Monday, 4 December 2017


Although there is relative peace, people of northern Uganda are still suffering the effects of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) war—a war that left many in the state of despair. A myriad of factors hinder the victims and survivors to attain healing and forge live beyond what happened: the delayed and/or lack of justice for war crimes, the paucity of reparations, and the lack of government support for victims of rape and those afflicted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Social healing in northern Uganda can be achieved by tackling these issues from all sides. From increasing the opportunity for dialogue on how and when reparations will be provided, providing information on the on-going trials of the perpetrators of the LRA war, supporting the mental well being of person afflicted by trauma, enhancing the economic status of victims and memorializing the past among others.

While there have been concerted efforts to tackle the above mentioned obstacles to healing in communities affected by the LRA war in northern Uganda, memorization as a critical link to the other aspects has been limited. Today in northern Uganda, the concept of memory has been limited to concrete monuments with names of victims which provide somewhat less impact in facilitating social healing. Therefore there is need to explore memory through other lenses. For example, through the creation of physical spaces that preserve and transmit memory.

Why memorization in northern Uganda

Currently implementing a memorial project in Lukodi village in Gulu district, northern Uganda, the Foundation of Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) spoke to community members on what this project meant to them.  

Many of the children you see today were born in the camps. All they know is the sufferings we went through while in the camps. The photos, body maps, timeline of events and physical maps of how the rebels use to operate will serve as an education avenue for them to know how the sufferings they witnessed in camps came about” said a member of the community reconciliation team

“We were part of the events that happened during the LRA war, it’s important that we tell the young ones of today so they can learn about the dangers of war” another member added

Aware that history shapes the future, the site to be established will help provide a historical account of events as they unfolded during the conflicts. At FJDI, we strongly believe that when spaces to acknowledge accounts and memories of what happened in the past are availed to communities affected by conflict, it facilitates the recovery process making it easy for victims and survivors alike to move forward.


Monday, 24 July 2017

International Justice Day in Uganda Focuses on Ongwen’s Trial as Community Members Quiz ICC Officials at a Town Hall Meeting

July 17 is globally recognized as the “World Day for International Justice,” also referred to as the “Day of International Criminal Justice” or “International Justice Day.” The day is commemorated around the world as part of an effort to recognize the emerging system of international criminal justice and to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Since the ICC intervened in the Ugandan situation 13 years ago, International Justice Day in Uganda has revolved around activities of the court.  With the trial of Dominic Ongwen currently ongoing before the ICC, it is not surprising that this year’s commemoration focused the Ongwen case.
Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. He has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage. This article recounts the celebrations held in Uganda to mark International Justice Day and questions that were asked following a public screening of the Ongwen trial conducted by the ICC in Gulu.

In Uganda’s capital Kampala, the ICC launched an “Access to Justice” project in collaboration with the Danish Embassy in Uganda. The project is aimed at facilitating the ICC’s continuous efforts to respond to the information demands of the communities affected by the conflict in northern Uganda. The major highlight of the project was the donation of television screens and radios to 23 communities in northern Uganda that will enhance the capacity of the local population in northern Uganda to follow the proceedings against Ongwen. The project will also strengthen capacity of the religious and cultural leaders to further engage the members of their respective communities on issues related to the court.

In Gulu district in northern Uganda, July 17 was marked by a public town hall screening of past court sessions of Ongwen’s trial. The screening was conducted in both English and Acholi languages and attracted several members of the public. After the screening, community members were given an opportunity to ask questions regarding the case.

There were many basic questions asked about the functioning of the ICC by participants. Examples included: does the ICC have soldiers of its own and why there were no black judges sitting on the bench of the trial of Ongwen trial?

The ICC representative fielding questions explained that the ICC has no military force and relies on the member countries to effect arrests. In response to the question on judges, the representative explained that ICC judges are elected from all over the world and stressed that they are elected based on their qualifications and experience, not their skin color or nationality.

Questions were also sparked by what community members heard and saw during the screening. One participant remarked that he heard a voice similar to LRA leader Joseph Kony’s speaking in Langi language, appreciating Ongwen for being a good fighter. The participant asked how it was possible that Kony could speak Langi, yet he was an Acholi by tribe. The ICC representative clarified that the audio heard in the video was only from witnesses who appeared before the court. The ICC representative also informed the gathering that most of the witnesses who have testified to date were former LRA rebels who had served under the leadership of Ongwen.

The video footage also showed LRA soldiers putting on new army uniforms, so another participant asked to know where the LRA fighters received their supplies of army uniforms. The ICC representative responded that this was a matter for the court to determine during hearings if deemed relevant.

