Community members in northern Uganda have expressed mixed reactions to the judgment in Dominic Ongwen’s case. Ongwen was convicted of 61 out of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including crimes of sexual and gender-based violence, and conscripting and using child soldiers in hostilities. The judgment was delivered on February 4, 2021, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and telecast live to communities in northern Uganda.
Following the verdict, some community members were jubilant, while others expressed disappointment. Others called for a lighter sentence given Ongwen’s background of having been abducted as a child and forcibly conscripted, while others remained skeptical that the verdict would not compensate for the suffering they underwent.
Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), surrendered himself to U.S. forces in the Central African Republic in January 2015, and his trial before the ICC began in December 2016. The prosecution phase of the trial took place between December 2016 and April 2018. In total, testimony from 116 prosecution witnesses was considered during the trial. The defense phase of the trial took place from September 2018 to November 2019, and a total of 54 defense witnesses testified. 4,065 victims are participating in the trial.
The proceedings of the verdict were telecast live to an eager audience in northern Uganda who followed from various locations across the region through screening sessions organized by the ICC field outreach office in Uganda in partnership with civil society organizations and community groups. The screening sessions were organized in Gulu City and the locations that were the subject of the case: Lukodi, Odek, Pajule and Abok. A screening session was also organized in Coorom, Ongwen’s home village.
Reacting after the ruling, many community members welcomed the verdict, saying Ongwen was indeed guilty of his crimes and deserved to be punished.
“Ongwen was convicted of sixty-one counts which is more that seventy percent of what he was charged with so we are happy that justice has been served. I know he will appeal, but the judgment will be upheld,” said Vincent from Lukodi.
“Justice has been served for the victims of the conflict. The trial has set a good precedent for future perpetrators,” noted Nathan, a civil society representative from Soroti in Eastern Uganda.
“The judgment went as we expected,” added Geoffrey from Odek. “The victims are happy, especially those who lost their loved ones.”
“I am a victim who lost eight children during an LRA attack in Lalogi,” noted Atim from Gulu town. “I feel Ongwen deserves the punishment that is coming his way.”
“I am a victim. I was abducted aged seven years, and was forced to bear a child for an LRA commander at 13 years of age. My body has never been the same. If Ongwen is not punished, victims like me should commit suicide,” said Brenda, a former LRA abductee living in Gulu town.
However other community members expressed disappointment, noting that Ongwen was abducted and forced to serve in the LRA. In Ongwen’s home village of Coorom, Amuru District, the verdict was not welcomed.
“Ongwen is our son,” said Mr. Lakony, the district chairperson for Amuru. “A child who was abducted should not have been tried. Ongwen was abducted due to the Government’s failure to protect him. The guilty verdict is painful to his relatives. We look at this verdict as a victimization against the Lamogi Clan from which Ongwen hails.”
“Ongwen did bad things, but he deserves to be forgiven the way many commanders in northern Uganda were forgiven. He should be released and allowed to come home and ask for forgiveness,” said Bernard, a community member living in Gulu town.”
Other community members were overwhelmed by the number of counts Ongwen was found guilty of, and called for him to be given a light sentence. The most common reason cited for this was Ongwen’s abduction background, a fact the judges acknowledged at the beginning of the session where the verdict was read out.
“The counts are too many,” said Hellen, a civil society representative from Eastern Uganda. “We are aware that Ongwen was a victim before he committed his atrocities. Sixty-one counts are a bit many for one who was abducted.”
“He should have been convicted on about 30 counts only. Sixty-one are too many,” noted Auma, a resident of Gulu town.
For others, the verdict would make no difference in undoing the harm already suffered by victims. This was reinforced by views that many victims who were outside the scope of the case would miss out on reparations.
“From a victim’s perspective, Ongwen has been convicted. So what? Do victims understand and appreciate the meaning of that conviction? Will it ease their pain? What is important; is it the verdict or what comes after? Questions around reparations should now begin,” noted Stephen, a journalist in Gulu.
“The victims in Teso sub-region have welcomed the verdict but they feel left out. They are asking what will happen for them in terms of reparations,” said Nathan.
Other community members underscored the importance of Ongwen’s verdict, and future sentencing, arguing that it would pave the way for healing and acceptance back into the community.
“Ongwen’s verdict and sentence is important for setting him and his relatives free. After he serves the sentence, he will be free to return to the community and nobody will disturb him because he will have already paid the price,” noted an elderly man from Gulu town.
“Ongwen cannot return freely to northern Uganda without some sort of punishment,” agreed Stella, a former LRA abductee. “It is better for him to spend some time in prison and then return home”.
In his final remarks, the presiding judge noted that Ongwen’s sentence would be determined after considering views from the prosecution, the defence, and the victims’ representatives. For some community members in northern Uganda, Ongwen’s sentence should be determined in light of the fact that he was a victim.
“If Ongwen is to be imprisoned, his sentence should be appropriate. We are talking about a child who was abducted and grew up as a killer. The judges should consider this when determining the time he will spend in prison,” said Agnes, a resident of Gulu town.
“He should not receive the maximum sentence of 30 years. He should be imprisoned for a short while and then allowed to come back to the community and ask for forgiveness,” said Christopher, a resident of Gulu town.
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.