Civil Society Leaders in Teso Express Continued Support for Ongwen’s Trial

Throughout the two-decades-long war in northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was known to have operated mostly in the Acholi and Lango sub-regions. In June 2003, the LRA under the leadership of Charles Tabuley attacked the Teso sub-region, leaving death and destruction in their wake as they murdered and abducted innocent civilians and plundered and burned villages. The attack on Teso, however, does not feature much in the northern Ugandan conflict narrative. In addition, Teso does not fall within the geographical scope of the charges against Dominic Ongwen, who is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This article presents the views of three civil society representatives from Teso, who offer their perspectives on why they believe Teso should have fallen under the ICC’s investigative scope and options for reparations.

Ongwen is the only LRA commander that has been arrested and put on trial at the ICC for crimes in relation to northern Uganda conflict. He has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on four internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok between July 2002 and December 2005. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Although Ongwen has not been charged with crimes in Teso, during the prosecution phase of the trial, several witnesses were called to testify about LRA attacks there and Ongwen’s alleged involvement. The defense objected to this testimony, but the prosecution argued it helped give context to the charges against Ongwen. During the defense phase of the trial, Teso has also featured prominently.

However, many residents of Teso still believe that the ICC’s investigation should have formally covered their sub-region. James Engemu, Nathan Ebiru, and Moses Omiat, all civil society representatives from Teso, believe the scale of atrocities committed during the LRA’s invasion of Teso warrant such an investigation.

“Definitely yes,” said Ebiru. “I have worked with victims of the LRA war in Teso. A number of these victims highlighted atrocities that they suffered at the hands of the LRA. I have also consulted with victims who were abducted and victims of sexual and gender-based violence who also recounted their atrocities. For me, I feel that the ICC should have conducted a thorough investigation in Teso.”

“Teso should have been included in the ICC’s investigation, even if not necessarily for Ongwen’s trial. This is because most witnesses say Ongwen was not in the region. Otherwise, should there have been evidence then there was no reason for Teso to be left out. The LRA were here and committed crimes,” said Engemu.

“Teso should have featured in the ICC’s investigation because the war spread up to here. People were abducted and killed, women were raped, property was plundered, [and] children were conscripted. These form of atrocities were similar to those in northern Uganda,” noted Omiat.

Asked if there were specific incidents that they want the ICC to investigate, the civil society representatives cited examples of massacres and other atrocities but noted that they were sporadic and spread all over the region.

“There was destruction and looting of property. There were many incidents of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls. There was abduction of girls in Lwala Girls Secondary School. I cannot narrate them all. That alone indicates that the LRA did damage in Teso. So, the region suffered equally like Acholi sub-region,” observed Ebiru. “There are many cases that should be investigated, such as the killing of civilians in Obalanga,” he added.

“The challenge is that there were sporadic incidents in Teso that were not concentrated in one place. So the incidents happened all over and not specifically in one area. Also, the attacks happened when people were not in IDP camps. So this makes it difficult to cite specific incidents in Teso. However, this does not rule out the fact that crimes were also committed in Teso,” said Omiat.

Charles Tabuley, the commander who allegedly led the operation, was confirmed to have been killed in action. That raises the question of which commanders should be held accountable.

“Vincent Otti, Okot Odhaimbo, and Joseph Kony himself because he was the overall leader,” said Ebiru. “However, many of these commanders are dead.”

“Unfortunately, most of the commanders who came to Teso are dead,” agreed Engemu. “These include people like Tabuley, Vincent Otti, and others who operated in Teso. Most of the commanders who really operated here are dead so maybe the only hope we have are for commanders like Joseph Kony who are still at large.”

“There were many commanders who operated here, but most of them were killed. However, we cannot rule out the fact that there are others who could be alive. There is Joseph Kony himself who still needs to be held accountable. On the other hand, nobody talks about holding the state accountable for its responsibility to protect. In all these areas where civilians were killed the army was deployed. When we talk of justice, it is not one way,” said Moses.

Given that Teso is not covered by the ICC, the civil society representatives also deliberated on other options for ensuring justice for LRA victims, concluding that the Ugandan government should step in to fill the void. Others praised assistance schemes offered by the ICC Trust Fund for Victims.

“There should have been a deliberate effort by the Government of Uganda to ensure that victims who suffered receive redress, in terms of physical, economic, and social [rehabilitation]. However, as Teso, we appreciate what the Trust Fund for Victims has done to rehabilitate the victims in Teso by funding physical, economic, and social rehabilitation. However, this is not enough because there are many people who suffered harm,” said Ebiru.

“I think the most important thing now is to ensure that victims in Teso participate in the trial and have access to information about what is going on. In addition, the Government of Uganda should also provide reparations to people who suffered during the LRA incursion into Teso. There should be education for children who were orphaned,” said Engemu.

“The most important thing now is reparations and restoration for victims. If in [the] future there are court ordered reparations, they should be applied equally all over the LRA-affected regions. All those who got wounded, lost their relatives and property should benefit,” said Omiat.

Despite Teso not being part of the scope of charges against Ongwen, the civil society representatives felt the people still support the trial and will welcome a verdict in favor of the victims.

“There are some of our victims who will celebrate Ongwen’s conviction,” said Ebiru. “This includes, for example, victims of sexual and gender-based violence who are recognized despite not being from Acholi region. This will give us hope and confidence in justice. As leaders in Teso we shall welcome a conviction and congratulate the ICC for a job well done, however, we shall be left with the feeling that more should have been done.”

“Teso will welcome a conviction. If Ongwen is convicted, it will pass a clear message to perpetrators in Uganda and worldwide that impunity is not condoned. At least we shall know that something has been done for victims of the LRA,” said James.

“It is difficult to determine how people will react,” said Omiat. “Some victims will definitely welcome a guilty verdict even if they will not benefit. However, others will consider the ruling to be of no consequence.”

The civil society representatives, however, did not rule out the fact that Ongwen could be acquitted, although they unanimously noted that it would come as a blow to many LRA victims.

“An acquittal will be more dangerous. If Ongwen is acquitted, then the victims will not have received justice. While it is true that one is presumed innocent before being proven guilty, if Ongwen is acquitted there will be total dismay among the victims and that could turn to anger. His acquittal will therefore be damaging,” said Ebiru.

“If Ongwen is acquitted the victims will have mixed reactions. There are those who will feel cheated. However, there are those who will feel that justice has been done. There are others who will say since Ongwen is innocent, new investigations have to be conducted in Teso. There are those who will jubilate, and there are those who will not be happy,” said Engemu.

“The reaction may be negative for an acquittal, but I do not think it may be as strong as it would have been five years ago. Most of the victims have died anyway, and it has taken a long time to bring an LRA commander to trial,” noted Omiat.

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