Many questions arose about prosecution and trial strategy. One participant asked why the court charged Ongwen with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The participant felt that the huge number of counts made it appear as though Ongwen was being made to shoulder the burden for all the crimes committed by the LRA. The court representative explained that Ongwen was being tried for attacks that happened in four IDP camps and that the charges were commensurate given the high level of atrocities committed during the attacks and the large number of civilians who died in the process.

Another participant asked to know what strategies the prosecution and defense were using to choose witnesses to testify in the trial. The ICC representative responded that the decision on what type of witness to call was entirely at the discretion of the prosecution and defense counsel depending on the type of information they were looking for.

One person asked why the ICC had not waited for Kony and other commanders to be arrested before commencing the trial of Ongwen. The participant reasoned that because the arrest warrants for the five top LRA commanders were all issued at the same time, they should have been tried at the same time. The ICC representative responded that the court could not wait until all rebel leaders had been arrested and had to try Ongwen separately in order to expedite the trial in accordance with international fair trial standards.

The ICC investigation also appears one-sided to some. In particular, one participant asked why the ICC had failed to prosecute individuals from the government of Uganda who fought against the LRA. The ICC representative responded that the ICC had not failed to prosecute the government for crimes committed by its soldiers, but it lacked proof and evidence required to make a case under law.

Community members were also interested to know more about the rights of Ongwen. For example, does he have the right to appeal in the event he is convicted and where would his sentence be served? The court representative explained that Ongwen had a right to make an appeal in the event of a conviction. He also explained that, if convicted, Ongwen would have to serve his sentence in an ICC member country because the ICC does not have its own prison.

Another participant asked whether there was a possibility that Ongwen’s case could be referred back to  Ugandan courts. The ICC representative responded that the ICC gives countries the option to request a case to be withdrawn and tried domestically through an appeals process. However, he noted that Uganda  had not made this request.

Regarding the slow pace of the trial, one participant asked why the ICC has not set a specific time frame for the completion of Ongwen’s case. The ICC representative could only say that it was very difficult to set a time frame due to many unforeseen circumstances that could delay the case.
There is still a very large information gap about how the ICC operates that exists in northern Uganda, particularly among conflict-affected communities. While the move by the ICC to provide television screens and radios will help in enhancing these communities’ ability to follow the trial, the above questions indicate a need for sustained outreach throughout the trial.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda 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.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Low Turnout at the Lukodi Memorial Prayers as Victims Express Dissatisfaction with the Slow Pace of Ongwen’s Trial

Lukodi village is located approximately 17 kilometers from Gulu town. It was the scene of a horrendous massacre by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in May 2004, leading to the death of over 69 civilians. Dominic Ongwen is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in part due to what happened here.

Ongwen’s trial before the ICC started on December 6, 2016. He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage.

To commemorate the attack on Lukodi, memorial prayers are held annually on May 19 at which thousands of community members usually participate. This year, however, a low turnout was registered, with some victims citing dissatisfaction with the slow pace of Ongwen’s trial, among other reasons. However, for many victims and survivors who lost their relatives during the massacre, the prayers still remain important for remembering their loved ones.

As one community member said, “The prayers have helped me to cope with the past. Having lost relatives during the massacre, the prayers help me to feel better and gives me hope that what happened back then will not happen again.  It is a way of counseling for me.”

Wilson, a community member who was involved in organizing the prayers said, “The prayers make us feel more secure knowing that Kony is now far and that he will not come back. Also, now that Ongwen is in court, it feels safe to speak about anything, unlike in the past where even just having an interview like this one with the press would make us fear that our names would be published.”

Despite the significance of the prayers and the ongoing trial of Ongwen, this year’s memorial prayers experienced lower than normal attendance by community members, local leaders, and representatives of civil society organizations.  Although the day was graced by the presence of Gulu Municipality Woman MP, Hon. Betty Aol Ochan, many community members felt participation had not been good compared to the previous year when the function was attended by the Acholi Paramount Chief, Rwot David Onen Achana, representatives from the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, the victims’ legal representatives, and over 10 representatives of civil society organizations. On this occasion no representative from the ICC was present, and only three civil society organizations were represented.

Given that Ongwen’s trial recently kicked off at the ICC and that over 4,000 victims (the majority of whom are from Lukodi) have registered to participate in the trial, it is difficult to understand and explain the low turnout at this year’s memorial prayers. If anything, the ongoing trial of Ongwen should have motivated the community members to attend in large numbers.

