Thinking Ahead: Community Expectations After the End of the Ongwen Trial

In the course of outreach conducted in communities affected by the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, community members frequently raised the question of what would happen if the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not find Dominic Ongwen guilty. This article explores the opinions of community members regarding Ongwen’s future in the aftermath of the trial, and particularly in the event that he is acquitted. The community expressed their opinions on where they felt Ongwen should live, the relationship between him and community members, and how they felt reconciliation should be promoted.

Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the LRA is currently on trial before the ICC in The Hague. He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. His trial at the ICC opened on December 6, 2016.

During a dialogue, one community member asked, “Where will Ongwen live in case he is acquitted by the court?”

Community members also speculated about what the relationship between Ongwen and his alleged victims would be in the event that he returned to live in northern Uganda. In the words of one community member, “If Ongwen comes back to live in the community, will his presence not breed hatred among his victims?”

Another concern expressed was the security of witnesses who would have testified during the trial. As one community member remarked, “If Ongwen is found to be innocent, what will happen to the witnesses who have testified against him?”

I started by asking how they would react in the event that Ongwen is acquitted. As expected, many community members, particularly those who lost relatives during the attacks on the IDP camps, strongly felt that Ongwen would not be acquitted.

One community member noted, “From the evidence that is being presented by the witnesses that have so far appeared, I do not think that Ongwen will be acquitted. Seventy charges were confirmed against him during the confirmation of charges hearing. Besides, former combatants have also testified against him. So in my opinion he will not win the case.”

Another remarked, “I am sure Ongwen will lose the case. I have seen what is happening on TV and the witnesses who are testifying against him. What he did was not fitting for humanity so he must be held accountable.”

A community leader emphasized the unpredictable nature of trials. “It is difficult to tell whether he will win or lose because courts are unpredictable. We are not yet even halfway through the trial, and the defense has not yet even presented their witnesses. So it is difficult to predict what the outcome will be.”

A formerly abducted woman spoke in favor of Ongwen. “If the truth is to be told then Ongwen will win the case. He was abducted just like us and was forced to commit the atrocities for which he is now accused. A child learns to do evil or good from its parents depending on the environment in which it is brought up. That is how Ongwen ended up as he did.”

In light of the above responses, it is not surprising that many community members expressed dismay when they were asked how they would react in the event Ongwen is acquitted.

“If he wins then there should be an appeal. I personally will not be happy and many other people will also not be happy because we have suffered and our relatives were killed. That will not be fair and will have a big negative impact on the community. Ongwen committed many crimes and he should be punished for them,” said a teacher from one of the affected communities.

“It will not be justice,” said one community leader. “If we look at it from the perspective of the victims, it will not be a good outcome. Many people witnessed the crimes he committed and the impacts are still being felt today. He commanded the soldiers who attacked us so how can he be innocent? He abducted many children. If he is acquitted it will not be justice.”

Another community leader pointed out that if Ongwen is acquitted then he should be entitled to compensation. “Both the ICC and even the government of Uganda should pay him if he wins the case because this will mean that he was wrongfully accused. Winning the case will mean he did nothing wrong so he should be paid.”

Another said, “As formerly abducted persons we would be relieved. Ongwen’s acquittal would be a recognition that we were innocent and that we are entitled to compensation. It will also mean that there is justice.”

If Ongwen is acquitted, it is likely he will return to live in northern Uganda, which is his home. I therefore asked the community members how they would react to this. As expected, the idea did not go down well with many community members.

One said, “I am sure Ongwen himself will be afraid of coming back to stay in Uganda. He will not be free to live in a community where many people feel aggrieved. In my opinion, he should not stay in northern Uganda if he is acquitted because the people will still be angry with him.”

A community leader remarked, “If he is acquitted and returns to northern Uganda it will create a lasting grudge between him and his victims. It will not only promote and encourage impunity, but will also be tantamount to provoking some people to take revenge against him.”

However, another emphasized that Ongwen had a right to return based on his cultural ties. “Ongwen is an Acholi, and has the right to come back and live in his community if he is acquitted. Nobody can deny him his right. However, the government should ensure that there is protection for both him and other people who may fear for their lives.”

“It all depends on whether or not people will be understanding about the fact that Ongwen was forced to do what he did,” said the formerly abducted woman. That will determine how Ongwen will be received back in the community. However, from my experience as a formerly abducted person, I have a feeling that Ongwen will not be well received.”

The protection of witnesses and victims has always been a key concern both before and after the trial. One community member said, “The security of witnesses and everybody else involved with the case should be taken seriously. Many people like me have expressed our opinions to interviewers and the news media. So if Ongwen is acquitted, I will definitely have some fear. Even Ongwen himself will be concerned about his own security.”

In the opinion of one community leader, “Security will be a problem for both Ongwen himself, and the victims and witnesses who have participated in the case. The victims know where his home is, and Ongwen also knows the areas where he committed the crimes, so we cannot rule out the likelihood of something happening.”

Another said, “Victims, witnesses, and even their relatives will of course feel fear if Ongwen is acquitted. During the conflict, people were killed and children were abducted despite the presence of government solders to protect them. So there will definitely be some fear.”

“I am sure that Ongwen will not harm anybody if he returns. However, Ongwen has to fear for his own security because people have differing sentiments against him. Some do not like him while others do. People who are hostile towards him could plan to harm him. If formerly abducted persons who have not been charged with any crimes still suffer stigma, then what about Ongwen?” said the formerly abducted woman.

On what should be done to ease tensions between Ongwen and his victims in the event that he returns to northern Uganda, the community members had the following to say.

“There should be compensation for the lives and property that people lost during the conflict. This will make people happy and willing to forgive because it will be an acknowledgement of the suffering that they underwent,” said one community leader.

Another said, “According to Acholi culture, if Ongwen is to return then he should undergo some traditional rituals to cleanse him before he re-enters the community. After that he can engage in a truth telling and reconciliation ceremony with the community.”

“I think to prevent any tensions, people in northern Uganda need to be sensitized before Ongwen returns to the community. People should be made to understand that it is illegal to attack anyone. Both Ongwen and the community members should reconcile and live in peace,” said the formerly abducted woman.

The above questions indicate that even though the end of the trial could be years away, community members are already trying to prepare for the future and what could happen in the event that Ongwen is acquitted by the ICC. It is an indication that many of them have not ruled out the possibility that he could be acquitted, and are wondering what will become of the witnesses, and where will he live, in the event that he returns to Uganda. While this article does not in any way speculate about whether or not Ongwen will be acquitted by the ICC, the unpredictable nature of trials means community members, the ICC, and CSOs in northern Uganda must be prepared for this eventuality and include it in their post-trial planning.

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.