He was abducted three times and spent over 10 years in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), where he served as a force signaler. After he finally escaped, he was granted amnesty by the Ugandan government. This article explores the perspectives of this former long-serving LRA fighter regarding the trial of Dominic Ongwen, whom he met and served with while in captivity. In this article, we shall refer to him as “Omara” to protect his identity. Omara expressed his opinion about the trial during an interview conducted with him in northern Uganda in March 2018.
Ongwen, a former LRA commander is currently on trial at International Criminal Court (ICC), where he is charged with over 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 over 60 prosecution witnesses have testified. Crimes allegedly committed during a May 2004 attack on the village of Lukodi, where Omara hails from, are also among the charges that Ongwen is facing.
Omara was first abducted in 1987 as he walked home from Lukodi Primary School, where he had freshly enrolled as a primary one pupil. The LRA carried him off into captivity and trained him to be a child soldier.
“Since I was very young and could not walk for long distances, I was carried by one rebel soldier, as we headed towards Kitgum to join up with other LRA units. When we reached Kitgum, we were assigned to different groups where they started training us to be strong and resistant to different weather conditions like cold and heat. We were also trained on how to operate a gun. I was always made to carry a gun of our group leader by the name Ngul,” recalls Omara.
Omara’s unit stayed in Kitgum for over three years. In 1991, government soldiers attacked their unit, and he used the opportunity to escape. He walked for three days from Kitgum to Gulu and returned Lukodi. He escaped with a gun, which he hid. Due to fears that he would be recruited into the Ugandan army, his relatives did not report his return to the government authorities. Omara blended back into normal community life.
If Omara had not escaped with a gun, his fate might have been different. The LRA decided to track him down and retrieve their gun, an incident that led to his second abduction in 1991, a few months after his return.
As Omara recalls, “How they found me, I do not know. They asked for their gun, and I took them to the swamp where I had hidden it. When they checked the gun, they found it in good shape and because of this, they said that I was loyal, so [the LRA] took me back with them to Kitgum. This was the second time I was abducted.”
Omara was immediately deployed to the LRA operations room because he has already been trained. “I stayed in the operation room relaying information intercepted from the UPDF to the LRA and relaying information from one LRA unit to another as a way of managing communication. This life was boring. As a result, I decided to escape,” narrated Omara.
Omara escaped for the second time in 1997. For fear that he would again be pursued by the LRA, Omara moved to Gulu town and only visited Lukodi occasionally to forage for food. This back and forth movement paved the way for his third abduction in 1999.
“One day, as I was returning from Lukodi, I was ambushed by the rebels, and all the food I had collected was taken away. The unit commander recognized me and immediately ordered that I be redeployed to the operation room because [I was] hard working. I was not punished because the commander said I was very honest in my work,” recalled Omara.
It was during his third abduction that Omara met Ongwen in the year 2000. As he recalls, “I met Ongwen in the operation room, which he always frequented to get information about upcoming operations and locations of the government soldiers. At that time he was a big man in the army with the rank of a captain, which meant that he commanded a unit of his own.” Omara further recalls that Ongwen was already serving in the Sinia brigade.
Ongwen has been described in mixed terms by different people. While some ex-LRA fighters have described him in a positive light, Omara is among those who has no kind words for Ongwen.
“All I can say is that Odomi [a name Ongwen was commonly known by in the LRA] was very bad. He used to call himself ‘the snake’ to mean when you hit his tail, he would rebound and bite you with his head. After an operation, if government soldiers pursued and attacked him, he would go back to that same community and clear every living thing in it,” said Omara.
“All his fellow commanders feared him because of his nature and all called him ‘the snake.’ He felt very proud when he heard people calling him that name. This is how he climbed through the ranks to be who he is today,” added Omara.
In 2004, Omara escaped for the last time. This time he made sure that he did not leave with a gun.
“We were still in our main camp in Kitgum in 2004 when I overheard a plan of traveling to Sudan with the whole army. I was now very tired of staying with the LRA. All I wanted was to go back home. One night, I was under a tent with three of my friends and fortunately enough they all were looking for an opportunity to escape. We left everything that was in our custody ranging from uniforms, guns, bullets, the signal book, and even the knives,” said Omara.
Omara returned home and was granted amnesty. He then went through a rehabilitation program by World Vision. However, the year of his final escape also coincided with the attack on Lukodi. At the time, Omara was still located at the World Vision rehabilitation center in Gulu, but the attack on Lukodi led to the death of over 69 civilians. Omara lost five relatives in that attack.
“When I heard about the attack on Lukodi, I felt so sad and was heartbroken because I lost five family members. But there was nothing I could do,” he said.
Asked if he has been following Ongwen’s trial, Omara said, “I have been following the trial through the video screening that always takes place in Lukodi. On some days the ICC officials [working for the field office] also come for meetings here [Lukodi] and update us.”
Community members in northern Uganda remain divided on whether Ongwen’s trial is justified or not. In Omara’s opinion, the trial is justified: “Ongwen deserves to be tried because he is being tried for crimes that he has committed. He caused a lot of harm and suffering to people in northern Uganda, so he deserves to be tried.”
Opinions also remain divided regarding the dual status of individuals, including Ongwen, who are both victims and perpetrators. Asked to comment on this, Omara said, “I acknowledge that Ongwen is a victim of abduction, but he still deserves to be tried because he refused to escape like some of [us] did, even when he had the chance. There were so many chances for Ongwen to escape, but he deliberately refused.”
Omara further reasoned that Ongwen was already an adult when he committed the crimes with which he is charged. “He was already 19 years of age by that time [of committing the crimes]. In fact he was 30 and above. He intended every attack and was never forced to kill.”
As Ongwen’s trial continues at the ICC, perspectives such as those expressed by Omara are an indicator of the diverse opinions that people in northern Uganda continue to have. With the prosecution concluding its case soon, it will be interesting to see how these opinions will be influenced when the defense starts calling witnesses.
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.