On May 19, 2018, community members commemorated the 14th anniversary of the Lukodi massacre that resulted in the death of 69 people. Over 2,000 community members, including representatives of civil society organizations and local leaders, attended the event.
For the second year running, the memorial prayers were held in the shadow of the ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander accused of leading the attack on Lukodi. This article explores the perspectives of community members regarding the significance of the prayers amidst Ongwen’s trial and their expectations for justice.
Ongwen is charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to the 2004 attack on Lukodi. He has also been charged with crimes allegedly committed in three other internally displaced persons camps, sexual and gender-based crimes, and conscripting child soldiers from 2002 to 2005. Overall, Ongwen is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The event started with a parade by community members, followed by a tree planting ceremony and memorial prayers led by the local parish priest. At the end of the prayer service, there was a somber moment followed by the laying of wreaths in memory of the victims. When asked to comment on the significance of the annual memorial prayers, many underscored its role in promoting healing survivors of the massacre.
“The prayers were good, and the sermon was very encouraging to the victims’ families,” noted Martin, a community member.
“It was a wonderful sermon and very educative. It was heart quenching and educative because it touched our lives and encouraged us to forgive and forget, but most importantly, to work hard to improve our livelihoods and achieve healing,” remarked Kennedy, another community member.
Jimmy, another community member who attended, put it briefly when he said, “The prayers were wonderful and comforting.”
This is the second year in a row where the prayers occurred in the midst of the ongoing trial of Ongwen. It was therefore interesting to explore the community members’ opinions regarding the significance of the prayers while the former LRA commander, who is accused of leading the attack on their village, sits in the dock in The Hague.
For Kennedy, the prayers are a useful avenue for coping with memories of the massacre that devastated the village 14 years ago, while the trial is an avenue for attaining justice. “The court should be fair, and for it to achieve this, it needs prayers. The prayers help victims’ families to forget the atrocities Ongwen [allegedly] committed in Lukodi,” he said.
“Annual memorial prayers remind us about what we suffered [allegedly] at the hands of Ongwen and his soldiers and that such atrocities should not happen again,” said Cosmas, another community member.
“The prayer exposes the atrocities that the victims went through, and people who did not know about Ongwen get to know him,” said Charles, a community member.
“We utilize this prayer day to petition God for a fair and just hearing in the case of Ongwen,” said Jimmy.
Richard, another community member added, “These prayers teach…children the evils of war. It also shows solidarity with the deceased.”
With the memories of the massacre still fresh in the minds of many survivors, the prayers were an opportunity for them to reiterate their need for justice and reparation as a desired outcome from Ongwen’s trial.
“We want justice to prevail. If Ongwen is convicted, victims’ families should be compensated for the wrongs he did,” said Martin.
“Ongwen should be convicted and victims compensated,” supported Cosmas.
“We hope for a fast and fair trial, and if Ongwen is convicted, we should be compensated,” said Richard in support of the above two opinions.
Despite the overwhelming calls for justice, a few community members, like Charles, continued to advocate for forgiveness. “If Ongwen shows remorse, he should be forgiven since he cannot bring back the 69 lives which were lost,” he said.
The day also saw the unveiling of a new community memory center, dedicated to remembering the victims of the massacre and displaying information about the conflict in northern Uganda. In speeches that followed, local leaders and community members offered words of encouragement to the massacre survivors and relatives of the victims, as they called for reparations from the government of Uganda.
Local councilor Gibson Okulu supported the idea of reparations from the Ugandan government. “The government should give 15 iron sheets to each victim’s family because these victims’ family members cannot build housing facilities for themselves and neither can they repair their damaged grass thatched houses. These victims are weak and old,” he added.
The representative of the Gulu District Chairperson reiterated the victims’ calls for reparations: “It is really sad that the government has failed to account for the crimes that happened in Lukodi. There are so many reparations needs of victims which are not being addressed. The government should pay reparations early enough because people are dying.”
With Ongwen’s ICC trial almost halfway through, reflections from community members in Lukodi serve as a reminder of the high expectations victims continue to harbor. The trial also remains one of the few remaining avenues through which victims in northern Uganda can hope to receive reparations.
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.