During the month of April 2019, three defense witnesses in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen testified about attacks on the internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps of Lukodi and Abok. A common observation from all their testimonies were allegations that the IDP camps were poorly protected and that the government soldiers who were tasked with protecting these camps did not do enough to repel the LRA rebels. In this article, we explore reactions of community members from Lukodi and Abok to these allegations.
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 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.
In April 2019, three defense witnesses testified about attacks on Abok and Lukodi.
On April 1, Bosco Ogwang, a former long-serving member of a Ugandan government-supported militia group testified about how government forces were overwhelmed when LRA rebels attacked the Abok IDP camp about 15 years ago. He said the Ugandan military officer commanding them fled when the LRA attack began, leaving those who fought the LRA perplexed. Ogwang said he and others who fought the LRA ran out of ammunition and retreated.
On April 2, Michael Okello Tookwaro described how the Lukodi IDP camp (IDP) was left poorly protected days before the LRA attacked the camp. Tookwaro noted 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.
On April 4, witness D-121, a former member of a Ugandan army-backed militia group, testified that government soldiers mistakenly attacked and killed civilians and burned their homes in the Abok IDP camp. The soldiers mistakenly thought that the civilians were LRA fighters of who had attacked the camp.
Community members in Lukodi and Abok have reacted to these claims with some agreeing that the camps were poorly protected.
“Yes! It is true,” said Bernard from Lukodi. “There were approximately only 30 to 36 guards, and the army detach was poorly situated. The army detach was in the middle of the IDP camp instead of surrounding the camp, and when the attack happened all the soldiers ran away leaving civilians on their own.”
Charles from Lukodi agreed with Bernard. “Absolutely true! Because the camp was guarded by only about 32 soldiers. Do you think 32 people can fight over 200 rebels?”
However, others, particularly in Abok, thought the government soldiers were simply outnumbered during the LRA attacks.
“It is not true [that the camps were poorly protected]. There was sufficient security, but the soldiers were just outnumbered and consequently defeated,” said a community member named Santa.
Another community member called Immaculate agreed with Santa. “It is not true that the camps were poorly protected. I think the soldiers were just surprised by the attack, and therefore they couldn’t counter the rebels.”
“The allegations are not true because there were home guards protecting the camp, only that they were weaker and were only 60 in number compared to the over 150 rebels who attacked,” said Geoffrey from Abok. “They tried their best to protect civilians but failed. Even while digging in the garden, there are some weeds that defeat a hoe,” he said added.
“In Abok the attack happened in the evening, and it was threatening to rain heavily and this disorganized people and the guards as well, thereby aiding the attack. The guards tried to fight back but were outnumbered by the rebels,” said Richard from Abok, in support.
“It is not true; I was in the camp when the attack occurred. The LRA rebels were just too strong for the camps guards and…many in number; they were more than 150 in number compared to the about 60 camp guards,” said another community member called Brenda.
Christine from Abok supported Brenda. “It is not true; I was also in the camp during the attack. The soldiers tried to fight back and when they were defeated, they actually assisted some civilians to run and hide,” she said.
Asked whether they thought the Ugandan government should be held accountable for the attacks on the IDP camps, some community members answered in the affirmative, blaming the government for not deploying enough soldiers to guard the civilians and for failing to put up a spirited fight.
Bernard from Lukodi said the government is responsible because, as he put it, “it was government’s duty to protect the people, but they failed. They first of all failed to repel the attack and then also failed to counter attack the rebels. Even in the aftermath of the attack, the government did not bother to apologize or give an explanation or even to provide better security in the camp.”
“I think the government should be blamed for deploying few guards and for having a poor defense strategy,” said Immaculate from Lukodi, despite having disagreed with the premise that the camps were poorly protected.
“The government should be held accountable. If you are properly protecting people, do they die? The protection provided was insufficient, and I will say this over and over again,” said Charles.
Other respondents, however, believe that the government should not be held responsible because of the surprising nature of the attacks and the overwhelming numbers of LRA fighters.
“The government should not be blamed because it was a surprise attack, and the LRA were tricky to fight. The soldiers were defeated but after trying hard,” said Santa from Lukodi.
Geoffrey from Abok agreed with Santa. “The government should not be blamed because they tried. Even we, who were in the camp at the time, know government was trying to protect us, but they were just defeated.”
“I don’t think the government should be blamed. It was very hard for them to contain a guerilla group [LRA]. Maybe we can blame them for deploying few guards,” remarked Richard.
“The government soldiers tried to do everything possible but were just defeated,” said Brenda in support. “I don’t think they should be blamed for the attack.”
“For me, I don’t think the government should be blamed because they tried their best, but it wasn’t enough to stop the rebels,” said Christine.
In October 2017, Lieutenant Colonel Kanyogonya, a prosecution witness and the director of legal services at the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence in Uganda denied allegations of that the UPDF committed atrocities during the conflict. This drew strong reactions from the public in northern Uganda who disagreed with Kanyogonya’s characterization of government forces. This, coupled with the above reactions, indicates that as Ongwen’s trial progresses, debate will continue regarding the UPDF’s acts of omission with regard to protection of civilians during the conflict.
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-Governmental Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda