Witness Says He Was Caned 50 Times as a “Welcome” to the LRA

A former member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that he and other abductees were each caned 50 times as a “welcome” to the rebel group.

Witness P-097 told the court on Tuesday that being caned was a regular punishment for failing to follow instructions or doing something a superior did not like. He gave the example of when he was caned 25 times for losing some cooking pans as he was crossing a river.

The witness was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people that occurred between 2003 and 2004. The charges against him include two counts of conscripting child soldiers. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

On Tuesday, Witness P-097 said he was abducted one evening in February 2005 as his family and guests celebrated his sister’s wedding. He said four to five men dressed in camouflage military uniforms and armed with AK-47s crashed the celebration and abducted girls and boys of different ages, including himself. He told the court he was the only person in his family who was taken away that day.

Witness P-097 said he and the other abductees were then given beans and sesame paste (sim-sim) that was taken from his family’s house and made to carry the goods. He said they then trekked to where other members of the LRA were, what the witness called a position.

When they joined the other LRA members, the witness said they were told they would be welcomed to the LRA. He said the people who caned them used freshly cut sticks and each of the abductees was caned 50 times on the back and buttocks.

“When they were beating you, did they say anything?” asked trial lawyer Beti Hohler.

“They told us that is how they welcome people so that you do not have any thoughts of escaping,” the witness said.

He said he learned that the leader of the group he was with was called Kalalang. He said that after the caning, his group joined another group that was led by someone more senior than Kalalang. The witness said that person was called Lapwony Odomi. Lapwony is the Acholi word for teacher and in the LRA it is used as a term of respect for superiors. Odomi is a name that Dominic Ongwen was commonly known by in the LRA. Throughout his testimony on Tuesday, Witness P-097 referred to Ongwen either as Lapwony Odomi or Odomi.

During his testimony on Tuesday, Hohler asked Witness P-097 to tell the court what some of the rules of the LRA were, what punishment was meted out if one disobeyed the rules, and if he saw examples of such punishments.

Witness P-097 said one rule was to obey instructions. He said if one disobeyed the rule, one would be beaten. The witness said he was once punished for disobeying an instruction.

“I remember we were crossing a water point … I almost drowned while we were carrying saucepans,” the witness said. As he tried to avoid drowning, he lost the saucepans.

Witness P-097 said when they returned to camp his superior reported him to Ongwen for losing the pans.

“Odomi himself said I should be beaten 25 strokes because I let go of the saucepans,” the witness said. He said he was beaten but he could not remember who beat him.

The witness said another major rule in the LRA was to not attempt escaping. He said the punishment if one escaped and was caught was death.

“I know of this because it happened to one of the boys, a boy who was called Atim. He tried to escape and Odomi sent his soldiers to pursue the boy. They were able to catch up with him,” he said.

Witness P-097 said the LRA fighters then took Atim to Ongwen.

“Lapwony Odomi asked him why he wanted to escape,” the witness said. “Then he (Ongwen) said the boy should be killed. They killed him.”

Hohler asked how Atim was killed.

“They beat him on the back of the head with clubs,” replied the witness.

Hohler asked him how he knew this. He said he saw it.

“Lapwony Odomi himself said I should go and see because if I try to escape that is what will happen to me,” the witness said.

After Hohler finished questioning Witness P-097, Orchlon Narantsetseg was next to question him. Narantsetseg is a lawyer representing one group of victims in the trial of Ongwen. Narantsetseg also represents Witness P-097, because Witness P-097 is both a prosecution witness and registered as a victim in the trial.

Narantsetseg asked Witness P-097 about his life before he was abducted by the LRA and life with the LRA. He asked the witness whether he received medical attention after being caned, or for the bullet wound to his shoulder he got while with the LRA. Witness P-097 said he did not get any medical treatment for his beatings but he received some treatment for his bullet wound while with the LRA.

The victims’ lawyer then asked whether today he has any pain from his injuries.

“Yes, I do because sometimes I would experience back pain, chest pain, and the worst part is that of my shoulder where I sustained an injury. I cannot do heavy tasks. I can only do light duties,” the witness said.

Narantsetseg asked him a few more questions about life in the LRA, covering such subjects as food, clothing, and security. Narantsetseg then asked the witness whether he had witnessed sexual violence.

Charles Taku, Ongwen’s co-counsel, objected.

“He (Narantsetseg) is not here, Your Honours, to represent all the victims in the war in northern Uganda,” Taku said.

“In this particular case, there is a particular victim. Why would he come here (and be) asked about sexual violence? This is grossly unfair,” Taku submitted.

Narantsetseg said he accepted that in general the subject of sexual violence was a matter for the prosecution, but argued that for Witness P-097 the subject “forms a specific type of emotional harm. I am not going to lead the witness to any allegation.”

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt allowed Narantsetseg to ask the question so long as he did not ask about any alleged role Ongwen may have had.

Narantsetseg then repeated the question. The witness answered that he did witness sexual violence. He added that it had a negative impact on him because it made him think about what he would do if he was “forced to receive a wife.”

“What’s the instance that you are referring to?” Narantsetseg asked him.

“I remember an instance when Lapwony Odomi gave a woman to Ogwal and then the woman who was given to Ogwal did not want to be Ogwal’s wife. I used to sleep next to them and I would always hear her crying that Ogwal should leave her alone,” replied the witness. During his testimony on Tuesday the witness referred to Ogwal only by one name.

As soon as the witness finished his answer, Taku rose to object and ask that his answer be expunged from the court’s record.

“It’s new evidence. Not only is the evidence grossly unfair but it would be a mockery of justice,” Taku argued.

Judge Schmitt consulted with Judges Peter Kovacs and Raul C. Pangalangan, the other judges of Trial Chamber IX, then said the chamber would not expunge the witness’ answer from the record.

“We have never done that. We have already decided we will consider it with a specific consideration of the impact that this had on this witness,” Judge Schmitt said, explaining the chamber’s decision.

A few questions later, Narantsetseg finished questioning Witness P-097 and the hearing was adjourned for the day.

Witness P-097 will continue testifying on Wednesday.