On Tuesday, May 1, a witness described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how he changed schools three times after students and teachers taunted and chased him away for being in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for two years.
Witness V-2 told the court on Tuesday he eventually abandoned school and turned to farming to help his family. Witness V-2 was testifying in the trial of a former LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen, which resumed on Tuesday after an 18-day break.
The testimony of Witness V-2 marked the beginning of the victims’ phase of the trial. This is after ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally gave notice on April 13 that the prosecution had concluded presenting its case. The last prosecution witness, psychologist Roland Weierstall, concluded his testimony on April 12.
Witnesses in the victims’ phase of a trial at the ICC do not give evidence about the charges an accused person is facing. This category of witnesses testify about the harm victims have suffered and the impact on victims of the crimes that are the subject of a trial.
There are 4,100 victims registered to participate in the trial of Ongwen. They are represented by two separate legal teams. Joseph Akwenyu Manoba and Francisco Cox, who together represent 2,599 victims, lead one team. The other legal team representing victims is made up of staff of the Office of the Public Counsel of Victims (OPCV) led by Paolina Massidda. The OPCV represents 1,501 victims.
Ongwen has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in a June 8, 2004 attack on the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP). He is also alleged to have had a role in attacks on three other IDP camps in northern Uganda, sex crimes, and conscripting child soldiers.
In total Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that he is alleged to have committed between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Tuesday, Witness V-2, who is one of the victims represented by Manoba and Cox, told the court that his family moved to the Abok IDP camp in April or May 2003. He said they moved to the camp because sometimes the LRA attacked their village three or four times a week.
“We moved to the camp because there were government soldiers guarding the place, and we felt we were safe in the camp,” said Witness V-2.
He said the LRA abducted him when he was 12 years old from the Abok IDP camp in June 2004. Witness V-2 told the court he escaped from the LRA on October 14, 2006.
Witness V-2 said members of the LRA caned him and other young abductees six times each day in the days following their abduction. He said older abductees were caned 12 times daily.
“Why would they whip you each day?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“We were told that that is part of the process of removing the civilian in us and making us soldiers,” replied the witness.
Witness V-2 told the court that he took part in several attacks while he was in the LRA. He said he did not have a gun at first. However, during an attack a gun was seized, and he was given the gun to use.
Manoba asked Witness V-2 whether he had been forced to kill anyone while he was in the LRA.
“Yes. There was a time I was forced, and I killed a person. I was given to kill a person who had escaped and was re-abducted. I was picked because I was young and that was meant for me to be used to what is done. Instilling fear,” replied the witness.
“And how did this make you feel?” asked Manoba.
“Because of the life in the bush it scared me, but when I did [kill the person] … and after that I forgot about it,” answered Witness V-2.
A little later Judge Schmitt asked Witness V-2 how he killed the person.
“I was made to hit the back of his head to death. We hit him together with another person who was slightly older than me,” answered the witness. He told the court that he was ordered several times to kill people.
“Was this person or these people related to you or close family members?” asked Manoba.
“The one I was given to hit was actually my friend. We were very close friends,” replied the witness.
Witness V-2 said that after he escaped the LRA he managed to return to school. He said when he was abducted he was in his fourth year of primary school.
He said one Sunday his grandmother announced in church that he had returned after being abducted by the LRA. Witness V-2 said he started crying when she said that, and he left the church. He said he was angry at her for publicly saying he had been abducted by the LRA.
“When I went to school, the pupils who were present in the church the day I was being introduced all turned to look me. They would call me, “rebel.” They would call me “adui,” which means rebel in our language,” said Witness V-2. The witness spoke in Acholi during his testimony. Adui is also a Swahili word that means enemy.
Witness V-2 said the head teacher then called him to his office to explain what the students meant. Witness V-2 said he told the head teacher his story, how he was abducted, his experience in the LRA, and how he escaped. He said the head teacher then chased him away.
“Did he tell you why he chased you away?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“When I had explained to him from start to the end, when I finished, he just told me go away, hurry up out of here,” answered the witness.
“Did you feel betrayed by him, sort of?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“I was so angry. I felt betrayed because I was inside, and I was told all of sudden to leave. I did not expect that I would be chased away. If he had told me to go back to class I would have understood. My mother never asked me any questions,” replied Witness V-2.
“The next day I went back … during assembly the head teacher called me in front of the pupils and warned the pupils to be careful with me … I went to class to continue studying, but I wasn’t paying attention,” continued the witness.
He said he continued doing poorly at the school, and eventually he transferred to another school. He said at his new school he improved his grades.
Witness V-2 said some time later four students from his former school transferred to the new one, and they told the other students about his past in the LRA. He said students then started writing on his books “LRA,” which caught the attention of the teachers. He said he soon left that school to join another one, which he also left.
“Did you finally manage to finish school?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“No. I did not continue studying. When I returned home I found my father did not have anything to eat. I stayed at home to farm so that we could have something to eat. In the year 2013 I sat in primary seven [the final year of primary school],” answered Witness V-2.
A few questions later Manoba asked Witness V-2 whether he reported what happened to him in the three schools to any authorities.
“No, I did not because I did not know where to report them at the time,” replied the witness.
“What does it mean to you to be able to tell your story to the court?” asked Manoba.
“I am happy that I am finally sharing my experience,” answered the witness.
“Finally, what do you expect from this court?” asked Manoba.
“My expectation is for justice. That is all,” replied the witness.
“Do you think of anything else that could help in your life?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“Yes, there is. Even if someone is 50 years old [they can still go to school], and I am begging that if someone can help me and help me go to [continue my] studies,” replied the witness.
Abigail Bridgman, one of the lawyers representing Ongwen, also questioned Witness V-2. She asked about some of the ways new abductees were initiated into the LRA and what effect those rituals had on new abductees.
Bridgman also asked the witness about what LRA members were told would happen if they succeeded in escaping and tried to re-join civilian life. During his questioning by Bridgman, Witness V-2 said he had only told the story of his time in the LRA to the head teacher he spoke to and the people who registered him to participate in the trial of Ongwen.
Witness V-2 testified on Tuesday under court-authorized protective measures. His voice and face were distorted in public broadcasts of the day’s hearing. Short portions of his testimony were closed to the public to protect his identity.
Vincent Oyet was the next witness to testify. He testified on Wednesday, May 2.