Update: The International Criminal Court found Dominic Ongwen guilty on February 4, 2021, a major step for justice for widespread atrocities committed by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda.
The road to becoming an alleged war criminal started the day Ongwen, then a 10-year-old boy, was kidnapped by LRA fighters as he walked to school. Ongwen was so small, it was reported that other children had to carry him to the LRA’s military bases. Using violence and manipulation, his LRA captors forced him to become a child soldier.
Ongwen, believed to be 40 years old and said to be number four in command of the LRA when he was taken into custody, is alleged to be responsible for terrible crimes that were committed. But he is also a victim, and his case raises sticky issues. Namely, should decisions by the ICC, a court designed to hold war criminals to account, reflect a suspect’s history as a child abductee who was forced to fight?
For Human Rights Watch, the answer is yes. It is a factor that can be considered for sentencing, but it should not be used to negate responsibility.
“I don’t think anyone should excuse Ongwen for his acts as an adult,” said Jo Becker, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights division and an expert on child soldiers. “But there’s no doubt that the violence he went though as a child in the LRA was a big part of the person he became.”
The Fate of Child Soldiers
The LRA formed around 1987 in the Acholi region of northern Uganda, and while its original aim was to oust the Ugandan government, which had long ignored the disenfranchised northern part of the country, it ultimately became a power unto itself.
Between 1987 and 2006, tens of thousands of Ugandan civilians were either killed by the LRA or during the LRA’s fighting with Uganda’s armed forces, and more than 1.9 million people were displaced from their homes. The group abducted at least 25,000 Ugandan children, primarily for use as child soldiers, or to be forced into child marriages with LRA commanders. Uganda’s army forced the LRA out of the country in 2006. Since then the group has operated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, what is now South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, and in those countries combined has killed more than 3,180 civilians and abducted more than 8,700 others, according to a crisis tracker map created by Invisible Children, a group dedicated to ending violent conflict in central Africa. Additionally, upwards of 400,000 people in those countries have been displaced by the LRA.
Internationally, the LRA is known for its practice of abducting children. When adults refused to join the LRA, group members decided to kidnap children. Through brutal induction methods and threats of death, the LRA forced them to become fierce, loyal fighters. “Children were easier to intimidate and manipulate,” Becker said.
Tens of thousands of children were kidnapped, and some experts believe that 90 percent of LRA members were abducted as children. By 2003, rural families in northern Uganda were so terrified of the LRA taking their children, that parents sent their kids to spend the night in nearby towns and cities, hoping they would be safer. Some 40,000 children, called “night commuters,” traveled each night, taking shelter under shops, at bus stations, at churches, wherever they could.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have interviewed many child soldiers who escaped from or were released by the LRA. What the children endured was terrifying. If they tried to escape, they were killed. If they disobeyed, they were killed. If they accidentally lost a gun, ammunition, or dropped someone’s pack, they could be killed. The children endured harsh trainings and were told this was necessary to make them into fighters. The LRA forced children to commit terrible crimes, including beating children or adult fighters to death with logs or branches. Afterwards, they would tell the children that, because of what they did, they could never return home again and that their families and communities would shun or even hurt them. On top of the ritualized violence, kidnapped girls were forced to marry LRA commanders, subjected to sexual violence, and forced to bear their children.
One child shared a story Becker never forgot, about being kidnapped with four of his brothers. “The LRA decided it was a security risk to have them stay together, so they tied up two of the younger brothers and made the older ones watch as they were beaten to death. The youngest was just 9.” Then, according to the child, an LRA member told them that what they witnessed “would give us strength to fight.”
While we don’t know exactly what Ongwen experienced after he was kidnapped, without a doubt he witnessed or was forced to take part in horrific violence. It’s impossible that a child could live through this without being traumatized, and it could lead to developmental dysfunction.
“I think it’s really important to understand what the dynamics really are for children, especially children recruited in such a brutal context,” Becker said. “Almost certain death for disobedience. Separated from your family so early. Being brainwashed. Children make choices that they think will help ensure their own survival. They are making the best of a very bad situation.”
In other words, in terrible situations children choose what they see as the lesser of two evils – a choice that can lead to following orders, even committing unspeakable crimes, in order to survive.
Vincent Oyet’s Story
Vincent Oyet, a member of the Lukodi community of northern Uganda, was kidnapped multiple times by the LRA beginning when he was 15 years old. Each time he either escaped or was freed and managed to get back home.
Today, Oyet works as a teacher. He also serves as the secretary of the Lukodi CORE team, an organization that mobilizes survivors and advocates for assistance, reparations, and justice for crimes committed by the LRA.
Oyet’s home, the Lukodi village in Acholi, was the site of one of Ongwen’s most infamous alleged massacres in 2004. And Oyet wants the full weight of the ICC’s judgment to fall upon Ongwen.
In the months and years leading up the attack, the LRA had terrorized the region, and people from Lukodi and other neighboring areas had fled en masse to a camp for internally displaced people at Lukodi primary school. On the evening of May 19, 2004, Ongwen’s troops swarmed the camp, according to a report by the Justice and Reconciliation Project. Survivors recall hearing whistles, gunshots and explosions before everything descended into chaos. The LRA fighters killed indiscriminately, looting whatever food, animals, and property they could find. They shoved families into their homes and set them on fire, burning people alive. Hundreds of homes were torched. Fighters killed the very young and the very old, kidnapping children and women, forcing them to carry looted items. The massacre took place over roughly an hour or two, but because of the burning, the smell of dead bodies and burned food lingered for a month.
At the time of the attack, Oyet was in Gulu, about 17 kilometers from Lukodi, but he returned to the camp the following morning having heard the news. “I saw a number of people who were lying in pools of blood or burned beyond recognition, a number of houses burned down to ash, a number of people beaten by the LRA,” he said. To this day, he can barely comprehend how so much death could happen in so little time. It took him between six months and a year to sleep without waking from nightmares, and still, he sometimes dreams of what he saw. “I cannot forget that in my life.”
Although Ongwen is implicated in leading raids and abducting people when he was younger than 18, he was older than 18 – a legal adult under international law – when he allegedly led this attack. “Lots of kids were kidnapped. I was also kidnapped. If other people who were kidnapped [managed to] escape, why was it difficult for him to escape as well? He killed people on his own [volition] to please his superiors and get promotions,” Oyet says.
“As we continue waiting for the court [to make its decision] there are some victims who continue passing away without seeing justice because of the long time that the ICC processes take. Victims are hoping to get justice or reparations in the event the court rules in their favor. They are expecting reparations.”
Evelyn Amony’s Story
The people of northern Uganda are divided when it comes to their wishes for Ongwen’s possible ICC conviction and sentencing. Some, like Oyet, want him severely punished. Others want the court to show mercy because Ongwen was kidnapped and manipulated by his captors to do their bidding.
Evelyn Amony, another LRA victim, hopes the court will show Ongwen mercy. Amony was kidnapped by the LRA at age 12, then forced to “marry” the LRA’s enigmatic leader, Joseph Kony, becoming one of his 27 “wives.” During the 11 years she spent as an LRA captive, she gave birth to three children, and in 2005, escaped with two of her daughters. Her second-born daughter had gone missing a year earlier.
Like many other children abducted by the LRA, Amony and her kids faced tremendous stigma after her escape. She had grown up in the village of Atiak, which was attacked by the LRA, who killed many of her family members. Some family members resent the fact that her children with Kony are alive and well.
Her experience led her to seek out other women in similar situations and to establish the Women’s Advocacy Network, which seeks reparations for women harmed in the war. It also works to locate abducted children, helping them reconcile with their mothers, fathers, and extended families.
Amony also knew Ongwen. When the fighters were forging a river and she almost drowned, Ongwen helped save her. When she was injured and couldn’t walk, Ongwen was one of the boys who carried her stretcher.
“To me, I feel that [Ongwen] was abducted as a child and I think it was not proper to take him to ICC because he did not willingly go to the bush but was taken forcibly,” she said over email.
“Some of the victims are celebrating his trial, and it's good, as they feel justice is being served,” she wrote. “Others feel that the trial is not going to change their lives and [that the] focus should be on repairing their lives, not prosecuting Dominic, because prosecution is not going to change their current condition of poverty.”
Ongwen’s trial is historic. “To date, this is the only case involving crimes by an LRA leader at the ICC, and pretty much anywhere in the world,” said Elise Keppler, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice division.
In 2005 the ICC issued warrants for five LRA commanders, but three were killed, and Kony remains at large. Ongwen was received into custody in the Central African Republic and handed over to the court in 2015.
ICC trials are unique because victims can participate separate from being witnesses, by sharing their views and concerns. The court recognizes that one facet of justice is giving victims a voice. Ongwen’s trial has more than 4,000 victims participating, including Vincent Oyet, as his school was destroyed in the massacre.
Both Oyet and Amony spoke of the poverty the fighting left in its wake. “Traditionally as Acholi we didn’t keep money in the bank, but we kept animals as our wealth,” Oyet said. “During the insurgency, our animals and the crops that we survived on were looted by the LRA.”
“People lost 20 years of their lives and income. They lost property and their bread winners,” said Oryem Nyeko, Human Rights Watch’s Uganda and Tanzania researcher. “The region is poorer and less developed than it would have been had there been no war. The north has the lowest literacy levels and highest unemployment levels, which is directly correlated to the war and the fact that its legacy has not been fully addressed.”
Here’s another issue. The cases the ICC can bring involving LRA crimes are limited, as the court does not prosecute crimes committed before its treaty came into force in 2002. This means that 15 years of the LRA’s 20-year terror spree in Uganda are not under its jurisdiction. The investigation is also focused on the northern Uganda conflict, as opposed to the LRA’s more recent crimes elsewhere in the region.
Another challenge is the lack of accountability for abuses committed by the Ugandan army while it fought the LRA, including killings and torture. This is particularly poignant for Uganda’s northerners, who felt victimized and misunderstood by the soldiers. It didn’t help that the army came from a part of Uganda that had long repressed the north. The ICC prosecutor has yet to fully answer whether her office will pursue cases against members of the army and if not, why not.
While Ongwen’s trial won’t lift anyone out of poverty, the court could award victims reparations in the form of collective community support or even modest individual payments. Many people there expect the court to reward victims with something, even if it won’t come close to making up for what they lost.
Today the LRA is a shadow of what it was in the past. It’s weak and splintered, although it is still operating – and sometimes still kidnapping children – in South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Kony remains at liberty in a remote area on the border of South Sudan and Sudan.
It’s hoped that the Ongwen case will act as a salve for many LRA victims, to have an international court acknowledge the crimes and what they suffered. Many victims have bravely shared their stories with the court, creating a sea of evidence. Hopefully it will wake up more leaders of armed groups to the possible reach of justice, and maybe even deter future crimes.
But if Ongwen is convicted, a sentence that also acknowledges his history as a child soldier and a victim, someone who was torn from his family as a child, could be a balm to many families as well – the families whose own children were stolen from them – as well as for former child soldiers who were forced to fight and who are afraid to go home.
It can be challenging for abducted children who became child soldiers to reintegrate into communities that may no longer trust their loyalties, a situation Evelyn Amony’s organization is also working to ease. What they need is support reintegrating, going back to school, and finding jobs.
“This trial cannot solve the myriad problems created by the LRA conflict, including its devastating impact on children,” Keppler said. “But fair trials, including appropriate punishments for those convicted, can help build greater respect for rule of law and hopefully contribute to a brighter future – in Uganda and beyond.”