Witness Says Ongwen Regularly Talked with Civilians while Commanding an LRA Battalion

A former subordinate of Dominic Ongwen told the International Criminal Court (ICC) Ongwen regularly talked with and bought things from civilians while he was a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) battalion commander, and this was a source of tension with his brigade commander.

Michael Oryem told the court Ongwen had a portable radio he played for the civilians and they danced to the music on radio. Oryem said LRA leader Joseph Kony once ordered: “The radio that makes civilians dance should be taken away.”

Oryem, who said he was a longtime member of the Oka battalion that Ongwen led, testified on Monday and Tuesday. Ongwen is on trial for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed between July 2002 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

On Tuesday, Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Oryem, “While you were working with Mr. Ongwen, would he ever talk about the civilians in the camps in Uganda?”

Oryem said one time they stopped, and Ongwen interacted with the civilians in the area, playing for them a radio he carried with him.

“Civilians would listen to the radio, dance to the music,” said Oryem. He said he saw this happen in Ladiang and two other places he named.

“I did not see any brutality in him. He said people should live with civilians because they are the ones who can help you with information,” said Oryem.

The witness said one time they stopped somewhere in Pader late at night, and civilians were taken to Ongwen. He said the civilians had a warning for Ongwen.

“There are some soldiers who want to kill you, please take care,” Oryem said the civilians reported to Ongwen. “We left that position. That indeed happened.”

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt asked Oryem whether he remembered when this happened. Oryem said he could not remember. Judge Schmitt asked whether this incident took place before the Ugandan government’s Operation Iron Fist or after.

“I can try to place it. At that time the Iron Fist had already taken place, and he [Ongwen] already was CO [commanding officer] of Oka battalion,” said Oryem.

Operation Iron Fist is what the Ugandan military called its offensive on LRA bases in then neighboring Sudan (now South Sudan), which began in 2002 and continued for several years. Operation Iron Fist also involved the Ugandan military attacking LRA positions in northern Uganda.

Later on Tuesday, Pubudu Sachithanandan cross-examined Oryem on behalf of the prosecution. Sachithanandan asked him whether there was any tension between Ongwen and his brigade commander, Buk Abudema. The Oka battalion that Ongwen commanded was one of the battalions in the Sinia brigade that Abudema commanded.

Oryem said there was tension between the two. He said one reason was that Ongwen was popular with LRA fighters, and many of them wanted to join Oka battalion. He said another source of tension between Ongwen and Abudema was Ongwen used to buy food from civilians, and Abudema reported this to Kony saying Ongwen’s battalion wanted to surrender to the government.

He said Abudema said, “Every time Ongwen and his battalion went he would buy food from civilians. And wherever he would go civilians would gather. Even the radio that Odomi used to carry, one time Kony gave an order that the radio should be taken … ‘The radio that makes civilians dance should be taken away’.”

Odomi is a name Ongwen was commonly called by in the LRA.

Oryem told the court the LRA abducted him in 1995. When he was abducted, he was between seven and nine years old. Oryem is not sure how old he is because he is not sure when he was born. On different documents referred to in court, his year of birth is given as 1986 or 1987, and during the introductory part of his testimony Oryem said he was born in 1988.

Obhof asked him whether he knew when he was born. Oryem said he could only estimate his age.

“Imagine someone who was abducted without education. I was indeed struggling to estimate how old I was … This one I am trying to estimate,” said Oryem.

On Monday, Obhof asked Oryem what he knew about an LRA attack on the Odek camp for internally displaced people (IDP). He said he only heard about because his unit of the LRA did not take part in the attack. Oryem said he heard about it on FM radio. He said at the time the attack took place, he and other members of Oka battalion were in Lapak, several kilometers away. He said Ongwen and other members of Oka were in Loyo Ajonga. Oryem said at the time Ongwen was constantly on the move because he was being pursued by the Ugandan army.

The attack on Odek is one of four attacks on IDP camps Ongwen has been charged with. He is alleged to have had a role in an April 29, 2004 attack on Odek and is facing 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for that attack.

On Tuesday, Sachithanandan asked Oryem about a statement he gave to prosecution investigators in which he talked about an attack on Odek. Oryem told the court that at the time the prosecution investigators did not specify which attack on Odek they wanted him to talk about, but he said he was clear that he knew nothing about what he called “the major” attack on Odek.

Eventually Judge Schmitt asked Oryem, “What attack on Odek did you have in mind?”

“From what I know there was almost three attacks in Odek … so for the three different attacks it was not clear to me which one exactly that they [the prosecution investigators] wanted me to talk about. In the first [attack] Gilva [brigade] came and collected food. Then the second one, it was Stockree [brigade] who came and collected food. For the third one, I heard there was another attack. It wasn’t specific to me which one that they wanted me to talk about,” said Oryem.

He concluded his testimony on Tuesday. Witness D-025 is scheduled to testify on Thursday.