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The Long Wait for Justice in Northern Uganda

ICC trial of LRA commander Dominic Ongwen being screened to victims

In the shade of Lukodi primary school in northern Uganda this week, one of the local leaders reflected on his community’s long struggle for justice. “The war, it took a long time,” he told me. “Some of us lost our lives, and some of us lost our hope, but we try our best. Justice, too, it’s taking a long time.”

The playground outside Lukodi Primary School, in Lukodi village, Gulu, Northern Uganda

This week the International Criminal Court in The Hague began hearing testimony in the case against Dominic Ongwen, a Ugandan former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for attacks in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2004. The charges include a horrific attack on Lukodi village on May 19, 2004. LRA rebels killed at least 60 people and abducted many more, looting food and goods, and burning homes to the ground.

The war between LRA rebels and the government of Uganda began roughly three decades ago but shifted into parts of Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan in 2005. According to available information, Ongwen himself is a victim of the very crime he is accused of commanding: using child soldiers. LRA rebels abducted him on this way to school around 1998. He rose through the rebel ranks until US military advisers working with the African Union Regional Task Force in Central African Republic received him into custody in January  2015. He was later transferred to the ICC.

Over 4,100 victims have been recognized as victims to participate in the Ongwen case, including some in Lukodi and have lawyers representing them at the proceedings. Gathered in Lukodi primary school, more than 500 people watched a live screening of the trial opening last month. Later this week, the ICC’s outreach office will return to screen some video clips of this week’s proceedings, so those most affected by the LRA’s war can watch ICC justice in motion.

“We are proud when we see our lawyers there, on the screen,” one man told me. “We cannot go there but the lawyers are there, and we are with them.”

After so many years of conflict, displacement, and neglect, people in Lukodi will be watching closely as Ongwen’s ICC trial unfolds this year. Hopefully, they will have the chance to see their story told, and their long and patient wait will yield some closure and redress. 

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