Former Aid Worker Describes Working with Escaped LRA Abductees

A former aid worker described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the physical and mental state recently escaped abductees of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) arrived in at reception centers in northern Uganda and how those reception centers helped them reintegrate into society.

Nicholas Ocirowijok told the court about how the abductees described their life in the LRA and how they perceived LRA leader Joseph Kony. Ocirowijok testified on Thursday, July 4, about his work as coordinator of World Vision’s reception center in Gulu, the main town of northern Uganda.

When Dominic Ongwen’s lawyers made their opening statements at the start of the defense phase of his trial, they argued Ongwen was a victim because the LRA abducted him at a young age. Defense laywers said that Ongwen remained under the hold of Kony until he left the LRA in 2015 and was taken to the ICC.

Ongwen was between nine and 11 years old when the LRA abducted him in 1987. He has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed as an LRA commander in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

During his testimony on July 4, Ocirowijok told the court World Vision started a reception center for former LRA abductees in 1995. He said he was coordinator of the center for six years until 2001 when he took up a different position in the charity organization. Ocirowijok said during his time, the reception center assisted about 7,000 former abductees, including some who had fled conflict in neighboring Congo.

Ocirowijok said former LRA abductees stayed at the World Vision reception center for 45 days before they rejoined their families. He said during this period World Vision traced their families, fed and counselled the children, as well as provided them with medical care, if need be. He said some children stayed longer than the 45-day period because it took longer to trace their families, or it was determined they needed more care before rejoining their families.

He told the court the 45-day stay was based on the recommendation of a child psychologist. Ocirowijok said World Vision set up the center based on the recommendation of a Ghanaian child psychologist, Gifty Quarcoo. He said Quarcoo made the recommendation after conducting a 1995 World Vision-commissioned survey in northern Uganda on how the conflict in the region was affecting children. From his testimony, it was not clear whether Quarcoo also recommended the 45-day stay for former abductees.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt asked Ocirowijok what happened before World Vision set up its reception center. Ocirowijok said it is was around 1993 or 1994 that child soldiers started escaping the LRA and at the time the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) received them. He said the UPDF fed the children, clothed them, and gave them medical care.

“Announcements would be sent to the public to come and view these children at a market square and those that came, those that had their children abducted plus the public, would gather. That was for the purpose of identifying who was who,” said Ocirowijok.

“What would happen to the children that were not picked?” asked Judge Schmitt.

“They would be taken back to the barracks and more information would be sent to the public and relatives or guardians,” replied Ocirowijok.

“How did you regard this practice, this former practice, at the time?” asked Judge Schmitt.

“It was not professional to me,” answered Ocirowijok.

He was then asked about the background of the World Vision reception center. This set of questions were followed by ones about the state of the children that World Vision started assisting at its reception center.

“What was the physical state of the returnees, the children that came to the reception center?” asked Judge Schmitt.

“When the children reported from the bush, they were looking terrible. Some had bullet wounds, sore feet, looking very malnourished, stunted growth, very miserable, and looking at them you would feel like extending a humanitarian hand,” said Ocirowijok.

A little later Judge Schmitt asked Ocirowijok about the symptoms of psychological problems he observed in the children who arrived at the reception center.

“Among the signs of trauma was confusion of the mind, terrifying dreams, anger, withdrawal and wanting to react very fast. Sleeplessness. Only to mention but a few,” said Ocirowijok.

“This kind of psychological trauma that you alluded to, was it common across all children?” asked Judge Schmitt.

“No. When an individual undergoes a traumatic event they don’t behave equally. One would have this sign while the other would have a different one, so we had individual cases. We handled them individually and also in groups,” replied Ocirowijok.

During Ocirowijok’s testimony on July 4, Gordon Kifudde, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked him about the former abductees he dealt with and their relationship with LRA leader Joseph Kony.

“Mr. Witness, how did these [former abductees] perceive their former leader Joseph Kony?” asked Kifudde.

“They looked at him as the leader of the rebel group and somebody who had some spirits in him. And to them, he was a person with his own kind of rules to live, which according to them is commanded by some kind of angels, so to speak. So, to them he is an extraordinary person and a great fighter,” replied Ocirowijok.

“And what kind of tales did they tell you about this extraordinary leader?” asked Kifudde.

“One thing I remember is that he would tell in advance when the UPDF will attack. One instance I remember very well is one time he told his people that the following day at 10 o’clock in the morning some warplane will come to bomb the area where they were. So, he alerted them to find their hiding place, and they took cover to different places leaving the very place he had said the plane would come and bomb. And the following day at exactly 10 o’clock some helicopter came and bombed that whole area but killing nobody because there was nobody there. So, a man without any spirit would be difficult to understand things of that nature. That is one example that I have never forgotten that made me think that these people think of him in a particular way,” answered Ocirowijok.

When Kifudde concluded questioning Ocirowijok, the prosecution and lawyers for victims said they did not wish to question the witness. Ocirowijok concluded his testimony on July 4.

The following day, Friday, July 5, Witness D-110 testified. Except for a few questions her testimony was closed to the public. Witness D-110 concluded her testimony in about 40 minutes.

Hearings will resume after the court’s summer recess, which is from July 19 to August 12.

A transcript of the testimony of Ocirowijok can be found here.