A Former “Wife” to Ongwen Says They Wanted to Escape the LRA in 2003

A former “wife” to Dominic Ongwen told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that about 16 years ago a senior Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander plotted with Ongwen to escape the LRA, but their plan was discovered.

Florence Ayot told the court on Thursday last week that when their escape plan was discovered Ongwen was demoted, disarmed, and arrested but nothing happened to the senior LRA commander, Nyeko Yadin. Ayot said there were only four people who were part of the plan: Yadin, Ongwen, Opio Akula, and herself.

She said upon his arrest Ongwen, who was a battalion commander at the time, and his “wives” were placed under the supervision of deputy LRA leader Vincent Otti for more than two weeks.

Ayot’s testimony was the first time the court heard direct testimony about Ongwen attempting to escape the LRA while he was a commander and then being arrested. Some prosecution witnesses, such as P-045 and P-144, testified that they knew of Ongwen being arrested in the LRA. They either did not give any details or they did not know why Ongwen was arrested.

During her testimony on Thursday, Ayot also told the court that she willingly became Ongwen’s “wife” after her first “husband” died in battle. She said Ongwen never hit her, and he treated his other “wives” well.

Ongwen has been charged with directly committing 11 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes. In total, he has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Ayot said the LRA abducted her when she was about nine years old, but she could not recall the year she was abducted. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt read her statement to the defense in which she said she was abducted in 1987. Ayot said after her abduction she was given military training and she used to fight alongside LRA women. She said in the LRA she was also known as Min Bak, Bak being her first-born son. Ayot said she left the LRA in 2005 when she was captured by Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) soldiers.

During her testimony about the escape plan, Ayot said she did not know what rank Yadin held in the LRA, but she knew he held a top “high position.” The Nyeko Yadin Ayot spoke of is most probably Tolbert Nyeko Yadin. Prosecution Witness P-138 told the court in October 2017 that in 2003 Yadin was the third-highest-ranking person in the LRA. During the course of the trial, witnesses and lawyers have called Yadin either Tolbert Yadin Nyeko or Tolbert Nyeko Yadin or Nyeko Tolbert Yadin or just Nyeko Yadin.

Ayot told the court that it was some time in 2003 Yadin proposed an escape plan to Ongwen. She said she could not remember when exactly Yadin and Ongwen first discussed the plan. Ayot estimated it was more than three months after Ongwen had left the sick bay following an injury to his leg he got during a UPDF ambush. Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Ayot about their attempt to escape the LRA.

“Ms. Witness, was there ever a time when you were with Dominic that you planned to escape with Mr. Ongwen?” asked Obhof.

“Yes, I tried,” replied Ayot.

“Did anyone help you and Dominic with this escape plan?” asked Obhof.

“It was Nyeko Yadin. Dominic told me that he was planning with him. I was just informed,” answered Ayot.

“Do you know any reason why Nyeko Yadin would have approached Mr. Ongwen with an escape plan?” asked Obhof.

“He used to say there is no benefit of staying there [in the LRA],” replied Ayot.

“Do you remember from where Nyeko Yadin hailed?” asked Obhof.

“He was from Amuru district. I have forgotten the exact village,” answered Ayot.

“Which district does Mr. Ongwen come from?” asked Obhof.

“Amuru district,” replied Ayot.

She said Opio Akula was sent ahead as a scout before she, Yadin, and Ongwen made their escape. She said when Akula did not report back to them, Yadin left her and Ongwen.

“It did not take long, Dominic was arrested. Otti sent a message that Dominic was wanted and summoned him … That evening Otti said that Dominic had plans to escape. He removed his weapon. Took away his escorts, and he was left only with the wives,” said Ayot.

Obhof asked her whether she got to know how their plan was discovered.

“I did not know how [LRA leader Joseph] Kony knew and sent Otti to summon Dominic … He [Ongwen] was in imprisonment for more than two weeks,” replied Ayot.

A little later Obhof read back to her a portion of her statement in which she described why Akula was sent ahead to scout for them. In her statement to the defense Ayot said Akula was sent to find out whether the amnesty the government had offered members of the LRA was true and also determine the best escape route to use. Obhof asked Ayot whether she remembered saying this.

“Yes, I remember,” answered Ayot.

“And is that one of the other reasons why they [Yadin and Ongwen] sent Opio Akula to scout first?” asked Obhof.

