operations and training officer. He said in this role he received reports from the field commanders and directed operations.
The colonel told the court he received reports on Independence Day 2003 on military radio that Pajule had been attacked. Uganda’s Independence Day falls on October 9. Other witnesses have testified that the attack on Pajule occurred a day later, on October 10, 2003. This is also the date that the prosecution and defense have agreed is when Pajule was attacked.
Balikuddembe said the UPDF soldiers deployed in Pajule were directed to pursue the LRA attackers, while another group of UPDF soldiers at Patongo were sent to pursue them as well.
He said they eventually managed to rescue some abductees who had been walking for 10 days. He said the group included men, women, and children around 14 or 15 years old.
Trial lawyer Hai Do Duc asked him about the condition of the abductees when the UPDF found them.
“They were exhausted. Others had swollen feet. They were totally emaciated and exhausted,” replied Balikuddembe.
Balikuddembe told the court that when the attack on Odek took place in 2004, he was commander of the 55 infantry battalion. He said the battalion’s area of responsibility included Odek and Abok.
He said he was informed in the evening about the attack on Odek and he went to assess the damage the following morning.
“I realized that there were some deaths. They burnt houses. Looted items. There was some kind of despair. Almost the whole camp was burned down,” he told the court.
Balikuddembe said he sent soldiers to pursue the LRA fighters and later they managed to rescue three people who had been abducted. He said two of them were between 10 and 15 years old.
As with the attacks on Pajule and Odek, Balikuddembe said he learned about the attack on Abok over military radio.
He said they pursued the LRA after the attack and rescued some abductees. Balikuddembe said those abductees told them that it was the LRA who had captured them and the attack on Abok was led by a commander called Okello Kalalang.
“Okello Kalalang was a notorious commander of Dominic Ongwen that in most cases Dominic would assign him these nasty operations. They (the LRA) killed people (in Abok). They abducted people and looted property,” he said.
Balikuddembe told the court the UPDF pursued the LRA following the Abok attack. He said in a place called Ocim the LRA fighters disturbed a beehive so that the bees would slow down the UPDF soldiers.
“In which direction did the bees fly?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“In different directions after releasing … the LRA were trying to stop our pursuit,” replied Balikuddembe.
Do Duc asked Balikuddembe about Ongwen’s whereabouts after the Abok attack.
“Dominic Ongwen was in Loyo Ajonga, Ato Hills. He did not participate physically in the Abok (attack),” he replied.
After testifying about the attacks on Pajule, Odek, and Abok, Balikuddembe told the court about meeting Ongwen after the 2006 ceasefire was declared.
Balikuddembe said the emissary Ongwen sent was one of his commanders. The emissary delivered the letter asking for safe passage to UPDF soldiers in a place called Lacekocot. He said the UPDF soldiers called him once they received the letter. He said he told them to ask the emissary to wait for him and he got into a pick-up truck with four escorts and went to Lacekocot to receive the letter. Because he does not read Acholi, Balikuddembe said he got one of his men to translate it for him.
Once he understood what the letter said, Balikuddembe said he asked the emissary whether Ongwen was nearby. The emissary told him he was. Balikuddembe said he told him to ask Ongwen to come to where he was. He said 20 minutes later a group of about 80 people appeared on the road, walking towards him. He said he waved at them to approach and they did, led by the emissary.
“The 80 I am talking about, they were young children some with mixed clothing. On top a military shirt, down civilian clothing … There was a young boy of about 15, 16 who had a big gun,” Balikuddembe told the court.
“There was also some pregnant women holding children, some children of 2 years, 3 years. As we (Ongwen and Balikuddembe) went under a tree, the other group (of LRA members) went inside the bushes,” he said.
Balikuddembe said when he was first introduced to Ongwen he talked to him in Kiswahili but he realized that Ongwen did not know much Kiswahili and was more fluent in Acholi. He said when they sat under a tree to talk further, Ongwen got one of his men, Ajumani, to act as interpreter.
He said he asked Ongwen whether he would consider surrendering and Ongwen refused. He said he then asked Ongwen whether he would release the children with him, arguing that Owiny Kibul was a long trek from where they were and it would be difficult for them. Balikuddembe said Ongwen refused to let the children go.
Balikuddembe said they sat under the tree for a long time such that other military officers came to where they were to talk to Ongwen. He said government officials, religious leaders and aid workers also came to where they were. Among the people he named were another colonel, Irumba Tingira Omero, and Gulu Resident District Commissioner Santos Okot Lapolo, both of whom have testified at the ICC about meeting Ongwen after the 2006 ceasefire was announced.
He said nobody could convince Ongwen to release the children. He said Ongwen even rejected an offer of a vehicle to carry the children to Owiny Kibul.
Balikuddembe said the only things Ongwen accepted were sodas he offered and food that the Red Cross agreed to give Ongwen and his group.
He said that at one point Ongwen received a call from Vincent Otti, the-then deputy leader of the LRA. Balikuddembe said Otti called Ongwen on a mobile phone that belonged to a journalist who was present. He said after Otti spoke to Ongwen, he asked to speak to him. Balikuddembe said he asked Otti whether he would allow the children to be released and Otti also refused.
Earlier on Wednesday, before Balikuddembe began his testimony, Ongwen’s defense team cross-examined Witness P-097. Charles Taku, a co-counsel, asked Witness P-097 about discrepancies between statements he gave prosecution investigators and the testimony he gave in court on Tuesday.
Taku asked him about an allegation the witness made on Tuesday that a LRA fighter called Ogwal was given a wife by Ongwen but the woman did not want to have sex with him and she cried each night. Taku read Witness P-097 an excerpt of a statement he made to prosecution investigators in 2016 in which he referred to Ogwal and the woman. In the excerpt, the witness said, “Ogwal treated her well.”
Witness P-097 agreed he had said that.
Taku later asked him about his testimony that soon after he was abducted he was caned 50 times as a form of initiation into the LRA. Taku asked the witness to explain why it was in his application to be registered as a victim in the Ongwen trial he had stated that he received 25 strokes of the cane. Witness P-097 said that application was filled out by someone who asked him questions and wrote down his answers.
“Did the person read it back to you for you to confirm that that was your statement?” asked Taku.
“The person writing can read back but sometimes they would read very fast,” replied Witness P-097.
Ongwen’s defense team will cross-examine Balikuddembe on Thursday.