Some community members blamed the poor attendance on lack of support from local leaders who neither participate in the preparations nor attend the event.

David, a local leader from Lukodi said, “The problem is that government leaders are still not getting involved in the prayers. Even our local leaders here in Lukodi are not participating in these prayers yet it is a good thing. The turn up has not been good this year because of the rain, but there is hope that the next year will be better. However, the prayer is helping us to have courage and we expect the trial of Ongwen to conclude well.”

Sunday, a community member who has attended the prayers for the last four years running, noted that the attendance was low compared to the previous year. “It is different this year. I have been attending these prayers for four years now and as you can see the number of people has reduced.  I think people are just losing interest in the prayer since they have been coming for the prayers ever since but they feel they are not gaining anything out of it.”

Wilson, another community member agreed with Sunday but emphasized the significance of these prayers for the survivors. “This year is different. The turn up is poor though a number of factors could be responsible. It could be loss of interest among the people, while others may no longer be considering the prayers important. However, I know that to the survivors it is important and they always come,” he said.

Other community members blamed the lack of interest in the trial process of Ongwen, which they felt was dragging.

One community member called Joseph put it bluntly, “The number of people who attended have reduced compared to the past because people are discouraged that Ongwen’s court case is taking so long to be ruled, and they are beginning to think that many victims will not benefit from this trial.”
Gloria, another community member said, “People expect to hear some good news that will encourage them and make their heart have peace. But the trial is delaying and this is discouraging people.”
Gibson, a community leader said, “People are praying in memory of their loved ones and even if Ongwen was not on trial, people would still pray. However, people are few in number compared to last year because they have doubt in the trial of Ongwen. They feel it is the same story every year, and yet they want the trial to go quickly.”

Asked whether future prayers will hold more meaning for them given that Ongwen is on trial, many community members replied in the affirmative, although they emphasized the need for more support from local leaders and civil society organizations.

“With the trial of Ongwen now underway, we need to continue with future prayers because it will help in uplifting people’s dignity especially after the loss of our dear ones. The prayer, just like the trial, helps in providing psychological healing. The NGOs should provide more support for the day, since it has been a challenge for the team to organize for the prayers,” said David.
Sunday agreed with David: “It will be good to hold future prayers even after the trial concludes because it gives people hope and courage to move on positively with their lives. To improve the prayers, there is need for the youth to get more involved. There should be other activities for the day besides the prayers, for example a football match to make the day more lively. There is also need for support from the different stake holders.”

“Now that someone is being tried for the Lukodi massacre, future prayers will hold more meaning, but the resources are not enough to sustain this program by the community. So there is need for our leaders to come in and support it. It will be good if we have a center for memory set up here. It will make people to keep coming,” said Wilson, a community member who was involved in organizing the prayers. “The organisation of this prayer should not be left on the people of Lukodi only, but the district leaders and NGOs should also come in to support the program,” he added.

For other community members, however, the conclusion of Ongwen’s trial was vital for motivating victims to attend future prayers. As Wilson best put it, “In [the] future, the prayers will not be meaningful as long as Ongwen’s trial is not concluded, and if the victims have not received reparation.”

The above views underscore the importance of the memorial prayers to the victims of the Lukodi massacre given that it is one of the few existing ways to publicly remember the victims who perished. With the trial of Ongwen now underway, the speed with which the trial is concluded, coupled with the outcome may influence future attendance at the memorial service. This feedback also demonstrates the need for the ICC and civil society organizations to be visible in supporting those affected by the Lukodi massacre as there is no clear end date for Ongwen’s trial.

Lino Owor Ogora has worked with conflict affected communities in northern Uganda since 2006. He is the Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local NGO based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in Northern Uganda. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A Tale of Two Origins: Two Families in Northern Uganda Claim Ongwen as Their Son

It has been nearly five months since the trial of Dominic Ongwen started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and one topic that has been a source of controversy, even before his surrender and transfer to the ICC, concerns his origin. This is because two separate families claim him as their son.

Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks that took place between 2003 and 2004 in the internally displaced persons camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage. Ongwen surrendered to the Séléka Forces in Central Africa Republic (CAR) on January 6, 2015.
Two separate families in northern Uganda both claim kinship to Ongwen. One of these families is based in Coorom Village, Lamogi Sub-County, Amuru District, while the other is based in Acutomer Gem Village, Awach Sub County, Gulu District. In this article, we shall refer to them as the families from Coorom and Awach, respectively.

