Perspectives from Coorom: Community Members Ready to Accept and Welcome Ongwen if Acquitted, Relatives Say

While many people in northern Uganda have expressed their views on the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen, little attention has been focused on the opinions of his immediate family members. Ongwen’s family lives in the village of Coorom, located 40 kilometers north of Gulu in Lamogi Sub-County, Amuru District. In this article, which is the last of a three-part series, three of Ongwen’s close relatives express their views about the trial and the strategies they are using to cope during this trying moment. They express hope for his acquittal and eventual return to Coorom and claim the community is ready to welcome him.

Ongwen is a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) 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.

The International Justice Monitor interviewed three of Ongwen’s close relatives, who for security reasons shall be referred to in this article by the pseudonyms Omara, Okello, and Ocaya. Below is an excerpt of responses they gave to various questions during the interview.

Lino Ogora (LO): Have you interacted with, spoken to, or heard from Ongwen since his arrest and transfer to The Hague?

Omara: He calls me on phone at least once every two weeks, and we talk. He tells me stories about his life in [the] Netherlands, and I tell him stories about the life back home. It is generally normal talk.

Okello: Yes, I have interacted with Ongwen but only during the time when I went to The Hague last year in October.

Ocaya: I have spoken to Dominic on [the] phone because he calls me once every month to know how we are doing in the family.

LO: How have you and other family members coped with the stress of seeing your relative go through a trial?

Omara: It has not been easy for us, but we have embarked on prayers asking God to see him through his difficulties and to bring him back home again to live with us. He is our pillar because most of our elder[s]…are not there anymore.

Okello: We have not developed a specific measure of coping with the stress, but what we have done is to accept the fact that he is already in court and that there is nothing we can do about it as a family other than to console ourselves.

Ocaya: One way in which we have coped as a family is by finding out how he is whenever he calls. Ongwen has told us not to worry about him because nothing bad is happening to him. He says he is fine and is being treated well.

LO: Have you faced hostility from the community because of your being relatives of Ongwen?

Omara: We have not experienced any hostility [from the community]. I think that is partly because people know that it was not Ongwen’s choice to join the LRA and to commit crimes. The community was aware of his abduction and how he ended up in the LRA. In addition to that, we are known to be staunch Christians (Catholics).

Okello: There have been no acts of hostility from the community against us. We have lived happily and harmoniously with this community since the trial begun and even during the war. We really do not know how the trial will end because maybe when the trial ends then there could be hostility depending on the outcome of the trial.

LO: Do the community members in Coorom support or oppose the trial?

Omara: Most people say it is inappropriate to prosecute Ongwen considering his forceful recruitment and how he ended up doing bad things. We who were not abducted were properly brought up, and no one has complaints against us. This was a chance Ongwen never got. Ongwen could have potentially been the same as any of us if he was not abducted.

Okello: So many people are opposed to the trial process saying that it is not humane to hold Ongwen in court as someone responsible for action he was forced to do. Besides that, people say that Ongwen was also just abducted like any other child.

LO: The public in northern Uganda remains divided on whether Ongwen is innocent or not. What is your position on this?

Omara: Ongwen is not guilty because he did not start the LRA. It was [Joseph] Kony, Alice Lakwena, Otti Lagony, and others who started it and should be held responsible, not Ongwen. But today it is Ongwen, a mere abductee who is bearing their cross.

Okello: Ongwen is innocent because many of the witnesses that are being presented by the defense are saying that he never committed the crimes he is being charged with. Even the prosecution agrees that Ongwen was abducted and taught to kill. In addition, Ongwen did not form the IDP camps where people took refuge. It was the Ugandan government.

Ocaya: Ongwen is innocent because he was abducted as a child and the people who abducted him and forced him to kill are the ones who are guilty. The people who should be taken to court are the founders of the LRA.

LO: The defense is arguing that Ongwen was under mental duress during his time in the LRA. What is your say on this?

Omara: I agree because if a child is taken and brought up poorly, he will grow up believing in the way he is taught. I think being constantly ordered to do bad things affected his mental health. Whenever we speak with Ongwen on phone, he tells us that he still suffers from trauma. For example, he claims to hear gunshots while sleeping.

Okello: Concerning the mental illness of Ongwen, I would compare him to other people in this village who were abducted and say that they still hear sounds of gunshots and cries of people in their sleep which means Ongwen is not an exception.

Ocaya: About Ongwen’s mental illness, I am certain that this did not start while in the bush. If there is any mental illness, then it might have been caused by the trial. It could be that he is afraid of the outcome of the case and the fear of not seeing his family again.

LO: Do you hope that Ongwen will be acquitted?

Omara: Yes! Especially if his defense clearly brings out the circumstances that led to him being part of the LRA and if the background of the conflict is clearly explained to the court.

Okello: Personally I cannot predict how the trial will end or whether Ongwen has the potential to win the case because all this depends on the judges.

Ocaya: Ongwen has the potential to win this case because he was abducted while still very young and was forced to kill, which is something the court will consider during their judgment.

LO: How do you think the family members will react if Ongwen is convicted?

Omara: It will be very painful to us because it will appear to us that the ICC did not properly investigate the case in terms of the background of the conflict and abductions and forceful recruitments, as well as the crimes committed by the government soldiers. The government committed most of those crimes that are now blamed on the LRA.

Ocaya: If Ongwen is found guilty, we will accept that as truth, and we will wait for him to serve his sentence and return home. In case he has been sentenced to life imprisonment, then we will console ourselves and keep visiting him in prison till he dies.

LO: In case Ongwen is acquitted, do you think he will come back to live in Coorom?

Omara: Of course, Coorom is home forever, and I am sure Ongwen wishes to come back home. Even the community and people at home want him to come back and live together with them. They will be very happy to see him again the day he returns home.

Okello: Ongwen wants to come back to Uganda and even the family members here in Coorom want him to come back, but the people in other locations where Ongwen is said to have committed crimes might not be happy and could easily attack this place. So as a community we are wary of this fact.

LO: What arrangements do you have in place to welcome Ongwen back home in case he is acquitted?

Omara: First, the elders will organize a cultural ceremony and traditional rituals to welcome him. Secondly, a small thanksgiving ceremony will be organized to thank God for enabling him to overcome his suffering from his abduction by the LRA, to his survival of the court case at the ICC, and his return home again.

Okello: As a family the first thing we will do is to organize prayers because we are a Christian Catholic family and believe in God. After this, we will also have a traditional ceremony to officially initiate him back to the family. We will them have sessions to teach him the norms of the land and instill in him the cultural values.

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