Hellen Adong still vividly remembers the events of 29 April 2004. On that evening, about 30 members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (Joseph Kony’s LRA) burst into the Odek camp in northern Uganda, where between 2,000 and 3,000 displaced people were living. Some of the attackers were less than 15 years old.
As soon as she heard the first gunshots, Adong fled to her house with her children. But an LRA soldier managed to break down the door and forced her out. She was abducted for 24 hours and eventually returned home. One of her children, a newborn baby who was too overwhelmed by her absence, died a few days later.
In total, 10 civilians were killed during this attack and about 40 were abducted. Adong is one of the 130 or so people who testified at Dominic Ongwen’s trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), which opened on 6 December 2016.
Commander of the rebel group
The ICC judges established that the men who attacked the Odek camp were acting under Ongwen’s orders, who was 29 years old at the time. He had organised the assault as well as ordered the abductions and looting.
According to the court, Ongwen himself was following orders from Kony, who believed that the people of Odek should be punished “for their lack of support for the LRA.”
Ongwen will serve 25 years in prison for this and other refugee camp attacks. On 4 February 2021, the court’s Trial Chamber found him guilty of a total of 61 crimes for acts committed between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005, when he was the commander of the LRA’s Sinia Brigade. In particular, he was found guilty of sexual crimes and the crime of forced pregnancy, which is a historical first for the ICC.
Over the course of the trial, the judges learnt that Ongwen had recruited and used child soldiers. He himself was kidnapped as a child by the LRA, on his way to school. His mother was reportedly killed during his abduction. Ongwen eventually escaped from the rebel group in 2014, before surrendering to members of the Seleka in the CAR, who handed him over to the US. He was then transferred to The Hague in January 2015.
Victim and executioner
His lawyers’ defence was based around the unique history of the accused, who is both a victim of the LRA and responsible for crimes committed by this group. “The sentence that will be handed down will set a precedent in the way justice is served to former child soldiers,” Charles Taku, one of his lawyers, told us a few days before the verdict.
“Dominic Ongwen has been one of Joseph Kony’s victims for many years,” the lawyer added. “His transfer to The Hague is just a continuation of all that he has suffered.” Ongwen’s lawyers also feel that their client’s mental health should be taken into account. According to Taku, Ongwen – who has threatened to commit suicide on numerous occassions during his incarceration and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder – remains psychologically fragile and is not fit to attend the trial.
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However, the judges ruled that Ongwen’s childhood did not exonerate him of his guilt, although they did acknowledge that he had suffered “a lot.” “We do not deny that Dominic Ongwen was a victim of kidnapping himself,” said Benjamin Gumpert, the first deputy prosecutor. “But he cannot be exonerated from his crimes.” The prosecutor drew a parallel with victims of sex crimes who later commit similar crimes.
In a statement to the court, Ongwen denied the crimes he was accused of. “I cannot ask for forgiveness from anyone in northern Uganda as there were others besides me who were also corrupt and encouraging [this war],” he said.
All these arguments were rejected by the victims. “In its judgment, the Chamber clearly states that Dominic Ongwen fully understood what he was doing and the implication of his orders,” said Paolina Massidda, who represents over 1,500 victims. She also insisted that Ongwen had demonstrated severe “cruelty”.
“Of course, childhood trauma can affect adults, but everyone can choose to respond in a certain way. The seriousness of the crimes he committed should be the chamber’s only consideration,” she said.
Ongwen’s lawyers then said that Ongwen should not be found guilty of these crimes as he believed, like many LRA fighters, that Kony had supernatural powers. This would therefore prove that he hadn’t acted of his own free will. “He believed that his leader was a spirit, that he could read other men’s minds or hear certain conversations. Sometimes you could even see the fear in his eyes. I believe that he thought his leader was able to hear what he was telling us,” said one of the experts in charge of the psychiatric analysis of the accused during the trial.
The charismatic and all-powerful Kony, who had a real hold on his men, claimed to be possessed by higher spirits, which allowed him to foresee the future and heal the sick. According to the UN, the LRA has killed more than 100,000 people in central Africa and abducted more than 60,000 children. Ongwen is the only member of the rebel group to have been tried.
Kony is believed to still be at large and has been issued with an ICC arrest warrant.
In Ongwen’s case, the defence has already announced that it will appeal the verdict.
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