“That was the reason that Opio never returned,” replied Ayot.

Obhof also asked Ayot whether after Ongwen’s arrest Otti threatened him. She said she did not know what the officers may have discussed with each other. Obhof then read back to her her statement in which she said Otti had told Ongwen if he and Ayot tried to escape again he would make an example of them to the rest of the LRA. In that statement she also said that Otti warned them that if they successfully escaped he [Otti] would kill everyone in their villages. Obhof asked Ayot whether she recalled saying that.

“I recall very well,” replied Ayot.

“And is that true, how it is written?” asked Obhof.

“Yes, it is true,” answered Ayot.

“Ms. Witness you said Nyeko Yadin left. Do you know or did you ever come to know why Yadin was never arrested?” asked Obhof.

“I do not know,” replied Ayot.

“Other than Yadin, yourself, Mr. Ongwen, and Opio Akula, did anyone else know about the escape plan?” asked Obhof.

“No,” answered Ayot.

“Did Mr. Ongwen, to the best of your knowledge, tell any of his co-wives about the escape plan?” asked Obhof.

“I do not know,” replied Ayot.

Obhof also asked Ayot about how she became a “wife” to Ongwen. She said was a “wife” to a commander called Kijura who was killed in battle. Ayot said she remained alone for about a month before she was asked to live in the household of Otti. She said it was some time after that she and Ongwen courted, and she agreed to be his “wife.” She said for that to happen they had to inform the adjutant of the unit Ongwen was part of. She said the adjutant is the one who then took the issue to the higher ups in the LRA. Ayot told the court that it was at this time the LRA adopted a policy allowing widows to choose their husbands.

Obhof asked her how long after Kijura’s death did she and Ongwen start courting.

“I would like to say when you are in the bush you will not be cognisant about how long you have taken. You just live by the day,” replied Ayot.

“What other qualities did you like or dislike about Mr. Ongwen during this courtship?” asked Obhof.

“I loved him because of the way he would live with people. He lived so freely with people … He was not quarrelsome. There was nothing I disliked about him,” answered Ayot.

Obhof asked her about Ongwen’s relationship with her son, Bak, whose father was Kijura. She said anyone who saw Bak and Ongwen together “would not know he [Ongwen] was not Bak’s father.” She said they spent a lot of time together, and by the time Bak died, “he did not get to know that Ongwen was not his father.”

Ayot said when she joined Ongwen’s household he already had three other “wives.” She said they were called Jennifer; Santa, who was also known as Min Tata; and Margaret.

“When you came there, how did he treat those other women?” asked Obhof.

“What I saw he treated them well. We lived together … if you were not told that we were co-wives, you would not know that we were,” replied Ayot.

She told the court after she became his “wife,” Ongwen got other “wives.” She said they were Agnes Aber, who was also called Min Ayari; Fatuma; and Nancy Abwot.

“During your time in the bush how many times do you remember Mr. Ongwen beating you?” asked Obhof.

“He never touched me with a stick,” replied Ayot.

“Did he beat you with his hands or his fist?” asked Judge Schmitt.

“No, he never beat me in any way,” answered Ayot.

“Did you ever see Mr. Ongwen strike Bak, beat Bak with either his fist or his hands?” asked Obhof.

“No. He never. I never saw him beat him. They loved staying together. He loved being with him when he is at home,” replied Ayot.

Later Obhof asked Ayot to compare Ongwen’s relationship with his “wives” with her experience living with Kijura as well as her observation of other households in the LRA.

“In your opinion as someone who had had two husbands, how well did Mr. Ongwen fulfill his duties to you and the co-wives?” asked Obhof.

“He fulfilled his duties well because there was no tension,” replied Ayot.

“From what you saw of others in other households were there problems in other households which your household did not experience?” asked Obhof.

“We did not experience any problem, we lived happily together,” answered Ayot.

The sexual and gender-based crimes Ongwen is alleged to have directly committed involve seven women who were formerly his “wives.” The 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Ongwen include forced marriage, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, and outrage upon personal dignity.

The seven women testified during the pre-trial phase of the proceedings against Ongwen. Trial Chamber IX adopted the record of their pre-trial testimony as part of the trial record under Article 56 of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding law.

Senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert questioned Ayot on Friday.