Ongwen’s Trial Focuses on Pajule; Community Members Express Mixed Optimism for Justice

In June and July 2019, five defense witnesses testified about the 2003 attack on Pajule internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. With the court’s lenses focused on their village during the trial, community members in Pajule recounted their memories of the attack and expressed mixed optimism on whether this would translate into justice for victims and survivors.

Ongwen is a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is 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. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

In relation to the Pajule attack, which occurred on October 10, 2003, Ongwen has been charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The defense witnesses who recently gave evidence include: Richard Otim, June 4; Santo Oweka, June 6 and 7; Christopher Oloya, a former escort to Ongwen, June 13; Sam Opiyo, June 27; and Daniel Opio, July 1 and 2. All five were survivors of the 2003 attack on Pajule and testified about Ongwen’s alleged role in the attack.

Community Members Recall the Attack

Many residents of Pajule recounted the attack in clear details. “I was in primary six at the time. I remember it was the day after the Independence Day celebrations. In the wee hours of the following morning, the rebels attacked and killed several people, abducted civilians, and looted food stuffs,” said a community member called Richard.

Another Pajule resident called Rose also recalled that the attack happened on the day following Independence Day: “I remember the attack happened on October 10, 2003. I also recall that the attack happened at 4:00am, and many people were killed while others were abducted. It took the efforts of local leaders to negotiate the release of many of those abductees.”

Komakech, another community member, was fortunate to escape the attack because he was not in Pajule at the time.

“I was not at the camp at the time, but I found out about the deaths of very many people and the abductions of several other civilians. Many of whom have never returned,” he recalled.

“What happened in Pajule was very traumatizing, and up to now the impact is still being felt. Many of our people were abducted, killed, and we lost property,” said another community member called Auma. “This has caused a seemingly unending poverty to date.”

“I recall almost everything. Pajule had many collaborators, which made it easy for the LRA to carry out the attack successfully. The LRA also hated the people of Pajule because most of the people abducted from here used to escape. But the main intention of the attack was to get food and to reinforce the rebel group by abducting as many people as possible,” recalled another community member called Opoka.

Another community member called Aloyo recalled the gruesome atrocities committed on that day.

“I majorly recall the killings and abductions that took place. Many of the elders were killed that day, and many young people were abducted most of whom never returned,” she said.

Abalo, another community member, recalled that she had a little baby at the time of the attack and had to flee to save herself and her child.  

“I had a young baby at the time, and I recall that an aunt was killed in the attack. We ran a very long distance to safety until all our knees were bruised because we fell down several times. However, not all of us survived. Many people were abducted and have never returned,” said Abalo.

 Mixed Reactions on Justice

Asked if they thought the focus on Pajule at the trial would translate into justice, residents expressed varied reactions. “It depends on the strategy of the defense counsels. Maybe they simply have many witnesses from Pajule. However, among us here there is an element of fear on why there is too much focus on Pajule rather than places like Coorom, which is Ongwen’s home village. Anyway, it might be for the good or bad. That depends on how the judges analyze the evidence being presented. But I think it is a good thing to stress the atrocities that occurred in Pajule,” said Richard.

Others did not think the focus on Pajule would automatically translate into justice.

“I don’t think focusing on Pajule more than the other places will bring justice. I think investigations and sufficient information should be gathered from all case locations equally. I think the heavy focus on Pajule is because of the intensity of the atrocities that we suffered. I think the emphasis is another way to make sure the atrocities that occurred to Pajule are brought to light through a proper analysis,” said Rose.

“I think the focus is on Pajule because of the extent of the damage. It was too much. Hundreds of people lost their lives, properties, and close relatives. This requires deep insights by both the defense and the prosecution to discover the truth. I think we shall get justice because many witnesses were picked from Pajule, and I believe they will be able to expose the truth of the matter,” said Komakech.

“I think it is a good idea to emphasize more on Pajule because of the impact of what happened,” said Auma.  “The magnitude of the attack was greater compared to other locations. Our people suffered and are still suffering, and they need some form of interim support especially in terms of livelihoods. I personally have a sister who lost her husband that day. So, the focus here simply shows the commitment of the court towards establishing the truth of what exactly happened. This leaves us with hope.”

Opoka, like Rose, also doubted whether the focus on Pajule, and in particular the attack on October 10, 2003 would atone for all the incidents that occurred in Pajule during the LRA war.

“What happened here was too big, which makes it deserve bigger focus. I think that is the major reason why the court has focused on it,” he said. “However, I doubt whether this will result in justice because the focus is only on the attack of October 10, 2003, despite many other atrocities that took place in Pajule. For us to get true justice, all the crimes committed here should be prosecuted.”

Aloyo, however, chose to be optimistic that there would be justice.

“I believe the truth will be established in the end. What took place in Pajule was too big and truly deserves the big focus. The suffering and destruction of properties should be recognized,” she said.

Abalo agreed with Aloyo.

“As a parent and a person who suffered a heavy loss, I think the focus on Pajule is good and will aid truth telling. I think so because many of the witnesses were picked from here and we think they will be able to bring the truth to light,” explained Abalo.

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-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda