At the height of the conflict in northern Uganda, various methods were employed to reach out to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters, urging them to abandon rebellion and return home. John Oryema Lacambel, or simply Lacambel, is a radio presenter who outdid himself and became popular because of a program called “Come Back Home” or Dwog Cen Paco in Acholi language, through which he played traditional Acholi music and persuaded many LRA fighters to surrender.
Could this program also have influenced Dominic Ongwen, the former LRA former commander who is currently on trial at International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, to abandon rebellion? This article presents excerpts of an interview with Lacambel, who continues to be a presenter at Mega FM Radio, the radio station that aired hundreds of Dwog Cen Paco programs.
Ongwen is currently on trial at ICC facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender based crimes, committed from 2002 to 2005. Ongwen’s trial started in December 2016, and the final prosecution witness testified on April 11 and 12.
Lacambel, through his radio program, persuaded hundreds of LRA combatants to abandon rebellion. He became so popular with both the LRA and government soldiers that he started acting as a mediator. He traveled numerous times to meet the LRA and convey critical messages from the government. In the process, he met Ongwen, but was unsuccessful in convincing him to return home. Whenever ex-combatants returned home, Lacambel was there to welcome them and reorient them into the community. Some, especially senior ranking officers, would appear on the Dwog Cen Paco radio program to persuade others to return. Below is a question and answer session about Lacambel’s work and his perspectives on Ongwen’s trial.
Lino Ogora (LO): During the northern Uganda conflict, you were famous for having convinced many LRA fighters to return home through your radio program Dwog Cen Paco. What inspired you to work with ex-combatants to persuade them to return home?
Lacambel: I started [working with combatants] in 1987, when I was a youth leader, and the northern Uganda war had just began. On seeing the suffering of my people and also because I had some friends fighting in the rebellion, I started pleading with them to stop the war and return home. I started involving myself through their parents to plead for them to return home. Most of the arrogant rebels threatened to kill me. My own brother was killed as the rebels were looking for me. I started a small organization called Peace Struggle Committee.
LO: When did you start the Dwog Cen Paco radio program?
Lacambel: This radio program was started on December 6, 2003, on Mega FM Radio. However, before that there was a similar program called Amnesty Commission on Choice FM Radio. When Mega FM Radio opened, the name of the program was changed to Dwog Cen Paco. It was still the same program, and only the name had changed.
LO: When did you start the organization called Peace Struggle Committee?
Lacambel: I started it between 1987 to 1988, and I involved some of the prominent Acholi elders, like Abur, Purudi, and Yutiko Okello. Most of them are deceased, and most of these leaders were from Patiko [in Gulu district, northern Uganda].
LO: Why did you involve only the elders from Patiko?
Lacambel: These were elders from my home area, so I knew they would understand me, and beside, Patiko was a stronghold for the LRA. I got in touch with General Salim Saleh, who was the Ugandan army commander by then, and he advised me to convince my people to return home. From then on, we started advocating for peace because the rebels were killing without any clear motive.
LO: Why do you say that the rebels had unclear motives for killing?
Lacambel: The rebels thought they could attack and overthrow the government. I remember in one of the meetings I had with the rebels, their reasoning was that ‘a mere Munyankole [referring to President Yoweri Museveni] cannot rule us.’ When I questioned why they are destroying their own people but not the Banyankole [President Museveni’s ethnic group], the rebels referred to me as a traitor and that was the reason they wanted to kill me.
LO: How many ex-combatants responded to you call to return home?
Lacambel: So many of them returned home through the Dwog Cen Paco program. At first, the program was not highly advertised, but it became popular when we started bringing the returnees to testify live on radio. This encouraged many to return. As I talk now, there are some who have just returned this year. The biggest challenge that is hindering return now is the distance from [Central Africa Republic].
Through the Dwog Cen Paco program, I even managed to reach to the rebels’ high commanders like Okello Keno and Odong Latek, who got the message but was killed as he was making up his mind to return home. I became a mediator between the Ugandan government and the LRA rebels. I would take the messages of the rebels to the government and the government would also send me with the messages and items like food and medicine.
LO: Are you following the trial of Dominic Ongwen?
Lacambel: Not so much. Ongwen has his own reasons for what he did. I personally met Ongwen was able to preach to him the message of peace and advised him to stop killing and return home… I support the ICC’s approach because I feel it is good for lasting peace. Ongwen deserves to be punished because he was the most notorious commander. Whoever passed through his hands and survived would be lucky. I feel bad hearing some people claiming that he was just a child. A child would not command as he did. To me it is shameful to see very elite lawyers going to defend Ongwen. I do not hate him, but he deserves to be punished.
LO: Do you feel the prosecution has done a good job in presenting its case against Ongwen?
Lacambel: Yes of course. Before one is punished, one needs to be proven innocent or guilty. So let him be tried by the ICC because he refused to take advantage of the amnesty law. There are many people who accepted amnesty, and they have become good citizens and are enjoying their freedom. It is unfortunate that the most resourceful witnesses are talking of forgiveness, and many people have politicized the peace process.
LO: In the course of interacting with the LRA to convince them to return home, did your message reach Ongwen as well?
Lacambel: Yes, I personally asked Ongwen to abandon rebellion and return home. He was among the commanders who planned to kill me because of my advocacy.
LO: Many people have claimed that Ongwen should have escaped when he had the chance. Why do you think he did not escape?
Lacambel: I think Ongwen feared that the government would not forgive him but rather kill him for the atrocities he committed. The government pleaded for him to return home, but he refused. Other commanders like [Thomas] Kwoyelo also stubbornly refused to return home.
LO: Do you think the Dwog Cen Paco program was influential in persuading Ongwen to finally surrender to the Seleka rebels in 2015?
Lacambel: Very much so. Because Ongwen, like most other commanders, used to listen to the radio program. During the program, I would bring other combatants who had returned and asked them to appeal to their colleagues to abandon rebellion and take advantage of the amnesty. Senior commanders would not allow their junior officers to listen to the program but still word would get round through their escorts. This made many soldiers, including Ongwen, to learn that soldiers who surrendered were being granted amnesty. He knew that if he surrendered he would not be killed because his life was at risk in the bush.
LO: What would be your comment on the fact that Ongwen is both a victim and a perpetrator?
Lacambel: The truth is that most Acholi do not want him punished, but Ongwen himself knows what he did. He should carry his cross. If he managed to commit all these atrocities when he was still a child, then how much more would he have committed when he was abducted at an old age? He should have followed the law.
LO: Do you have any other comment regarding the trial of Dominic Ongwen?
Lacambel: According to me, Ongwen deserves to be punished if he is found guilty. When he is left unpunished, it will encourage many youth to cause rebellion because they will think that even if they commit such crimes, they will go free. It will encourage impunity.
LO: Does the Dwog Cen Paco program still run on Mega FM Radio?
Lacambel: The Dwog Cen Paco radio program is no longer aired. Since the rebels are now in the Central African Republic, local radio stations in that area are used. Mega FM Radio only supports them in case they need some advice or help with audio recordings. Although the Dwog Cen Paco program no longer airs on Mega FM Radio, it was highly influential in persuading many ex-combatants to abandon rebellion.
Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda and South Sudan 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.