On January 26, 2015, during his first appearance before the ICC, Ongwen introduced himself in this way: “My name is Dominic Ongwen YY. I am a citizen of Uganda. In Uganda I come from northern Uganda. In northern Uganda I come from Gulu [district]. In Gulu our home is in Amuru district, in Kilak County, in a small place called Coorom.”

Amuru was originally part of Gulu until it was declared a district in 2006, which is the reason why Ongwen referred to both Gulu and Amuru as his districts of origin. Based on this introduction, Ongwen’s origin is officially recognized and stated in the ICC’s records as Coorom. Since the start of his trial, the ICC field office in Uganda has been conducting community outreach and screening of trial proceedings in Coorom to ensure that Ongwen’s kinsmen follow the trial proceedings.
Despite this, a family in Awach has also insisted that Ongwen is their son. To get more information regarding this topic, field researchers from the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a civil society organization based in Gulu, traveled to Coorom and Awach last month to get  the two families’ perspectives.

In Coorom, we interacted with four people claiming to be relatives of Ongwen: a nephew, an uncle, and two cousins. In Awach we talked to two people who also claimed to be Ongwen’s relatives: a brother and an uncle. To protect their identities, their names have not been used in this article.
According to the family from Coorom, Ongwen’s mother was Rossette Lalar and his father was called Paul Opobo (both deceased). They also say Ongwen was the first child out of a family of six children.

“There were five children, though not all from one mother because Ongwen’s father had two wives. The children are: Opiro Jacob, Ojara Charles, Ayiga Patrick, Aoi, and Bilen. Out of these, four are still alive, but Bilen is dead. Ongwen is the first child,” explained Ongwen’s uncle from Coorom.
On the other hand, the family from Awach claims that Ongwen’s parents are Owiya Ronald (now deceased) and Acayo Alissandro Owiya, who is still alive and lives in a place called Kabedo Opong in Gulu Town. While we were not able to physically locate Acayo, we obtained online access to a television interview she conducted with the National Television (NTV) Uganda in 2015, in which she said Ongwen was her son.

In an interview with the Daily Monitor in 2015, one of the relatives from Awach who claims to be Ongwen’s biological brother, said, “My brother’s name was previously Dominic Okumu Owiya, but due to fear that the rebels could trace his family members in case he escaped from captivity, he could have changed his name to Dominic Ongwen.”

“We were born in a family of 10, and Ongwen was the fifth born. His abduction at a tender age robbed him of his innocence, but after surrendering, we are shocked to hear that there is another family claiming him. We are ready for the DNA test if they continue with their claims,” he added.
Asked for their comment about another family in Awach also claiming Ongwen as their son,  Ongwen’s cousin from Coorom said:

“We have heard about that family in Awach also claiming that he is their son, and it is not totally a good thing to hear that someone is claiming your brother to be theirs. In 2006, a DNA test was conducted with Ongwen’s children here in Coorom when rumors emerged that he had died. This is clear evidence that he is our relative. I feel so bad to hear that those in Awach are also claiming that Ongwen is their son.”

Another relative from Coorom added, “I have one thing to put across clearly. For us we know that this is our child, and all the records prove this fact. Even at the beginning of this trial, Ongwen was asked by the judge to tell where he comes from, and he said Coorom. Awach was not part of his introduction.”

Asked to comment on the fact that Ongwen had identified himself with the family from Coorom, the family from Awach had this to say:

“I have heard about that family in Coorom also claiming that he is their son, but I am very sure that Dominic is from here. Perhaps those people are struggling because of benefits that could come out of the trial, such as support from the government. We have a relative here [in Awach] who was also abducted by the rebels, and when she came back, she told us she saw Ongwen with the LRA. She is called Min Tata,” said a relative from Awach.

In September 2005, following media reports that Ongwen had been killed in Soroti district in northeastern Uganda, the government requested the assistance of the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to conduct DNA tests to identity the body. The ICC conducted DNA tests on the corpse, but the results turned out negative. The family from Coorom who participated in this test, frequently referred to their involvement as proof that they were Ongwen’s true relatives. We informed the family in Awach about this DNA test and asked for what proof they had.

“The tangible proof we have is his [Ongwen’s] wife from the bush whom he himself sent back home here to keep his child,” said a relative from Awach.

We were not able to speak with Ongwen’s wife and child who were said to be living in Awach, and the other family members we spoke with said they had not communicated with Ongwen since his arrest.  The family from Coorom, however, said they had been in touch with Ongwen through phone calls since his he has been in ICC custody.

