A former fighter with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who served under Dominic Ongwen told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Ugandan army soldiers feared Ongwen, preferring to ambush Ongwen’s group rather than confront them in battle.
On November 2, Witness P-231 testified that he was a member of the LRA’s Oka battalion when Ongwen was the battalion commander.
He described Ongwen as “very knowledgeable” in military matters, which he said was one of the reasons government soldiers often did not pursue Ongwen’s unit after they had attacked a place.
“For that matter, government soldiers rarely followed us. If they want[ed] to fight us they would ambush us,” said Witness P-231.
Ongwen is on trial for his alleged role in attacks on the Abok, Lukodi, Odek, and Pajule camps for internally displaced people in 2003 and 2004. He is also being tried for his alleged role in sex crimes and conscripting child soldiers. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity with which he has been charged.
Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, asked Witness P-231 to describe Ongwen as a person and as a commander.
“In terms of relations to people, talking to people, command in the army, Dominic is very well acquainted. He is very good at it and he knows how to speak to soldiers,” said Witness P-231.
He said that when Ongwen received an order to attack a particular place, he did not follow the order without question and first discussed it with his officers. Witness P-231 told the court about a time when they were given an order to attack a camp in Opit and abduct people. He said Ongwen gathered the officers to talk about how they were to carry out the order.
The witness said Ongwen told them, “No one should go and abduct people from Opit, but you should go and defeat the army.” The witness said the officers followed Ongwen’s orders and they did not abduct anyone from Opit, but they attacked the government soldiers there.
Odongo asked Witness P-231 about testimony he had given earlier about when LRA leader Joseph Kony ordered the killing of his deputy, Vincent Otti, and other LRA members.
“And according to what you told the court, Dominic seemed to have intervened. Was this normal with other commanders, in your experience? In other words, it appears Dominic spared the lives of some people?” asked Odongo.
“Yes, he did help to spare their lives,” said Witness P-231.
“Caesar Acellam, he should have been executed as well. Another person who should have been executed was myself. Another person who was spared is Ojok Alex. But the kind of intervention that Dominic gave, he was one of the few people who could do such interventions,” said the witness.
Witness P-231 said Otti, Caesar Acellam, and Ongwen were LRA commanders who questioned orders that Kony issued.
“I believe that is what killed Vincent,” the witness said.
“When I returned home I was sure that he [Ongwen] would die in the bush because he likes to always intervene in what he believes is a bad order,” said Witness P-231.
He said other commanders such as Buk Abudema and Okot Odiambo executed Kony’s orders without question.
“But other commanders, such as Dominic, Otti Vincent, even if Kony gives an order, they first mediate on it then they ask him again. This is what I can respond,” said the witness.
Before Odongo questioned Witness P-231, another of Ongwen’s lawyers, Thomas Obhof, cross-examined him. One line of questioning Obhof pursued with the witness was about the LRA’s religious setup and the spirits Kony claimed possessed him.
Obhof first asked about a place called The Yard in the LRA.
“The Yard is a place which is designated for prayers by Kony. He prays there alone. And sometimes when there are important things to be passed on to the commanders, the commanders converge there,” answered Witness P-231.
“So, it is safe to say there were restrictions on who could and could not enter The Yard, Mr. Witness?” asked Obhof.
“Yes, that is correct,” he answered.
Obhof then asked Witness P-231 about the work of controllers and technicians in the LRA. He replied that they work in The Yard and pray there. He said they did not go into battle and fight like other members of the LRA.
“But when I was there, they sit in The Yard to control the battle the group is engaged,” said Witness P-231. He said he had heard they could pray to turn a battle the LRA was losing into one the LRA would win.
Obhof then questioned the witness about the spirits Kony claimed possessed him. One of the spirits he asked about was Sili Silindi.
“Sili Silindi is one of the spirits that possesses Kony. It is not seen. I have not seen it physically but I have been present when it was speaking,” answered Witness P-231.
“Could you describe how you perceived that at the time?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“Silindi is a mother and when it’s speaking it speaks in a woman’s voice. But it is someone when speaking it does not speak rudely. It speaks calmly. Everything that she is speaking, she speaks calmly,” replied the witness.
“Did she speak through another person? Was Kony present and did she speak through him?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“Yes, the spirit speaks through Kony. Just as Kony is speaking, it is actually in Kony,” the witness answered.
Obhof asked Witness P-231 about another spirit, Who Are You.
“Who Are You is a violent spirit. Amongst all of Kony’s spirits it is the most violent. When it comes, when it possesses Kony, it is very violent,” the witness said. Witness P-231 said that whenever Who Are You appeared, death followed.
When Kony is possessed by Who Are You, the witness said, “There is something fierce in him. His face changes. His eyes change. He becomes very violent.”
There were also other spirits that possessed Kony, the witness testified.
“Were you present when any other of these spirits spoke through Kony? Did these spirits have different voices when they spoke through Kony?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“Yes, all the spirits when they possess Kony they possess different voices,” replied the witness.
“Did the spirits all speak in Acholi or did they speak in different languages?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“Most of the spirits speak in Acholi but the Acholi will not be very clear. For example, when Who Are You is speaking the Acholi language it is not clear because according to Kony that spirit is from Congo,” answered the witness.
Witness P-231 began testifying on November 1 when prosecutor Colin Black questioned him. Black asked him about the Oka battalion, in which the witness served, and about the different command positions Ongwen occupied. Black also asked Witness P-231 about how Ongwen managed his fighters one of the times he was injured.
The witness estimated that the Oka battalion had 200 fighters. He estimated that the Sinia brigade, which Oka was part of, had 700 to 800 fighters. Witness P-231 said Ongwen was promoted to brigade commander of Sinia from battalion commander of Oka. He said he could not remember the year Ongwen was promoted, but knows Ongwen was brigade commander for between one and two years. The witness testified that after serving as brigade commander, Ongwen was promoted to director of operations of the LRA sometime after 2006, when the group relocated to Congo as part of peace talks with the Ugandan government.
Witness P-231 said Ongwen was shot sometime while he was commander of the Oka battalion and he, Witness P-231, was with Ongwen as he recuperated in one of the LRA’s sick bays. He said the intelligence officer of the Oka battalion, Otto Agweng, was in charge of Oka while Ongwen was in the sick bay.
“During this time when Ongwen was not with the rest [of Oka battalion], could Dominic Ongwen issue orders?” asked Black.
“No, he could not issue orders because he was ill. He could not give any orders,” answered Witness P-231.
“And did that last the entire time he was in the sick bay, or at some time did he become well enough to give orders?” continued Black.
“Throughout the duration in the bay he would not issue instructions to other members of Oka,” replied the witness.
“What about the others in sick bay?” asked Black.
“For those of us in sick bay we would follow his instructions. He was the highest-ranking member in the sick bay so we would have to follow his instructions,” answered the witness.
Witness P-231 had a legal advisor, Anni Henriette Pues, present throughout his testimony to guide him whenever he gave self-incriminating evidence. Before he began testifying, Judge Schmitt informed Witness P-231 that he would not be pursued directly or indirectly for any self-incriminating testimony he gave so long as he told the truth.
Once Witness P-231 completed testifying, the court adjourned until Monday, November 6.