Ugandan Army Officer Says He was Unaware of LRA Warning About Pajule Attack

The Ugandan army commander responsible for protecting the Pajule camp for internally displaced people told the International Criminal Court (ICC) he was not aware the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warned of an attack months before the group hit the camp.

On September 28, John Lubwama told the court that he did not know about a letter the LRA sent warning of another attack on Pajule after the camp had been attacked in January 2003. Lubwama also said he did not hear reports of an impending attack from either residents of Pajule or abductees who had escaped the LRA.

Lubwama commanded a unit made of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers and militiamen that was responsible for protecting Pajule when it was attacked on October 10, 2003. Dominic Ongwen has been charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in that attack on Pajule. In total, he has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

On Thursday, Lubwama told the court that he had 650 men under his command, most of them Local Defence Unit (LDU) members. Lubwama said there were 25 UPDF soldiers in the unit he commanded and that the LDU made up the rest of the unit. He said 150 of the men were stationed at Pajule when it was attacked on October 10, 2003.

Last month, Colonel Joseph Balikuddembe, who was a UPDF battalion and brigade commander in northern Uganda between 2003 and 2006, testified that the LDUs recruited members from residents in the area they protected, but were trained by and reported to the UPDF.

On Thursday, Abigail Bridgman, one of Ongwen’s defense lawyers, asked Lubwama about different warnings of an attack on Pajule after he testified that the UPDF was caught unaware when the LRA attacked the camp.

“You said that you were caught unaware. Do you know about the letter that was sent by the LRA warning of a subsequent attack after the January [2003] attack?” on Pajule, asked Bridgman.

“No. I did not hear about that,” replied Lubwama.

“Now Mr. Witness, did you ever hear reports of a letter? If you did not see it, did you ever hear of reports of a letter from the LRA warning of attacks on Pajule?” Bridgman asked.

“No,” answered Lubwama.

“Were you aware of other sources that showed an intention by the LRA to attack Pajule in October [2003]?” asked Bridgman.

“No, I did not receive any such information,” Lubwama replied.

“Mr. Witness, is it your testimony that you did not hear from people who had returned from the bush that [then LRA deputy leader Vincent] Otti had planned to attack Pajule?” asked Bridgman.

“Yes. I don’t have that information,” answered Lubwama.

“Mr. Witness, had you heard from civilians in the camp about an impending attack on Pajule?” asked Bridgman.

“No,” Lubwama said.

Bridgman also asked Lubwama about guidelines the UPDF followed to distinguish between LRA fighters and civilians whenever soldiers confronted LRA fighters.

“Now, yesterday when you were testifying, and in your statement, you talk about the enemy. As a commander, who was the enemy? How had you explained the enemy to your troops?” asked Bridgman.

“Well, the ones who came and fought. The ones who did not belong to the government side,” answered Lubwama.

“Did you have a general description of what those meant? For instance, if you were patrolling the area of your deployment or responsibility how would you tell if one was an enemy or not?” asked Bridgman.

“I could identify the person by his appearance or what he was wearing or what he had with him. People in the bush, especially members of the LRA had dreadlocks like Rasta men and you could identify them that way. Others you could identify by their clothing,” replied Lubwama.

“Were there instances when civilians could be mistaken for the enemy just by their appearance?” asked Bridgman.

“No. Even if, well, you would ask the person questions to determine the truth even if you were suspicious,” said Lubwama.

Bridgman then asked Lubwama follow-up questions to his testimony on Wednesday about people who were alleged to be collaborators of the LRA.

Lubwama, in response to a question from Bridgman, said that as a UPDF commander he would take people suspected of being collaborators to civilian court if there was evidence against them.

“Were you aware of reports of such people would be detained and tortured, sometimes killed, without being taken to the courts or be taken to the courts and be released again?” asked Bridgman.

“And where did you read such reports? What’s your source?” asked Lubwama.

“Witness, simply answer the questions that you have been asked. It’s not up to you to ask questions. It is up to you to answer questions,” said Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.

When Bridgman repeated the question about allegations of torture of suspected collaborators, Lubwama answered, “I have no idea.”

Bridgman then asked Lubwama questions about some former LRA fighters who had been absorbed into the UPDF. She also asked him about the movement of residents in Pajule camp. Bridgman also questioned Lubwama about what the UPDF did with the bodies of LRA fighters killed during the October 2003 attack on Pajule. He said the UPDF buried the bodies in a single grave, as it did not know where to find the families of the deceased. Lubwama said no postmortem was performed on the bodies.

Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, also asked Lubwama some questions. When Odongo concluded his questioning, the court adjourned until Monday.