A former escort of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Dominic Ongwen was selected in his early years with the group to be one of Kony’s escorts.
Witness D-27 told the court on Monday, February 25, that Ongwen’s brigade commander at the time, Buk Abudema, refused to allow Ongwen to leave his brigade. The witness said the LRA high command, or Control Altar as it was commonly known, had selected Ongwen to be one of Kony’s escorts.
“We were together with him [Ongwen] in Sudan. We were supposed to be transferred together. His brigade commander was called Abudema, and Abudema did not allow Dominic to be transferred to provide security to Kony,” said Witness D-27.
“Did you come to learn the reason why he wanted to stick around with Dominic?” asked Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer.
Witness D-27 said Abudema said he would find someone else to be an escort to Kony. He said it was usual “for people to be identified to provide security for Kony,” from the different brigades in the LRA.
Ongwen has been charged for his alleged role as a former LRA commander for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He faces a total of 70 counts. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
During his testimony on Monday, Witness D-27 told the court about Ongwen’s early days in the LRA, his character, and the type of leader he was when he was promoted to higher ranks. The witness also told the court he was abducted in 1990, and he remained with the group until 2006. He said he first met Ongwen at a sick bay. Witness D-27 said the commander he was with at the time was injured during an attack by a Ugandan military helicopter and he stayed with his commander to take care of him at the sick bay.
Odongo asked Witness D-27 about the one and a half years he spent in the sick bay looking after his commander while Ongwen was also there. Odongo asked the witness what he observed of Ongwen’s character.
“The way Dominic related with people, well, I would say he is somebody who likes people. He was non-discriminatory. He was playful. I don’t think his life changed later because he loves people. Even later when he was already grown, and he was already higher in rank than myself, we were still living together just like before,” said Witness D-27.
Odongo asked him to elaborate what he meant by Ongwen being playful.
“You know when we were at the sick bay … We would not be doing anything much. We would only play cards. We would play draughts and many other kinds of games,” said Witness D-27.
Odongo asked Witness D-27 whether after that first meeting he met Ongwen again. He said he did. Odongo then later asked follow-up questions about Ongwen’s character in later years.
“It was often said there were commanders in the LRA who were very brutal. Was he [Ongwen] a brutal man to his soldiers, and also to the civilian population, for instance?” asked Odongo.
“No, Dominic was not a brutal person. I know that Dominic would obey the rules to the dot,” said Witness D-27.
A little later, Odongo asked the witness to speak some more on how Ongwen interacted with those under his command.
Witness D-27 said most commanders in the LRA did not associate with those under their command, “but Dominic would associate with them.”
He also said that Ongwen showed his playful side to those under his command.
“There was time he [Ongwen] even plaited his hair,” said Witness D-27.
Odongo asked Witness D-27 about the initiation rituals in the LRA and the spirits Kony said he spoke to. The witness said he believed Kony had spiritual powers.
“What was Dominic’s mentality or beliefs towards the spiritual prowess of Kony?” asked Odongo.
“I know that Dominic had such belief because there was no member of the LRA who did not believe that Kony was possessed and that his spirits were actually as they said they were,” said Witness D-27.
When Odongo finished questioning Witness D-27, trial lawyer Hai Do Duc cross-examined him on behalf of the prosecution. Do Duc asked about the sick bay and whether LRA commanders who were there were still able to communicate with the men under their command. The witness said it is possible, but he did not see any commander with a radio during the time he was in sick bay. Do Doc also asked him whether LRA commanders ever left the group.
“During your 16 years you were well aware of many LRA commanders who would leave the bush, weren’t you?” asked Do Doc.
“Well, I came to understand so many people did the same. Personally, I also thought of escaping … But if you listened to me earlier, I said if you escape they could also punish your family. For that reason, very many people could not think of escaping,” said Witness D-27.
He also said that at times it was not an LRA member’s family or village who were targeted for retribution when that LRA member escaped the group.
“For instance, in Palabek people [LRA members] escaped from there, and a lot of havoc was caused on the people of Palabek because people escaped there … There was fear of retribution. We wanted to take care of our people,” said Witness D-27.
Witness D-27 concluded his testimony on Monday. Pollar Awich began testifying on Tuesday.