A former rebel commander told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that about a year after leaving the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) he took the Ugandan army to LRA bases in Sudan during a military offensive called Operation Iron Fist.
Joseph Patrick Okilan told the court on Friday this happened in 2002. Okilan spent about three months with the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) in Sudan, and then he was released and went back home. He did not say what happened during those three months, but he did describe the UPDF as having “very serious planes” to bomb LRA bases.
Okilan was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Friday, Okilan told the court he cooperated with the LRA after the rebel group he belonged to, the Uganda People’s Army (UPA), entered into an alliance with the LRA. Okilan said he joined the UPA in mid-1987, and he left in December 1999.
Okilan is the third former UPA member to testify in Ongwen’s trial. Former UPA members who have testified already include Nathan Iron Emory, who was a bodyguard of the late Ugandan president Milton Obote, and Richard Ebuju. Both Emory and Ebuju testified about LRA activities that occurred before the period covered by the charges against Ongwen; that is before July 2002.
A possible explanation for why the defense called former UPA members to testify is to demonstrate the defense’s view that in its early years the LRA was a “pro-people revolutionary army.” This is the phrase Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, used when the defense made their opening statement in September last year. Another possible reason for asking these former UPA members to testify is to hear the perspective of non-LRA members on the character of Joseph Kony, the LRA leader. In their opening statements last year, the defense said Kony is the person who should be on trial, not Ongwen.
On Friday, Okilan told the court that when he escaped in December 1999, the UPA and the LRA were based in Sudan. He said he contacted officials in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and said he wanted to leave the rebellion. Okilan said the officials told him they would arrange transport for him on condition that he escaped with the Aboke girls.
The girls the officials referred to were students of St. Mary’s College in Aboke, northern Uganda, the LRA abducted on October 10, 1996. The LRA abducted 139 students that day. The principal of St. Mary’s College followed the abductors and managed to get all but 30 of the girls released. It is these 30 girls that the Sudanese officials may have been referring to when they told Okilan they would help him escape if he helped those girls escape.
Okilan told the court on Friday he and others got about 60 children to leave with them and gather at a meeting point he had agreed with the Sudanese officials. He said he had arranged for trees to be cut down at the agreed meeting point so that whoever the Sudanese sent to collect them could say they were collecting wood to explain why they were in the area. Okilan said the Sudanese did not arrive at the agreed time, and they had to walk away from the meeting point and during the trek, half of the children left to go back to the LRA.
“First and foremost was the kind of indoctrination that these children went through to make them believe that everything … rotated around the LRA,” said Okilan, to explain why some of the children went back to the LRA. Earlier he had said the indoctrination included children being shown war films, including Rambo and Terminator.
“The second thing is that there was a rumour that LRA used to sell the children to the Arabs [the Sudanese]. So even at the time we were escaping, and we wanted to take them they were fearful, [thinking] that we are going to sell them to the Arabs,” said Okilan.
He said after walking some time they saw a truck, and it took them to Juba. From there he said he ended up in Khartoum and later he returned to Uganda.
“While in Gulu, after we had escaped, we met with the UPDF who asked us to escort them to Sudan to the LRA bases in Sudan. We went with them and we spent about three months,” said Okilan.
“This was in 2000?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“When we escaped, we went to Khartoum, and we took a year in Khartoum, that was in 2001,” answered Okilan. He said it was in 2002 he returned to Uganda “and that was the time when we were taken back to Sudan to the bases of the LRA.”
“And this collaboration with the government, with the UPDF, did it continue after 2002?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“No, we were released, and so we went back to our homes,” replied Okilan.
Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, also asked Okilan about the codes LRA commanders used while speaking over two-way radio. Okilan said the codes were changed whenever a commander was captured. He said they were also changed when the LRA was in battle. He said during such times the codes were changed weekly or, at times, every three days.
Obhof also asked Okilan about the killing of Otti Lagony and Okello Can Odonga in 1999. Okilan said Odonga was his brigade commander, and he was a battalion commander. He said they were both in Stockree brigade. Okilan said Lagony and Odonga were killed “because they disobeyed Kony on the system of war.” Previous witnesses have testified that in 1999, Otti Lagony was considered Kony’s deputy.
“So, like I said earlier nothing would be done if the order would not come from Kony. These gentlemen wanted to engage in conventional war, so when the information reached Kony there was nothing left but for them to be killed,” said Okilan. He had earlier testified that Kony told his fighters to sit down or squat when they are shooting during battle. Okilan said the conventional way was to lie on one’s stomach while shooting.
Okilan said he was present when Kony ordered Lagony and Odonga be executed. He said they were tied and taken away to be killed. Okilan said this happened when they were in Jebelen in Sudan.
“Do you know who was in charge of the group that executed Otti Lagony and Okello Can Odonga?” asked Obhof.
“Otti and Okello were taken by Abudema who was a commander in Stockree where I was a member, and Abudema later became the leader of Stockree,” replied Okilan.
“From your perspective, what significance did the execution of Otti Lagony and Okello Can Odonga have on the people in the LRA?” asked Obhof.
“It is significant in two ways. One, the commanders, the LRA commanders, were scared. Secondly, it removed hope. Now they realised it was about Kony’s spirits and not the war they wanted to fight,” answered Okilan.
Hai Do Duc cross-examined Okilan for the prosecution after Obhof finished questioning him. He asked Okilan about whether he knew of any LRA fighters who had successfully escaped the group. Okilan said he did and gave the example of 30 fighters who escaped with their guns. He said the fighters who were left behind, including him, were caned 30 times as a punishment.
Do Duc also asked Okilan whether the benefits of being an LRA commander including having more food and getting material things. Okilan said the only benefits commanders got was having two escorts and a two-way radio. Do Duc asked him about his statement in which he said Ongwen had worked for a long time and wanted to enjoy the benefits of being a commander.
“What did you mean when you said Mr. Ongwen wanted to enjoy the benefit of being a commander in the LRA?” asked Do Duc.
“Ongwen as he was a youthful young man could have looked at this as a very big benefit [being a commander],” replied Okilan.
He concluded his testimony on Friday. The next witness was Emmanuel Ewicho who testified on Tuesday.