A Former Militia Member Says Government Forces were Overwhelmed During LRA Attack on Abok

A former long-serving member of a Ugandan government-supported militia group described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how government forces were overwhelmed when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP) about 15 years ago.

Bosco Ogwang told the court on Monday the Ugandan military officer commanding them fled when the LRA attack began, leaving those who fought the LRA perplexed. Ogwang said he and others who fought the LRA ran out of ammunition and retreated. Ogwang said he was a member of the Local Defense Unit (LDU), a militia group that was under the command of the Ugandan military.

Ogwang testified in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander who has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the June 8, 2004 attack on Abok. Ongwen has also been charged for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps; sexual and gender-based crimes; and conscripting child soldiers. In total, he is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Testimony of Former Militia Member

On Monday, Ogwang told the court he joined the LDU in 1991 and was trained by the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UDPF) for six months. He said there were as many as 10,000 people the UPDF trained, and at the end of their training they were divided into units and deployed to different places. Ogwang said between 1991 and 2012 when he left the LDU he was deployed to different parts of northern Uganda.

“And why did you decide to join the LDU?” asked Gordon Kifudde, one of Ongwen’s lawyers.

“Because the LRA was disturbing the communities. They were abducting the children forcefully and also sleeping with them forcefully. Even my sister was abducted and taken to the bush from St. Mary’s. She’s not been found up to now,” replied Ogwang.

He said he was deployed to Abok on June 1, 2004. He said the LDU members at Abok were under the command of a UPDF officer called Mugabe. Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, also questioned Ogwang and asked him about the camp because Ogwang was from the area.

“Can you tell court how the camp was established? How it became necessary for it to be established? Did the civilians move voluntarily to the camp?” asked Odongo.

“Let me respond to that. It was not the interest of the civilians to go to the camp. The government ordered [it], but since people were already spending their nights in the bush, and you would be hunted down for using a torch in the bush … Some of the girls would be abducted and raped and taken to the bush,” replied Ogwang.

He said Abok was attacked on June 8, 2004. He said on that day he spotted some LRA fighters eating mangoes near the camp, and he cycled to the Ugandan army at Barrio to alert them of the LRA presence in the area. He said the LRA attacked Abok after sunset.

Ogwang said he and other LDU members fought the LRA in three firefights before the LDU ran out of bullets. Ogwang said when they ran out of bullets they retreated towards Barrio. He said at Abok there were usually LDU members and UPDF soldiers guarding the camp, but on that night there were only LDU members. He also said their commanding officer, Mugabe, fled. Ogwang said hours later a UPDF armored vehicle, commonly referred to as Mamba, arrived in Abok.

“When the Mamba came at about 11 pm it started shooting on some trees, and it shot twice and then there was silence. We told them [soldiers] we need to withdraw because when a Mamba comes it starts shooting without caring whether you are a government soldier or the LRA. Some people and goats had been burnt in the fire. Others we found … had been hit on the head and died,” said Ogwang.

Kifudde asked him whether he knew which LRA commander attacked Abok.

“The group that came I cannot actually guess who the commander was. I did not see who was the commander. We were wondering who was leading them,” answered Ogwang.

Later Odongo asked Ogwang whether he and LDU members reviewed what happened in Abok.

“We came back and sat, and we tried to analyze our weakness. The problem was from the OC [officer commanding], he split. Why did he flee with the chicken? That’s what we were talking about. He [Mugabe] wanted us to die alone,” replied Ogwang.

When Kifudde and Odongo finished questioned Ogwang, Sanyu Ndagire cross-examined him for a few minutes in private session. Ogwang concluded his testimony on Monday.

No Hearing Last Friday for “Medical Reasons”

Ogwang was supposed to have testified on Friday last, but that hearing was postponed to Monday. On Friday, the court session began 50 minutes late with Ongwen absent. Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, stated Ongwen was absent and “counsel is speaking to our client” when each legal team put on record who was present in court at the start of Friday’s proceeding.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt then said the court would go into private session to discuss the reason for the delay. A few minutes later the court resumed in open session, and Judge Schmitt made a brief comment.

“This is not satisfying for the public, but we have to postpone the hearing out of medical reasons until Monday and then we start with [Witness] D-65 [Ogwang],” said Judge Schmitt. He did not offer any details of what medical reasons led to the postponement.

This is not the first time this year a hearing in the trial of Ongwen has been postponed for medical reasons. This year’s first hearing was scheduled to start on January 14, but Trial Chamber IX postponed it at the request of the defense so that Ongwen could “receive any necessary medical treatment.” This year’s first hearing was eventually held on January 31.

In their January application the defense had asked the judges to order defense mental health experts to examine Ongwen and assess whether he is mentally fit to continue trial. Trial Chamber IX denied that part of their application.

It is also for medical reasons that the schedule of hearings has changed since the defense phase of the trial began last September. Currently, whenever hearings are scheduled there is a day’s break, usually on Wednesday. During the prosecution phase of the trial hearings were held Monday through Friday with no break.

This change in the hearings schedule followed a defense application in which Ongwen’s lawyers argued he could not sit in court for five consecutive days. Trial Chamber IX’s Single Judge, Bertram Schmitt, acceded to the request with some conditions. The details of the medical reasons the defense requested a change in the schedule were redacted in the public version of their filing.