Community Members from the Teso Region of Uganda Have Their Say on Ongwen’s Trial

The conflict in northern Uganda has sometimes been labeled an affair of the Acholi people because it also happens to be the tribe from which Joseph Kony, the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader, hails from. In a similar light, the trial of Dominic Ongwen has been viewed by some sections of the population as focusing on northern Uganda, and most specifically Acholi region, at the expense of other regions that also suffered. This has created a division on whether Ongwen’s trial stands to benefit all regions in Uganda affected by the LRA war.

This article presents perspectives from community members in the Teso region of eastern Uganda. The Teso region was also affected by the conflict between the LRA and Ugandan government, but it is seldom mentioned in the discourse around the conflict.

Ongwen, a former commander of the LRA has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on four internally displaced persons camps in Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok. His trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) started on December 6, 2016 and is currently on recess until September 18, 2018, when the defense will start presenting its case. He has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes and conscripting child soldiers. Ongwen has denied all charges.

The Teso region was largely spared from LRA attacks during the two-decades-long conflict. However, on June 15, 2003, the LRA attacked [pdf] the region through Obalanga in Amura district under the command of Charles Tabuley. The move was meant to divert the attention of the Ugandan army, which had launched an aggressive operation code-named Operation Iron Fist against the LRA.

As a result, a once peaceful region suddenly found itself drawn into a conflict remote to them, and the impact was severe. Over the next eight months, the LRA killed, tortured, and abducted several civilians, and burned, looted, and pillaged several villages.

Despite the destruction wrought by the LRA in Teso, charges against Ongwen do not include any locations in the region, a factor that has sometimes drawn bitter comments from the residents. One community member from Obalanga expressed such a sentiment: “We have not been represented at the ICC, and yet Dominic Ongwen was also here in Teso. Why can’t they take just some few from Teso as witnesses to testify at The Hague?”

Asked if they knew about the ongoing trial of Ongwen, many community members responded in the affirmative, indicating that they were aware of the court proceedings.

“I have heard about the trial of Dominic Ongwen. I heard that he is in the court because of the crimes he committed against the people of northern Uganda,” said one community member.

A female LRA abductee, who has since returned to the community, said, “I know about the trial of Dominic Ongwen very well. I hear that he has been taken to the court abroad though I do not know the name of the court where he has been taken. In fact, I know Ongwen himself very well because [when] I was abducted and taken into captivity I had the chance of meeting with him at a place called Bei, where only pregnant women were kept.”

Knowing about the trial does not automatically indicate interest in the proceedings. However, the community members in Teso seem to have an interest in the trial despite the proceedings being focused largely on events that took place in northern Uganda.

“Yes, the people are very much interested in knowing how far the trial has gone because of the many atrocities that Ongwen and his colleagues [allegedly] committed in Teso. The people want to see that justice is done through his trial,” said a community member.

“Yes, people are interested because his name is always mentioned in discussions about LRA commanders, who damaged a lot of property and live in Teso region. As a victim, I was abducted and taken into captivity, and I was raped. So, we want to see that the outcome of the trial is in favor of the victims so that we get compensation,” said the female LRA abductee.

Another community member said, “The people of Teso are very much interested in the outcome of the trial because of the pain they went through during this war. We really want to know how Ongwen’s trial is going to end.”

With Ongwen’s charges concentrated in four case locations in northern Uganda, it was interesting to know how the community members in Teso were following the trial proceedings. A few said they were following through radio broadcasts, which is the most common medium of communication, while others were following through occasional outreach sessions organized by the ICC field outreach office and civil society organizations.

“I follow through the radio, and the last information I heard was that Ongwen denied all the charges against him,” said one community member who was keeping up with the case.

“I am following the trial. We are always told about the trial proceeding and how far it has gone by some of our community leaders, who have means of getting the information. We always hear this in meetings and community dialogues, and sometimes we hear it as rumors,” said another community member.

The majority, however, admitted that they were not following the proceedings, citing a lack of access to information.

“I am not following the trial because I have no access to any information. But I am waiting to hear that his trial has ended so that we are compensated,” said a community member who was not following the proceedings.

Another community member said, “I have no access to the information about his trial. When Ongwen had just been arrested, the information about his trial was hot news, but now it has gone silent.”

“I am not following his case because I don’t know the channels through which to access the information. But we keep asking ourselves how far his case has gone and what the government is thinking about his case,” said another community member.

Asked if Ongwen’s trial is important to the people of Teso, many responded in the affirmative, citing the pursuit of accountability as the single biggest reason.

“Yes, it is important because what he did in all the regions were not good. So, he deserves to be tried so that the victims feel that justice has been done. He needs to be answerable for the crimes he committed both in northern Uganda and Teso region,” said one community member.

“Yes, to me it is important because it will reveal the reason behind all the crimes that he [Ongwen allegedly] committed. It will also reveal if he was influenced by someone to commit these crimes,” said another.

In contrast, some respondents felt the trial was not important on the basis that the process is taking long and updates are not available to the community in Teso.

“I think that this trial is not of any importance to anybody because it is taking longer than expected. Besides it is taking long, we the Iteso are in the process of healing and forgiving, so what is the purpose of the trial,” asked one community member, who was very unhappy with the process.

Another said, “To me I feel that the trial is now useless because we do not even know how far it has gone. Also, the trial has taken very long, and we are not sure of when it will end. Worst of all, no one is informing us or giving us updates. Perhaps it can be important to the people of northern Uganda but not Teso.”

Asked what outcome they wanted to see from the trial, many community members cited the need to not only hold Ongwen accountable for his crimes, but to also ensure compensation for victims who suffered.

“We only want justice to prevail so that we are compensated, and we shall be in position to forgive him,” said one community member.

Another said, “We want to hear that he has been convicted of his crimes against the people of Uganda. Many of us did not go to school because of insecurity created by the LRA. To let him go free would be very unfair to us,” said the female LRA abductee.

“What we want to hear is not even the outcome of the trial but that government has finally decided to compensate the victims’ families. We want to hear that the government has openly come out to deal with the crimes of the LRA and to compensate the victims’ families,” said another community member.

The resumption of Ongwen’s trial on September 18 and presentation of the defense case will be an important milestone in the trial, which may restore some hope for victims who feel that proceedings are moving too slowly, as expressed above. It is more uncertain whether the trial will also result in the payment of compensation and reparations as requested by the people of Teso.

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.