A prosecution witness told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the top leadership of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) took no action against a brigade commander who disobeyed orders to go to the battlefront and another who released abducted civilians.
Witness P-070, a former LRA fighter, told the court on Friday the commander of the Gilva brigade was known as coward among the senior ranks of the LRA. The witness also said the commander of the Stockree brigade at times told his fighters not to kill civilians, released newly abducted civilians, and deliberately hid this from his superiors.
The witness was testifying in the trial of a former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in attacks on four camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. These attacks happened between 2003 and 2004. The camps have since been closed after the LRA ceased attacks in 2006.
On Friday, Witness P-070 told the court that he learned about the reputation of Ocan Bunia, the Gilva brigade commander, during radio communication between LRA commanders.
“Earlier you mentioned Ocan Bunia as the brigade commander in Gilva. What was Ocan Bunia’s willingness in terms of carrying out attacks?” asked trial lawyer Colin Black.
“Ocan Bunia was always accused of being a coward. He was accused of avoiding going to the battlefront,” answered Witness P-070.
“Do you know if Ocan Bunia was ever punished for avoiding orders like this?” asked Black.
“Not as far as I am aware but they would constantly talk about it over the radio that he would always hide,” the witness said. On Thursday, the witness testified that he listened to radio communication when his brigade commander, Charles Tabuley, did.
Previous prosecution witnesses, including a former LRA radio operator, have told the ICC that in the LRA only brigade and battalion commanders were issued radios.
After asking about Bunia’s reputation, Black asked Witness P-070 about Tabuley.
“In your experience, how did Tabuley tend to deal with civilians?” asked Black.
“Tabuley did not like killing civilians. He would abduct to bring them into the LRA but he would not kill,” the witness answered.
Witness P-070 told the court about an attack on Omiya Pachua, which is in the Kitgum area in northern Uganda. He said during the battle, fighters under Tabuley’s command defeated Ugandan government soldiers and abducted civilians. The witness said Tabuley then ordered that the civilians be released.
“Did (LRA leader Joseph) Kony find out that Tabuley had released these civilians from Omiya Pachua?” asked Black.
“He did not report about the civilians,” said the witness, referring to the regular radio communication LRA commanders had, during which they reported what was happening in their areas of control.
“He (Tabuley) said the civilians all fled from the center,” Witness P-070 said. When Black asked whether Tabuley was ever punished for not keeping the civilians, the witness said no.
During his testimony on Friday, Witness P-070 told the court about a widely publicised attack by the LRA on a girls’ school in the Teso region. He said the attack on Lwala Girls Secondary School in 2003 was carried out under the command of Tabuley. He said many girls were abducted but that the LRA released some of them.
“Some of the girls were too fat so they let them go,” Witness P-070 said. He said between 20 to 30 girls remained with the LRA.
The witness told the court Tabuley informed Control Altar, the LRA’s high command, about the abduction and Kony ordered him to hand over the girls to Vincent Otti, the LRA deputy leader.
“Some of the girls were taken to Kony to become his wives. Some of the girls were distributed to the commanders who were in Control Altar. Some of the girls were given to brigade commanders,” said the witness. He said he was told this by Tabuley.
Witness P-070 told the court the LRA normally operated in the Acholi region but between 2003 and 2004, they carried out attacks in the Teso region, which is southeast of the Acholi region. He said the LRA went into Teso three times during that period and Tabuley lead attacks there.
He said Tabuley died in battle during the third LRA incursion into Teso. The witness said by this time Tabuley had left Stockree brigade because he had been promoted to division commander.
“How did you learn about Tabuley’s death?” asked Black.
“Initially I heard about the death over domestic radio … Then I heard it while they were communicating on radio call when they were sending [a] message to Kony,” replied the witness.
“How did Kony react?” Black asked.
“When Kony heard about Tabuley’s death he was extremely upset,” the witness said.
“What did he say?” Black asked.
“At the time, he issued instructions and said nothing should be left alive from the Teso area to the Lango area,” answered the witness, adding that Kony blamed the government-backed militia in those areas for killing Tabuley.
Witness P-070 said the LRA carried out two attacks in Teso and Lango following Tabuley’s death. He said one attack was on a place called Barlonyo and another attack was on a place called Lira Palwo.
The witness told the court a combined force of fighters from the brigades of Sinia and Stockree as well as Control Altar attacked Barlonyo. He said the Stockree brigade attacked Lira Palwo. He said each attack was led by Okot Odiambo, who was the brigade commander of Stockree.
Odiambo had an ICC arrest warrant against him, a warrant that was issued at the same time as the one for Ongwen. Odiambo’s warrant was terminated in September 2015 after his death was confirmed.
“Did the LRA eventually leave the Teso area?” asked Black.
“After the death of Tabuley all the LRA members left Teso. When I was still with the LRA nobody went to Teso. Nobody stayed in Teso,” said the witness.
After Black concluded his examination-in-chief of Witness P-070, Megan Hirst—who represents one group of victims in the Ongwen trial—asked him a series of questions.
Hirst asked Witness P-070 how the LRA ensured abductees did not run away during the trek from the site of an attack. He said the abductees were tied together with rope in single file with a small gap between each abductee. He said if many people had been abducted then they would be tied in groups of 10.
Witness P-070 said after an attack the LRA and their abductees would walk a short distance, set up camp and have some food or they would trek the whole day depending on the situation.
“If we are being pursued (by Ugandan government soldiers) then we would continue walking without any rest because you cannot stop when you are being pursued,” said the witness.
Hirst asked whether the abductees could ask to rest if they felt tired.
“No. They had no authority. They had to follow instructions. They had no right to ask for rest,” replied Witness P-070.
Hirst asked what would happen if an abductee became too weak to trek.
“If somebody is unable to walk or if the person is weak, the person would be released from the rope and killed,” the witness answered.
Hirst then asked Witness P-070 questions about the life of new abductees once they became part of the LRA.
“Mr. Witness, I am interested in understanding whether you noticed in these recruits any signs of fear?” asked Hirst.
“Newly abducted people are fearful, very fearful because they are not used to gunshots,” he replied.
“From what you observed of the abductees, did they want to escape?” asked Hirst.
“Yes. They would want to escape but after being instructed and after being told and given the rules they stop thinking about escaping,” the witness said.
Hirst asked whether after this instruction some new abductees tried to escape.
“Several. Many of them would try,” the witness answered.
Witness P-070 will continue testifying on Monday.