A witness described how the Lukodi camp for internally displaced people (IDP) was left poorly protected days before the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked the camp 15 years ago.
Michael Okello Tookwaro told the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday that Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) soldiers deployed to Lukodi left without warning a week before the May 19, 2004 attack. He said many members of the Local Defense Unit (LDU) had also left Lukodi days before the attack because of delays in paying their salaries.
Tookwaro, who was an LDU member in Lukodi, testified on Tuesday, April 2, in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Ongwen has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on the Lukodi IDP camp. He has also been charged for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps; sexual and gender-based crimes; and conscripting child soldiers between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
On Tuesday, Tookwaro told the court he first joined the LDU in 1992, and the Ugandan army trained him and others for nine months at Bar-Dege, near the main town of northern Uganda, Gulu. He said the army at the time was called the National Resistance Army (NRA), the name of the rebel group Yoweri Museveni led when they overthrew the government in 1986. Tookwaro said the army was later renamed Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF).
He said he was trained to use a variety of arms, the rules of war, and how to march, among other things. Tookwaro said over the years he left and rejoined the LDU several times because of delays in receiving his pay.
“Could you please tell the court why you originally joined the LDU?” asked Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers.
“It was very hard to stay home. The situation was bad. The security was not good,” replied Tookwaro.
“Who recruited you?” asked Obhof.
“A call was sent out … and a call was for local militia to be recruited, so I also responded to that call,” answered Tookwaro.
He said later he left the LDU and rejoined the group in 2000. Tookwaro told the court he was posted to Lukodi in July 2003. He said it was the following year Lukodi was attacked by the LRA. He said the day of the attack, the LRA fired shots where the Lukodi IDP camp was located.
Tookwaro said the attack was sudden when it began at 7:30 pm. He told the court initially the LDU thought one of their own had fired the shots, and then they realized that was not the case. Tookwaro said the LDU then fought back but left after a while. He said civilians ran all over.
“You know when I say we left, at the heat of the exchange we had to take off because our numbers were very few. The huts were also burning, so we had to retreat. We had to call for reinforcement. We retreated and tried to come back but it was not possible.
“They [LRA] even fired the stretcher, but you couldn’t know who was who, what was happening. Even Mamba [an armored vehicle] was firing in that area. The attack took quite a long time. It went on for up to six hours. We just actually fled because it was very intensive,” said Tookwaro.
“Where did you retreat to when you fled?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“We fled. We wanted to take the route towards Gulu town,” said Tookwaro.
“From your point of retreat could you observe what happened in the camp?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“It was burning. The camp was burning. I couldn’t know whether it was the bomb[s] that were causing the fire or whether it was someone … torching the huts. I couldn’t see myself,” answered Tookwaro.
Earlier, Obhof asked Tookwaro about the security arrangement at Lukodi and the layout of the camp and the barracks where the LDU and UPDF soldiers were based. Obhof also asked him about what happened in the days leading to the attack.
“Similarly, about a week before the attack almost the entire UPDF detach[ment] left Lukodi during the night. Neither I nor any other LDU knew [when it happened],” said Tookwaro.
“You also mentioned how by the time when Lukodi was attacked there was about 29 LDU left. Why did … many LDU leave in that time period?” asked Obhof.
“It was mostly because of the poor pay. Sometimes it takes up to three months, up to four months before people are paid,” replied Tookwaro.
After Tookwaro had described what happened during the attack, Obhof asked him to explain what was the “stretcher” he had referred to.
“Stretcher is a kind of bullet which comes out with light, but if it hits you it causes your skin to decay. The other [thing is] you can light up the sky, and the place can be lit,” said Tookwaro.
“Which group in this fight were using stretcher bullets?” asked Obhof.
“Mostly I saw it was the rebels who were firing the stretcher. Mostly the stretcher was coming from the rebels,” answered Tookwaro.
When Obhof finished questioning Tookwaro, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo also asked him some questions.
“Do you want to tell court from what you experienced, where the focus of attack, the target of the LRA was when they came? Was it at the barracks or was it at the camp?” asked Odongo.
“Well, even the manner in which they came was unclear to us … It was difficult for me to establish whether they had come to attack the civilians or whether they had come to attack the soldiers,” answered Tookwaro. He said he left Lukodi the day after the attack, and he never returned.
The prosecution did not cross-examine Tookwaro. He concluded his testimony on Tuesday.