“We always talk to him on phone. The last time we talked to him was on Wednesday, April 19… and he advised us to be calm and remain strong despite the court proceedings. He also reassured us that he was fine,” said Ongwen’s cousin from Coorom.

Amid this controversy, media reports have equally failed to establish Ongwen’s true origins. In December 2016, Deutsche Welle (DW), an international broadcaster in Germany wrote: “Only a few people know his real name. And when it comes to his past, it is hard to sift fact from fiction. When he was abducted by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) on his way to school aged maybe 10, maybe 12, he told them his name was Dominic Ongwen. He hid where he came from, telling the LRA that his home was a village many miles away.”

However, with Ongwen himself having clearly stated that he comes from Coorom, questions have arisen about the validity of the claim that the family in Awach continues to make. Ongwen’s origins may not be relevant at this point for determining the outcome of the trial, but it is certainly important for setting the record straight and enabling both families to move on with their lives.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the Co-Founder of 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.

Just or Unjust? Mixed Reactions on Whether Ongwen Should be on Trial

As the trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen continues before the International Criminal Court (ICC), people in northern Uganda are still divided on whether or not his trial is justified. In response to the question of whether they felt Ongwen’s trial was fair or not, Civil Society Organization (CSO) representatives responded in different ways, citing different reasons for their answers.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage.

A Fair Trial

Proponents who say the trial of Ongwen is fair cite various reasons, among them being the gravity of the crimes that he allegedly committed, the need to ensure justice for victims, and the fact that Ongwen did not make any attempts to escape and benefit from an amnesty program that was in place at the time.

As Pamela Angwec, a CSO representative in Gulu said, “For every crime one commits there has to be accountability. Even in Uganda’s prisons we have people who committed petty crimes like stealing chicken, but still they are being prosecuted. Now looking at the magnitude of the crimes Ongwen committed, I say it is fair for him to be tried. You cannot kill somebody anyhow and not be accountable for your action and expect to just walk away free.”

Another reason cited by many people was the fact that Ongwen had numerous chances to escape and to take advantage of an amnesty program, which was in place at the time. However, he did not do this.

“I can say he is being fairly prosecuted because so many young people came out of the bush, but why didn’t [Ongwen] come back like others? Even if he is set free, I am very sure people will not [be happy] and may take the law in their hands,” said another CSO representative based in Gulu.
James Engemu, another CSO activist working in eastern Uganda thought the trial of Ongwen is fair based on the way the ICC was handling the case and the way Ongwen was being treated.
“For me, I think he is being fairly prosecuted because he is in safe custody and in good health, and he is not worried he is going to die. When the case started the lawyer of Ongwen said he was not in good health, so he was given time to recover and that is an indicator of fairness. In fact, he has been given the freedom to be present in court,” said James.

Other people held the view that the trial of Ongwen is fair because it presented an opportunity for appeasement of his victims. As some people argued, the trial was a means for Ongwen to live peacefully with his former victims in the event that he returned to northern Uganda after the trial.
Hellen Acham, a CSO activist working in Lira District said, “I would say it is fair because after the trial he will be free to socialize with people; because people already know he has been in court for his actions, and no one will raise any new issues against him again. This is a security for him.”
In addition, as Hellen and others pointed out, there is a need to focus not only on Ongwen as a victim, but also the people whom he allegedly committed crimes against.

“Let us not only look at Ongwen’s side as a victim in the first place, but also look at the harm he has caused his own people,” added Hellen.

Other people believed the trial of Ongwen is fair because it enhances the rule of law and ensures that Uganda is standing by its international obligations to fight impunity.
As Fred Ngom Okwee, a CSO representative said, “The trial is a fulfillment of Uganda’s obligations before the ICC. Ongwen’s prosecution will provide justice to the victims, who will see that the law is on their side. The trial has opened a wider space for international criminal justice in Uganda; for instance the International Crimes Division (ICD) has been formed in Uganda, and it deals with similar cases like that of ICC.”

Alice, another CSO representative concurred with Fred. “This prosecution is fair because Ongwen committed a lot of crimes against humanity, and he needed to face charges. His prosecution makes the victims feel a big relief because they see their interests being fought for and proves that the law is active and that human rights are important. This will make other criminals know that the law is not sleeping.”

An Unjust Trial

Despite the above perspectives, many people still continue to hold steadfast to their views that the trial of Ongwen is unfair. They cite reasons ranging from his abduction and indoctrination into the LRA at a young age, to the fact that the LRA as an organization should be the one to blame for crimes committed in northern Uganda. Another reason frequently cited was the fact that many other senior LRA commanders, who some believe committed worse crimes than Ongwen, have not been held accountable.

