Witness Says Government Soldiers Mistakenly Attacked Abok IDP Camp

A former member of a Ugandan army-backed militia group said government soldiers mistakenly attacked and killed civilians and burned their homes in the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP). The soldiers mistakenly thought that the civilians were fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who had attacked the camp.

Witness D-121 told the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday that he was part of the Amuka militia, who repulsed the LRA fighters before they could kill anyone or damage any property in Abok. He said their commanders at the time told them not to speak about what happened in Abok during the June 8, 2004 LRA attack.

Trial lawyer Sanyu Ndagire, who cross-examined Witness D-121 for the prosecution, challenged his testimony and presented him with evidence from a Ugandan military trial in which witnesses said the LRA overpowered the army during the Abok attack. The prosecutors also took Witness D-121 to task about his statement that the Abok attack occurred on August 6, 2004.

Witness D-121 testified on Thursday in the trial of a former LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen. He has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the Abok attack. Ongwen has also been charged with allegedly being involved in attacks on three other IDP camps in northern Uganda between 2003 and 2004. Other charges against him include sexual and gender-based crimes and conscripting child soldiers. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

On Thursday, Witness D-121 told the court he was a student when the LRA abducted him on December 20, 2001 from somewhere in Ogwang. He said he escaped in late March or April 2002. Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, and Ndagire questioned him about his period of abduction because what he said in court was different from what he told the defense in a December 2017 interview and the prosecution in a December 2018 interview. During his testimony on Thursday, Witness D-121 insisted that he was abducted in December 2001 and was with the LRA only for three months and anything else that was recorded in his previous interviews was a mistake.

What was not in dispute was that Witness D-121 joined Amuka, which he described as a local defense force the Lango set up because “the LRA had defeated the UPDF [the Uganda People’s Defense Force.]” The Lango are the dominant ethnic group in Abok and surrounding towns.

He said people in the area said, “The Lango should recruit people so that they can protect themselves. The Acholi also had their own local defense forces. They said the UPDF was unable to control the LRA and all the tribes should mobilize and protect themselves.”

Witness D-121 said he joined Amuka in April 2004, but the UPDF did not train him because of his experience in the LRA. He said he was posted to Abok where there were about 300 UPDF soldiers and Amuka members.

On the day of the attack, Witness D-121 said civilians who had gone to farm near the camp reported seeing LRA fighters in the thickets. He said UPDF soldiers then laid ambushes along two roads leading from the thickets.

“Did this ambush, according to you, did they intercept the LRA?” asked Odongo.

“We had the report that the LRA came around 7:30 pm. They used another route and avoided the ambush of the soldiers. They came close to the ambush, and then they diverted. They went as if they were going to Ariba,” replied Witness D-121.

He said he was among the Amuka who had been deployed to guard the camp while the soldiers laid in wait to surprise the LRA.

“We heard gunfire in the center. There was one shot that was fired. Then when we heard that gunshot being fired people raised alarms. We took cover. We heard some people running. People were running fast behind the camp, and we knew that they were the rebels. We exchanged fire. The LRA soldiers retreated and went back. They were afraid,” said Witness D-121.

He said they pursued the LRA as they fled in the direction of Ariba.

“But in the meantime, there was gunfire in the center. We were asking ourselves who had the heavy guns. After that we crossed the road going to Ngai. We were also firing guns that had light to show communication so that our commanders could know where we were,” said Witness D-121.

“Can you tell court whether when the rebels started fleeing there was already fire burning in the camp?” asked Odongo.

“No. There was no fire in the camps yet,” said Witness D-121.

“When things had settled down, did you ever have a review meeting to find out exactly what had happened?” asked Odongo.

“No. There was no meeting, but there was discussion among the soldiers that the army made a mistake and we were told we should not discuss this. Most of the people who were in Abok know this, but they were afraid,” answered Witness D-121.

“Can you tell [the] court what error or mistake you are talking about?” asked Odongo.

“The soldiers were supposed to attack the LRA, but the soldiers who came from the ambush shot at civilians instead. They burnt the houses,” replied Witness D-121.

When Odongo concluded questioning Witness D-121, Ndagire cross-examined on behalf of the prosecution. She asked him about some abductees who were brought to Abok the morning after the attack by a UPDF colonel. Ndagire asked Witness D-121 that although he and others pursued the LRA who fled Abok to Ariba, “some of the LRA would have made it into the camp and abducted these people that you spoke of previously, isn’t that right?”

“I said that they came at night, and we pursued them. There was no LRA soldier who came later in Abok camp. The people who were abducted from Abok were abducted on a different day, not the day the attack took place,” answered Witness D-121.

Ndagire then asked Witness D-121 about what happened as Amuka pursued the LRA fighters to Ariba from Abok. She asked him to confirm it took them three hours moving from Abok to Ariba. Witness D-121 confirmed that was correct. He also confirmed Abok was approximately four kilometers away from Ariba.

“It took three hours because while we were going, we would fire bullets and we would take cover for about 10 minutes, and that is why it took [three hours],” said Witness D-121 when he asked why it took them that long to cover four kilometers.

Ndagire also asked about the gunfire he heard from the direction of Abok as he pursued the LRA to Ariba.

“And that time when you heard gunshots you were not sure who was shooting in the camp, isn’t it?” asked Ndagire.

“No, we did not know who was shooting in the camp,” replied Witness D-121. He said at some point they could no longer hear gunshots at the camp. He said when they returned to the camp there was silence.

“So, for those three hours that you were away from the camp you did not see what was happening in the camp, correct?” asked Ndagire.

“I did not see personally, but our colleagues who remained confirmed what happened,” answered Witness D-121.

Another line of questioning Ndagire pursued was to compare Witness D-121’s testimony with details of the court martial of the commander in charge of Abok camp, Lieutenant Mugabe. He was tried for what happened in the Abok attack.

“His [Mugabe’s] trial started on the second of August, and it went on until the ninth of August 2004 so you would agree with me that if the trial was on those dates then this attack that you have told us about could not have happened on the sixth of August 2004, is it Mr. Witness?” asked Ndagire.

“Yeah, that is correct. Based on the information that you have provided that means the court martial of Mugabe would have preceded the date of the attack,” replied Witness D-121.

Ndagire then asked him whether he was sure that the attack on Abok took place on sixth of August, 2004 as he had testified if Mugabe’s trial took place around the same time.

“The dates that I recall are the sixth of August. If Mugabe was sent to court martial that should have been after,” answered Witness D-121.

Ndagire also asked about the testimony of three men who were members of the Foxford battalion of Amuka that was responsible for the security of Abok. She said they were Jimmy Olukutum, Charles Odeke, and Robert Opusi. Witness D-121 said he was a member of the Foxford battalion, but he did not know everyone who was in the battalion because he did not train with them.

“Mr. Witness, Robert, Charles, and Jimmy testified that on the night that the LRA attacked Abok the battle went on for hours and that the enemy overpowered the [government forces] … Robert, Charles, and Jimmy also testified that this attack happened on the eighth of June 2004. What would you say to that Mr. Witness?”

“The attack happened in 2004 that’s for real, but the LRA did not overpower the soldiers. And perhaps they are saying that they were overpowered to cover their backs to try and make it that they did nothing wrong,” answered Witness D-121.

“After the attack there was a meeting you were told to be quiet about the attack,” said Ndagire.

“But we did not have a meeting. What they did do is to inform our commanders to come and inform us,” said Witness D-121.

“Well, Mr. Witness, what you are telling us that the commanders told you to be quiet, this is something that you didn’t tell the defense and neither did you say it to the prosecution?” asked Ndagire, referring the interviews conducted before the trial.

“No, I did not mention because nobody asked me that question … Today I was asked, and I answered it,” replied Witness D-121.

At the beginning of the testimony of Witness D-121 the court went into private session to hear the preliminary questions concerning his personal information. For most his testimony, he testified in open court via video link from an undisclosed location, but none of the lawyers called Witness D-121 by his name. There were other brief periods when the court went into private session to hear his testimony.

Witness D-121 concluded his testimony on Thursday. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the next hearing will be held on April 30.