Witness Tells ICC Ongwen Struggled during His Early Days in the LRA

A witness told the International Criminal Court (ICC) when he first met Dominic Ongwen in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) about 29 years ago Ongwen was young, but later Ongwen would be promoted to dissuade him from leaving the group.

Witness D-32 told the court on Thursday, February 21, he first met Ongwen in 1990, and, at the time, Ongwen struggled with many things in the LRA that adults were able to do. He estimated Ongwen was 13 or 14 years old at the time. Witness D-32 began testifying at the ICC on Tuesday.

“What makes me believe he was young was because at that time when we are on the move, for instance when we are crossing a big water [river] that had burst its banks he could not cross on his own, so he had to be carried. He could not move over long distances,” said Witness D-32.

When speaking of moving over long distances Witness D-32 was referring to the fact LRA members generally trekked to their destinations in different parts of northern Uganda.

Witness D-32 is testifying for the defense in the trial of Ongwen, a former LRA commander, who has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen is alleged to have had a role in those crimes, which the prosecution has said occurred in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005.

On Thursday, Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Witness D-32 what he knew about some of the promotions Ongwen received in the LRA. Witness D-32 said Ongwen was promoted to cadet officer in 1996, and it was common for someone of Ongwen’s age to be promoted to that rank.

“Would you know why Mr. Ongwen was promoted to a cadet officer?” asked Obhof.

“Mr. Ongwen was promoted, first they considered the year he was abducted, the training and how he became a soldier, and when he became a soldier he also trained others and they were put in his care and they stayed with him … They found that he was very knowledgeable and experienced as a soldier. Secondly, he was promoted to be encouraged to stay in the bush,” answered Witness D-32.

“How common was it for people to be promoted in the bush to encourage people to stay in the bush?” asked Obhof.

“It was not very common at the time, but they would promote according to the lot or the group of people, depending on how long they have stayed in the bush,” replied Witness D-32.

The witness also told the court that during the time of Operation Iron Fist many people, including Ongwen, were promoted. Witness D-32 said this happened because some commanders were killed during that period, and they needed to be replaced.  He testified that LRA leader Joseph Kony said people were being promoted to increase the number of commanders in the LRA and make it easier to manage their fighters.

Operation Iron Fist is what the Ugandan military called its offensive on LRA bases in then neighboring Sudan (now South Sudan), which began in 2002 and continued for some years. Operation Iron Fist also involved the Ugandan military attacking LRA positions in northern Uganda.

Witness D-32 said another reason for the rise in promotions in the LRA during the period of Operation Iron Fist was Kony anticipated there would be peace talks.

He said the senior commanders were given higher ranks, “To make the negotiators believe that those who came for the peace talks are high ranking officers.”

Part of the testimony of Witness D-32 was closed to the public as part of in-court measures to protect his identity. His face was also distorted in public broadcasts of the hearing. The witness also did not name any person or places that could easily lead to him being identified by the public.

Obhof also asked Witness D-32 what he knew about LRA attacks on the Pajule and Odek camps for internally displaced people (IDP). Obhof asked him about an October 2003 attack on Pajule and an April 2004 attack on Odek. Ongwen has been charged for his alleged role in those attacks.

Witness D-32 said he did not take part in either attack nor did he sit with those who planned the attacks. He said he heard about the Pajule attack from a woman who was not named in open court. He said she told him Tolbert Yadin Nyeko and Raska Lukwiya were the two senior commanders in charge of the Pajule attack. He said she told him Tolbert was reporting the attack’s progress on radio to Vincent Otti, the then deputy LRA leader. He said Onen Unita is another commander she told him took part in the attack.

The witness also told the court that he heard about the Pajule attack on radio when Otti was reporting to Kony about what happened.

“Do you remember if he [Otti] mentioned [that] Mr. Ongwen fought in the Pajule attack?” asked Obhof.

“Well, I do not recall that, and also I did not hear him mention that Ongwen was in the attack,” replied Witness D-32.

On the Odek attack, Witness D-32 said he heard Kony on radio speaking to all his commanders and complaining about the people of Odek. He said Kony referred to Odek residents as “my people” during the transmission because Kony is from Odek.

“They [Odek residents] were stubborn, and they needed to be punished some day,” said Witness D-32, quoting what he heard Kony say over the radio. “I think he was talking to all the commanders. I did not hear him give a specific instruction to a commander to go and do this or that.”

The prosecution will cross-examine Witness D-32 on Friday.