Bishop MacLeod Baker Ochola, an outspoken activist on amnesty and forgiveness believes the trial of Ongwen is unjust. “I have said it many times that Ongwen is a victim and therefore Uganda as a nation cannot punish him twice because he was already punished by the LRA.  When he was abducted to his way to school his humanity was destroyed, and he has become a killing machine for the LRA so the whole LRA has to be punished and not the individual people. Prosecution against Ongwen is not just unfair but the most unfortunate. The LRA should be prosecuted because it is an organization and however big it is, it should be prosecuted,” said Bishop Ochola.

Furthermore, some CSO representatives believe that there were other senior LRA commanders who should have been tried instead of Ongwen. They argued that some of these commanders joined LRA willingly, unlike Ongwen, They also allege that other commanders committed worse crimes than what Ongwen is charged with and have not faced similar consequences. For example, Brigadier Kenneth Banya and Sam Kolo are two former commanders who were granted amnesty. Ceaser Acellam, a senior commander who was captured in 2012, was also never tried. Based on these examples, some CSO representatives argued that Ongwen’s trial is unfair.

“He was forcefully abducted. He did not join the rebellion by himself as some leaders like Sam Kolo, Kenneth Banya, and many others did. It is unfair since he was misled. He should not be prosecuted but Joseph Kony, the LRA leader himself should be tried,” said Omara Christopher, a CSO representative based in Gulu district.

Stella Lanam, a former LRA abductee and a CSO representative now working with formerly abducted girls in Gulu, also thought that Ongwen’s trial was unfair. In her words, “Dominic is being unfairly prosecuted because he committed most these crimes in order to protect his life. He worked on orders of the LRA leaders. There are other top leaders who are walking freely and yet they committed the worst crimes if compared to that of Ongwen. Museveni and Kony should be the ones to be prosecuted since they are the ones who triggered the war.”

David, another CSO activist agreed with Stella. “The top commanders like Banya and many others are walking freely without any trial, making Ongwen’s trial very unfair. Age should be considered because there are children who were abducted and grew up from the bush. These include the likes of Ongwen, who grew up believing that committing crimes was part of life. Kony himself must be arrested and prosecuted since he is the one who masterminded the war.”

Many people who thought Ongwen’s trial was unfair also believed that LRA leader Joseph Kony should be the person trial.

In addition, a prosecution witness, who had served in the LRA, testified on cross-examination by the defense that he was happy when he received news that Ongwen had escaped. Among other reasons, this witness said Ongwen had been a good commander to him and treated him well compared to other LRA commanders. Such opinions further strengthen arguments of people who believe that Ongwen should not be on trial.

Based on the nature of the conflict in northern Uganda, characterized by the use of abducted children to serve in the ranks of the LRA, there will continue to be conflicting views on whether or not people like Ongwen should be tried. These varying opinions, which have existed since the time of Ongwen’s arrest, demonstrate the divisions that exist among the people in northern Uganda and seem unlikely to evolve as the trial continues.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda 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.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Kwoyelo’s Trial Drags On in Ugandan Court as Defense Counsel Labels the Charges ‘Fatally and Incurably Defective’

Colonel Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is currently facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court in Uganda. Kwoyelo has been in detention since he was captured by the Ugandan army in 2008.

The start of Kwoyelo’s trial, however, does not appear imminent. Delays have characterized his case since 2008, the latest being an intense debate on whether or not the ICD has jurisdiction to try Kwoyelo using international criminal law for crimes committed in a domestic setting.

Kwoyelo first appeared before the ICD in 2011, but the start of his trial was delayed as a result of preliminary objections raised by his defense lawyers who argued that he was entitled to amnesty under a law in Uganda that was valid at the time of his capture. This matter was not settled until 2015, when Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled that Kwoyelo’s trial was constitutional. Thereafter, three pre-trial hearings were held in April, August, and September last year.

In 2017, three additional pre-trial hearings have been held in January, February, and March, respectively.  While these latest pre-trial hearings were meant to pave way for the commencement of the trial this year, they have instead created legal challenges that have further delayed the start. Most recently, Kwoyelo’s defense counsel labelled the charges as “fatally and incurably defective.” The defense argues that the conflict in Uganda was largely domestic, and the prosecution cannot therefore charge Kwoyelo under international criminal law.

