This article presents an abridged version of an interview conducted with a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abductee who served under Dominic Ongwen for one year. Omara (not real name) was abducted in 1997 when he was a 14-year-old pupil at Pader Kilak Primary School in Pader District, northern Uganda. The LRA took him to South Sudan, and shortly after arriving, he was assigned to serve under Ongwen’s command. When Ongwen’s bodyguard was killed in a helicopter gunship attack, Omara was asked to carry the dead man’s gun. He finally escaped the LRA in 1998 and returned home where he was reunited with family.
Ongwen, a former LRA commander, is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC). 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 in 2003 and 2004. Two of the charges relate to the use and conscription of child soldiers.
Ongwen’s trial at the ICC opened on December 6, 2016, and 52 witnesses have testified for the prosecution to-date. Omara is not eligible to participate in the trial because his abduction occurred several years before the period of time that Ongwen is charged with committing crimes. However, when asked about his thoughts on participation, Omara said: “I don’t want to be reminded of the terrible things that happened while I was in captivity. Right now, I have a family and peace of mind, so this is where I want to be.”
Lino Ogora (LO): Are you following the trial of Dominic Ongwen?
Omara: Yes, I have been following the trial weekly, and every time when there are discussions on television and radio. I follow it weekly because I want to know how it will end. However, sometimes I am too busy and the information given is also is not very detailed, so I lose interest once in a while.
LO: Tell us about your abduction experience.
Omara: I cannot recall the exact date on which I was abducted, but I remember that it was in early April 1997. I was 14 years old at the time and preparing to sit for my primary seven exams. I was abducted from home. On that day we heard of the rumors that the LRA rebels were around, but we did not go to hide in the bush at night as we usually did. As we were sleeping at night, we heard voices and footsteps in the compound and a knock on our door. When we opened the door, we were asked to lie down. One of the rebels then picked me up, tied my hands and pushed me among the other abductees who were already tied together. We were taken to Sudan where we were welcomed by Kony and thereafter assigned to different groups and divisions.
LO: How did you come to meet and serve Dominic Ongwen as his bodyguard?
Omara: In the bush Ongwen was called Lapwony Odomi and that is the name I also called him until I escaped. I knew [a] little English; I was a little bit brighter than the rest of the other abductees, and so Lapwony Odomi liked me. One day our group went out to fight and one of Ongwen’s bodyguards was killed. I was then made to carry the dead man’s gun for that whole week, after which Lapwony Odomi asked me to keep the gun and become his bodyguard.
LO: Tell us about Ongwen’s personality.
Omara: Ongwen was a kind-hearted man who loved all is soldiers. He loved all his women and children. His orders were simple. He instilled courage in us. He treated the wounds of his soldiers and administered herbs for those who were injured to recover. He was a focused man who never lost his battles and to be in his team was very nice because there was no losing. He had three wives and three children that I know of.
LO: Do you feel the ICC is the right court to try Ongwen?
Omara: I would have preferred another platform to the ICC. I would also have preferred that Ongwen be tried in Uganda even if by the ICC. This would have encouraged community participation. Despite this, I know that the ICC is an institution trying to discourage impunity, which is a good thing. The other good thing I can say about the ICC is that there will be reparations given to the victims or the community that suffered.
LO: Ongwen has been charged with the crime of abducting and using people like you as child soldiers. Do you feel this charge is justified?
Omara: He did that because he was under orders. For me, Ongwen is two-sided. He is a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. Therefore, it is very difficult to judge whether he deserves to be tried or not. Much as he was a senior commander, he was still under orders from above. We can compare Ongwen’s situation with the police brutality currently being inflicted against opposition leaders by the police in Uganda under the orders of the president. None of them can refuse to carry out the orders of the president.
LO: Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender based crimes. Do you feel this charge is justified?
Omara: Maybe the issue here should be the process he used for acquiring those women but not the number of women. The women were given to the commanders by force and none of them had the authority to refuse. Besides, Ongwen never mistreated his wives, punished them, or even overworked them. As far as I am aware, based on my knowledge at the time I lived with Odomias his bodyguard, Ongwen’s wives were all living happily.
LO: Is it true that Ongwen led attacks against Lukodi, Odek, Abok, and Pajule?
Omara: It could be true that he led attacks in those places, but I think he was not responsible for the atrocities that happened because his orders were very simple and he did not tell the soldiers to kill or rape women. Most of these things were done without his command. Anyway I don’t know what happened during the attacks because I was not part of the team that attacked those places.
LO: What would you say to Dominic Ongwen if you came face to face with him today?
Omara: I would tell him to ask for forgiveness from the people he has hurt and injured both physically, mentally, and physiologically. He should also ask for forgiveness on behalf of the soldiers he commanded. As for me, I have already forgiven him from the depth of my heart because I know what it means to be in the LRA. Most people, including the lawyers handling this case, have no idea except through reading from stories and watching from movies.
LO: Do you have anything else to say about the trial?
Omara: Ugandan government soldiers also committed many atrocities in northern Uganda, but they have not been held accountable. For example, government soldiers gave people ultimatums to move into IDP camps; and in many places they beat and killed the people who were refusing to move. Therefore, government soldiers should also be tried. I would also recommend that Ongwen’s trial be shifted to Uganda so that people feel they are part of the trial.
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 , a local non-governmental organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women, and communities to promote justice, development, and economic recovery in northern Uganda.