A former local leader of Uganda’s governing party described seeing bodies, burned homes, and no soldiers when he went to the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP) the morning after a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack 15 years ago.
Tommy Obote told the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday he did not live in Abok, but he was leader of the local council, which is why he went to the camp the morning after the attack. Obote said he was also the chairman of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party in Ngai sub county, where Abok is located.
Obote testified that he saw the bodies of 20 people who had died of gunshot wounds. He said he identified one of them as his campaign manager. Obote said a relative of his was burned in the attack, and he arranged for his relative to be taken to hospital. He told ICC judges some of the people who were burned died later while they were receiving medical care.
Obote was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Abok is one of four IDP camps Ongwen has been charged with attacking between July 2002 and December 2005. He is facing 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the attack on Abok, which took place on June 8, 2004. Ongwen has been charged with a further 57 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Thursday, Obote told the court people in the area of Abok reported seeing LRA fighters in the vicinity during the day the attack took place.
“Did you get any information as to whether after the sighting of the moving rebels there was an arrangement for setting up an ambush by the UPDF [Uganda People’s Defense Forces] or LDUs [Local Defense Unit]?” asked Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer.
“According to what the villagers told us, there was no ambush,” replied Obote.
He said later at night, Major Okello Engola called him to ask whether he could hear what was happening in Abok. Obote said he told Engola he could hear the sound of gunshots from Abok. He said Engola then told him he will pick him up at six in the morning to go to Abok. Obote said he could not sleep that night.
Obote testified that when they got to Abok, they learned that the UPDF officer who was in charge of protecting Abok was absent.
“When people were fleeing, Mugabe [the UPDF officer] ran away like an ordinary civilian,” said Obote. He said the survivors they found at Abok told him this.
He said they learned the LRA abducted people from Abok, and he went with a contingent of soldiers to search for them. Obote said during their search they came across a man who was among the people who had been abducted, but he had been released because he was old. The man told them he had been made to carry food the LRA had looted from Abok, said Obote. He said they did not find any other abductees that day.
Obote said the people he talked to did not know who led the attack on Abok. Obote said he also asked the man who had been abducted whether he recognized any one among the people who abducted him.
“He told me that he did not recognise anyone. He did not know who had abducted him. He said they looked well-dressed, they looked smart. He told me that the only thing they did was to carry luggage,” said Obote.
Odongo asked him whether later on he got to know which LRA commander led the attack on Abok.
“Until I left leadership, no one came to me to say that it was this or that commander who did what happened here. Up to now, I have never heard anything of that nature,” answered Obote. He had told the court he ceased to be NRM chairman of Ngai in 2017.
“Did you ever hear Dominic Ongwen’s name associated with this attack?” asked Odongo.
“I started hearing Dominic Ongwen’s name when the case was in court here,” replied Obote.
When Odongo completed his questioning, Benjamin Gumpert cross-examined Obote for the prosecution. Gumpert asked Obote about the dead people he saw.
“Apart from gunshot injuries, did you see any other injuries which seemed to you to have caused these people’s deaths?” asked Gumpert.
“The bodies that I saw personally were all having gunshots,” answered Obote, adding he did not see any other type of injury on the bodies.
Another line of questioning Gumpert pursued with Obote was about the people the LRA abducted.
“Approximately how many people were abducted from Abok during the course of the attack?” asked Gumpert.
Obote said that he only knew about the person the LRA released, and “the rest of the people, it’s uncertain because the record of those abducted was with the army authority.” He added that following up on the abductees was not his responsibility, and he was only concerned with the welfare of the survivors and those whom the LRA released.
Gumpert pressed him on the issue while saying he understood that it was not Obote’s responsibility to keep records of the abductees. He asked Obote to estimate the number of people abducted.
“I do not want to tell lies to the court to estimate something which I do not know,” answered Obote.
After Gumpert finished questioning him, Obote asked the court about his security and, “how can it be guaranteed when I go back home.”
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt assured him that the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit would address any concerns he had.
Obote concluded his testimony on Thursday. Witness D-19 is scheduled to testify on Friday.