Other factors that have caused a delay in the trial include: objections by the defense that Kwoyelo is not medically fit to stand trial; a delay in translation of the charge sheet and other documents into the Acholi language; and a disagreement between the defense and the prosecution over redaction and delayed disclosure of evidence. Below is a summary of the three pre-trial hearings that have been held in 2017 and the key issues that came up.

January 31 – February 1, 2017
At this pre-trial hearing, proceedings were halted based on five objections raised by Kwoyelo’s defense team. These were:

Their client, Kwoyelo, was sick and had not been given access to medical treatment;
An amended indictment by the prosecution had been served upon the defense late on Monday, January 30;
The said indictment had not been translated into Acholi, Kwoyelo’s native language, as directed by the court at the September 2016 hearing;
Security had not been provided for the defense team as directed by the court in September 2016; and
The prosecution’s amended indictment, which contained redacted and non-disclosed evidence, had been filed in non-conformity with the ICD Rules of Procedure and Evidence.
Defense counsel Caleb Alaka specifically noted that the prosecution had not complied with Rule 2(2) and (3) of the ICD Rules of Procedure and Evidence. These particular rules specify procedures that should be followed when one party wishes to redact or not disclose evidence to the other party.

In response to the above, the court ruled in favor of the defense by asking the prosecution to file a new, formal application for redaction and non-disclosure within seven days and to have it served served to all parties. The court also ordered that the indictment and other documents be translated into the Acholi language and that security be provided to the defense lawyers. (The lawyers’ request for security was based on their fear that they were handling a sensitive case that could put them at risk.) The prisons department was also ordered to allow Kwoyelo to access medical treatment. Proceedings were then adjourned to February 22.

February 22 – 23, 2017
At the second pre-trial hearing this year, the question on disclosure and redaction of evidence and whether or not to amend the charges dominated the discussion.

The prosecution requested that the court grant delayed disclosure of evidence, particularly regarding the identities of victims and witnesses and their statements. They also requested the court to allow them to produce some witnesses later during the course of the trial. The prosecution said that they sought to redact names, ages, sex, addresses, and signatures of victims and witnesses. The defense objected, noting that the witness statements that the prosecution sought to redact had already been disclosed in 2010 and in 2016. The defense noted that the application for redaction was speculative, based on conjecture and thus baseless.

In its ruling, the court granted the prosecution’s request for delayed disclosure and redaction based mainly on the fact that victims and witnesses deserved to be protected from any harm that could arise out of their participation in the trial.

The prosecution also sought permission from the court to amend the charges against Kwoyelo. The prosecution submitted that they were substituting and adding new counts under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Uganda’s Penal Code Act to have Kwoyelo charged under local laws of Uganda and to have the conflict characterized as one that is not of an international nature. The prosecution noted that they intended to bring 93 counts, 59 of which fell under customary international law. (This is an increase from the original indictment, which contained 53 charges.)

The defense objected to this request noting that the charges were highly defective and brought under the wrong laws because the original charges referred to a conflict of an international nature, yet the victims were all Ugandan.

The court agreed that the original charges stated that the alleged crimes occurred in the context of an international, not domestic, armed conflict. The court, however, noted that this notwithstanding, the concise statement of the facts clearly described offenses committed only within the borders of Uganda.

In its ruling, the court granted the prosecution’s request for alteration of the indictment and adjourned proceedings to March 14.

March 14 – 16, 2017
From March 14 to 16, another pre-trial hearing was convened with the major objective of reading and confirming the charges against Kwoyelo based on the amended indictment by the prosecution. The new indictment contained 93 counts, 59 of which were appearing under customary international law and the others under the Penal Code Act of Uganda’s Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

After reading of the charges, Kwoyelo’s defense lawyers raised an objection in regard to the application of customary international law in the Uganda legal jurisprudence.

The defense noted that the charges raised “extremely serious” and “grave concerns,” not only in the manner in which they were presented, but also in the substance contained in the indictment. In the words of Alaka, Kwoyelo’s defense lawyer, the indictment “created double jeopardy, was unconstitutional, and thus defective and illegal basing on technical and legal grounds.”

In explaining the comments above, the defense said that the charges brought against Kwoyelo under customary international law were inconsistent with and/or in contravention of the Uganda’s constitution. The defense noted that under Uganda’s constitution, the principle of legality requires that an offense be defined by law and a penalty prescribed for it accordingly. The defense argued that those crimes under customary international law, and in particular inhumane acts such as enslavement, rape, murder, or torture were not clearly defined in Uganda’s constitution.

