Perspectives from Coorom: Acquit Ongwen, Say His Kinsmen

While many people in northern Uganda remain divided over whether or not Ongwen’s trial is justified, in Coorom village, where Ongwen hails from, the majority view appears to be the opposite. Coorom is located 40 kilometers north of Gulu town in Lamogi Sub-County, Amuru District. It is the home of Dominic Ongwen, and the majority of the inhabitants there are Ongwen’s relatives or friends. In this article, which is the second in a three-part series with perspectives from Coorom, the community members give reasons why Ongwen should be acquitted, noting that any other decision would not be well received by the community.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. Among the 70 counts are charges of sexual and gender-based violence and the use of child soldiers. His trial has been ongoing since December 2016.

Asked what outcome the Coorom community members want to see from the trial, most hoped for an acquittal. They advanced reasons ranging from Ongwen having been abducted as a child, to his right to benefit from amnesty, like other LRA fighters before him.

“Ongwen was abducted like others as a child, and this should be considered by the court. The community wants him to be treated fairly and justly like other commanders who have been amnestied and are now living a normal life in the community,” said Komakec.

“People here want him acquitted and allowed to come back home,” said Lapolo. “At the time of Ongwen’s abduction I was a child, but my parents told me he was just abducted and forced to be a rebel. It wasn’t his choice to join the LRA and to fight civilians and the government.”

Aluku supported the above two views. “They want him acquitted. They want the trial process to be truthful and just and based on evidence collected.  I know he could have committed some offenses, but as elders we preach forgiveness.”

“The largest portion of the community here want him acquitted and allowed to come back home,” said Otukene. “For the crimes he may have committed he should be given a lenient sentence because it wasn’t his choice.”

“Most people believe that Ongwen did not commit the crimes he is being charged with at the ICC,” said Richard. “So, the community expects and wants that he be found innocent.”

“As a community, we want the court to set Ongwen free because he was also abducted when he was a good person studying to have a better future,” said Ogena. “Also, when Ongwen was abducted, the LRA had already committed several crimes, and so Ongwen was not the one who introduced those atrocities in to the LRA.”

Given that many community members in Coorom want him acquitted, the community’s reaction to a conviction can be predicted. When asked, many community members said a conviction would not be received with disappointment in Coorom.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” said Komakec. “To us it will mean discrimination against Ongwen. If others were given amnesty and are now living normally in the community, why not Ongwen? That will be discrimination.”

“It will be very painful because he is one of us from here,” said Lapolo. “I think the other LRA soldiers still at large will fear to come back home for fear of going to prison, and it will require military action to apprehend them.”

“I think the community will not be happy with a conviction because we all know it wasn’t Ongwen’s choice to join the LRA. This could have happened to anybody. I think he should not be judged,” said Aluku.

According to Otukene, “Of course nobody would object [to] the court’s verdict, but I think the community won’t be happy because he is not the only one responsible for the crimes of the LRA, and in addition, other LRA commanders have been amnestied. So they will think he is being discriminated against.”

“The community in general will feel very bad and would treat the court as being unfair and unjust in its ruling because it is very clear that Ongwen was arrested and forced to kill, and yet he was a young and innocent boy going to school,” said Richard. “The community will feel aggrieved over a child who was taken away from his people and never allowed to come back even when he was rescued.”

“The community feels that if Ongwen is found guilty, then the court will have been very biased in its ruling because it would mean Ongwen has been blamed one hundred percent for the crimes committed in the LRA and yet it is not true,” said Ogena.

Ongwen’s lawyers have argued that he should not be liable for his alleged conduct because, at the time of the alleged crimes, he was mentally unfit and suffered from a mental disease or duress. When consulted on the matter, many community members in northern Uganda also expressed mixed reactions on the subject. Ongwen’s kinsmen in Coorom, however, thought otherwise, with many reasoning that he could have developed the mental health complications during his time in the LRA.

“I think it is possible that following bad orders in the LRA could have negatively affected Ongwen’s mental health. Anybody would be traumatized if such orders were given to him [or] her,” said Komakec.

“He was abducted when he had no mental health complications. It is, however, possible that while in captivity he developed a mental health problem,” agreed Lapolo.

“If you live with heartless lions, you will end up like them. I think his mental state was somehow compromised when he joined the LRA,” said Aluku. “He had to follow orders. If you send a dog to bite someone it will definitely do so.”

Otukene did not differ from the above views. “People think if he had mental problems then he developed them from the bush because he was abducted in a healthy mental state,” he said. “Some former LRA fighters also returned with mental disorders due to exposure to bad experiences and witnessing terrible things like killings. The same may have happened to Ongwen.”

“Ongwen was abducted while still very young and grew up in a very harsh condition that could have hindered his mental ability to develop normally,” said Kakanyero. “Most people who came back from the bush have a similar problem of mental disorder, so Dominic is not an exception.”

Ongwen was abducted and treated harshly in captivity, which would probably make him have mental problems,” said Ayaa. “Also the mere fact that he is in the court could cause him mental problems because he is being tried while his commanders who gave him orders to kill are nowhere to be seen. The one thing I know is that when Ongwen was at home here before being abducted, he was a normal person with no mental issues and was not a murderer.”

“While at the LRA, Ongwen was not in a school where moral upbringing would be taught,” reasoned Ogena. “Ongwen was being conditioned to kill but not being taught subjects like geography or English, so his mind was not at peace at any moment and anybody in his shoes would be mentally abnormal.”

The third article of this series will present perspectives from one of Ongwen’s brothers and how the family is coping during the trial of one of their own.

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