A water engineer described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how the camps for internally displaced people (IDP) that came up during the 20-year northern Uganda conflict were set up and later disbanded without any planning or organization.
Otto Ishaa Amiza told the court last week that once the camps were set up, civilians living in the camps became easy targets for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and that is when massacres of scores or hundreds of people in a single attack were reported. Amiza said civilians also died from disease and malnutrition in the camps because they had poor sanitation, and food was always in low supply.
Amiza was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Most of the charges against Ongwen are for attacks on four IDP camps in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. In total, Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all the counts.
During his testimony, Amiza told the court that he worked on water and sanitation projects for a number of non-governmental organisations in northern Uganda between 2001 and 2007. The non-governmental organisations he worked for were Action Against Hunger USA and CESV. He said he also worked for a World Bank-funded project called Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF).
In response to a question from Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt, Amiza said when people started leaving their homes in 2001 where they went to could not be described as camps.
“It was more of concentration units because people were just moving around, running around,” said Amiza. “These were not gazetted camps. So, the establishment was not structured. There was no leadership … It gradually just developed into camps,” said Amiza.
A little later Judge Schmitt asked Amiza about his statement that at one point the government ordered people to move to the camps.
“Well, Mr. President, the government directive came from the army. It was the army commander who declared everybody must leave [their homes] and get to the camps. The government structures were not in place … to implement that. So, it was just an order which was badly managed and in fact poorly managed. But people had no option. It was quite difficult. The army were not allowing people to stay in their homes. The implementation was ruthless,” said Amiza.
Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, asked Amiza to describe conditions in the camp.
“The situation in the camps were terribly bad … we used to call it just concentration camps because people were crowded together without defined structures for houses,” said Amiza.
He said most people used tarpaulin as roofing because they were not able to go outside the camps to collect grass that they would have ordinarily used to thatch their roofs with.
“In terms of feeding there was no food. Remember people were being forced to leave their homes and come to the camps. Remember there was no distribution of food in the camps. There was a lot of malnutrition in the camps,” said Amiza.
Odongo asked him whether, with hindsight, he thought the government could have handled the problems in the camps differently.
“Yes, Mr. President, I think there were many things which government would have done to avoid the problems then that developed in the camp. First, putting people together in a concentrated point brought in these mass killings. Those could have been avoided if people were not locked in one point,” said Amiza. To illustrate his point, he gave examples of massacres in the IDP camps of Barlonyo, Abia, and Abok.
“Government only needed to provide security to the people,” said Amiza, adding this would have allowed most people to stay in their villages.
“Given what you told court, the strength of Uganda People’s Defense Force, was it possible to deploy effectively to protect people in their homes to avoid the need to take them to concentration camps?” asked Odongo.
Amiza replied the question was technical, but his observation was that in the camps, “insecurity prevailed there.”
“So, I think ordering people was one of the worst decisions taken by government. Government had the capacity. What demonstrated that was when the auxiliary forces Amuka, when they were brought in, that is when the LRA started disappearing. You couldn’t hear more about the attacks … Auxiliary forces ended the war … If people just pick[ed] from the community would help to stop the killings why wouldn’t government forces with all that machinery and budget fail to protect people where they were? … I think they were unwilling to protect the people deliberately,” said Amiza.
He said when he was a member of parliament between 2007 and 2011 there was a debate about what the government should do when they disbanded the camps.
“We wanted the government to have a clearly defined plan and programme on how people would return back and how they would be settled back. They would be given certain things to go home, to start putting [their] life [back],” said Amiza. He said infrastructure in northern Uganda had been devastated.
“But it was again done in a rush, and people headed in their homes without preparation. In other words, after such a long period of war, the expectation of many of us was that there was going to be a clearly defined programme and arrangement to resettle people back to begin a new life. Nothing,” said Amiza.
The prosecution did not question Amiza. Francisco Cox, a lawyer for one of the group of victims in this case, asked Amiza some questions about education in the camps.
“Could you inform the court how was the educational system in the camps?” asked Cox.
“Many of the people who abandoned their schools went to the concentration points where you would have only one school for the 30,000 or you are talking about 10,000 children,” said Amiza. He said non-governmental organisations supported the schools in the camps, not the government.
“So, education was terribly bad. Many people would not waste time to go and study,” said Amiza.
Cox asked him whether those who did get an education in the camps were able to go back to school after the conflict in northern Uganda ended.
“Many of them now did not study. These are the majority, I would call the wasted people in the north who are crowding in every trading centers,” answered Amiza, adding they drink a local brew called lira-lira “from morning to morning.”
“Because they didn’t study, they have nothing to do. They didn’t get those opportunities,” said Amiza.
He concluded his testimony on Thursday, May 23. The next witness was Adam Branch who testified on Monday, May 27.
A transcript of Amiza’s testimony can be found here.