Former LDU Member Says Civilians Were Killed in Crossfire During LRA Attack on Odek

A former member of a government-supported militia told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that no civilian homes were burned when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked the Odek camp for internally displaced people (IDP) 15 years ago, but that many people were killed in the crossfire between government soldiers and the LRA.

Julius Nyeko, who testified via video link from an undisclosed location on April 30, told the court his brother was killed shortly after the attack. He said his brother was part of a group of nine people who were made to carry an injured LRA commander and later killed once the commander was safe. Nyeko testified a day after the 15th anniversary of the Odek attack, which took place on April 29, 2004.

He gave his testimony in the trial of former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, which resumed on April 30 after a more than three-week break. Witness D-121 was last to testify before the hearings were adjourned on April 4. Nyeko is the 21st defense witness to testify since the defense phase of Ongwen’s trial began in September last year.

Ongwen has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the Odek attack. He has also been charged for allegedly having a role in attacks on three other IDP camps: Abok, Lukodi, and Pajule. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes and conscripting child soldiers.

He is facing a total of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

On April 30, Nyeko told the court that when the Odek attack occurred he was a member of the Local Defense Unit (LDU), one of a number of militia groups trained, supported, and commanded by the Ugandan army during the conflict with the LRA in northern Uganda. He said he was forcibly recruited into the LDU in 1993.

“What I knew, if somebody comes to you with a gun that person had bad intention(s),” said Nyeko, describing how he was forcibly recruited.

“I did not want to be abducted by the rebels so I had to stay with the LDUs,” Nyeko told the court, explaining why he did not escape.

He said about 36 LDU members were based in Odek on the day the LRA attacked and that there was a mobile unit of Ugandan army soldiers patrolling the area. Nyeko said the attack began at five in the evening as he was buying cigarettes from a shop.

Nyeko said he ran away as the LRA fighters started shooting and he only returned to Odek the following morning. He told the court the Ugandan army soldiers on patrol returned to Odek and as they approached the camp they fired. He said the fighting continued until about seven in the evening.

“We were scared we could be shot by the [Ugandan army’s] mobile forces,” said Nyeko, explaining why he and other LDU members ran far away from the camp. “They kept on shooting at anyone.”

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt asked Nyeko if, when he returned to the camp the following morning and saw bodies, he could identify how those people had died.

“Most of the bullets, most of the death were the result of gun wounds. There were no instances of people being hacked to death or being clubbed to death,” answered Nyeko.

“Around the time of the attack, a day, or a few days after, did you know who led this attack on Odek?” asked Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers.

“Well that’s a very good question. You know sometimes when things happen you have to think about [them]. Two or three days after the event we were getting information. [LRA leader Joseph] Kony’s name was mentioned in these conversations. [LRA commander Okot] Odiambo’s name was also mentioned in these conversations. If they attacked Odek then perhaps Kony was present. The assumption was that Kony was in the area and that was why there was such a massive attack,” replied Nyeko.

He said he only started hearing about Ongwen’s alleged involvement in the attack when Ongwen’s trial began.

The prosecution did not have any questions for Nyeko. Anushka Sehmi, a lawyer representing one of the groups of victims in this case, asked Nyeko what impact his brother’s death had on him.

“It was extremely painful because this is somebody that was always in my life, somebody I saw every day, somebody I knew very well, somebody I knew right from child birth,” said Nyeko.

Nyeko concluded his testimony on April 30. A transcript is available here.

Nyeko is the third former LDU member to testify in Ongwen’s trial. The other former LDU members who have testified are Michael Okello Tookwaro and Bosco Ogwang.

The next witness is scheduled to testify on May 20.