In reply to objections raised by the defense, the prosecution sought an adjournment to give them time to prepare an appropriate response. The presiding judge then adjourned proceedings to the following day, Wednesday, March 15. However, when proceedings resumed, the prosecution was not prepared, so another adjournment had to be made.

On Thursday, March 16, the prosecution again sought an adjournment, saying they needed a longer period of time to prepare their response. They based their request for more time on the basis that international criminal law was a new field in Ugandan jurisprudence, mainly brought about by the creation of the ICD and the case of Thomas Kwoyelo.

“International Criminal Law is a new and challenging area with a lot of authority and concepts needed, so we find the time provided insufficient for us to do the work. We hope our request for more time does not go against the interest of justice owing to the fact that it is a new area of jurisprudence,” said Charles Kaamuli the lead prosecutor.

With no objections from the defense, the court adjourned proceedings to May 9.

With Kwoyelo having been in detention for close to nine years now, a further adjournment of his case has created more uncertainty about the start of the trial. It remains to be seen whether the main phase of the trial will be handled expeditiously when, or if, it begins.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda 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.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Why Community Members in Barlonyo ‘Feel Left Out’ of the Ongwen Trial

Located 26 kilometers north of Lira town is the tranquil village of Barlonyo. It is a quiet trading center that lies inconspicuously next to the River Moroto, in Lira district, in the Lango sub-region of Uganda. Behind its quiet and tranquil facade, Barlonyo harbors a dark past brought about by a massacre perpetrated by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in February 2004. For this reason, Barlonyo is also home to a monument bearing the remains of 121 LRA victims.

Late in the afternoon on February 21, 2004, LRA rebels, allegedly under the leadership of Okot Odhiambo, attacked the Barlonyo internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp, subdued the small contingent of Ugandan government soldiers based there, and engaged in a burning and pillaging spree that left hundreds of civilians dead.  According to the Justice and Reconciliation Project’s 2009 report on the Barlonyo massacre, camp residents were burned alive inside their homes, hacked, stabbed, clubbed and shot. The bellies of pregnant women were slit open, with their babies thrown into the fires. Those who were not killed were abducted and marched north into Acholi land where many died in captivity. LRA Commander Okot Odhiambo allegedly ordered his soldiers to “kill every living thing.” In the space of less than three hours, over 300 people were brutally murdered and an unknown number were abducted.

While official narratives indicate that Odhiambo led the attack, residents of Barlonyo strongly claim that Ongwen was also present. Ongwen is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with 70 counts of war crimes, and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in the four former IDP camps of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok. Barlonyo does not feature anywhere in his indictment, a factor that has not gone down well with many community members living there. In interactions with community members of Barlonyo in May 2016, and a follow-up visit in February 2017, the following perspectives emerged on why they feel left out Ongwen’s trial.

The residents of Barlonyo felt that Ongwen played a key role in the 2004 attack on their village. A community member who was present during the Barlonyo massacre remarked, “We saw him [Ongwen] during the attack on Barlonyo. LRA soldiers came shouting his name when they attacked us, so it is not clear why Barlonyo wasn’t included among the communities where he operated.” Another individual who was also present during the massacre noted: “I saw Ongwen three times. I saw him physically.”

One community member provided a brief narrative of the massacre saying, “The LRA camped in a nearby village. They came in two groups and surrounded the camp and started shooting on the soldiers, who were very few. The soldiers were overpowered and ran away. His [Ongwen’s] name was being mentioned time and time again when people were torching houses. They were shouting his name and shouting that every living thing will be finished. They were blowing whistles and making a lot of noise. Some were abducted that day and [upon returning] confirmed that they saw Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo.”

Despite the above claims, Barlonyo does not feature in the list of incidents that Ongwen is currently charged with. Furthermore, it is also a known fact that Barlonyo was one of the key investigative locations for the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) in the early days of the investigation in northern Uganda. According to those interviewed and public records, it had in the past been targeted by ICC investigations.

Community members could therefore not understand why, despite this evident local knowledge, Barlonyo had been excluded from the incident selection of the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP).  As one male participant noted, “Barlonyo’s name is not mentioned [in the ICC indictment]. The evidence is clear, so why is Barlonyo not included? The ICC comes here every time asking for information from victims, but Barlonyo is still excluded. Even Bensouda [Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the ICC] was here but nothing has been done.”

Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC field outreach coordinator for Kenya and Uganda, explained the OTP’s position as follows: “[W]hen they [OTP] were bringing charges against Dominic Ongwen it was guided and constrained by the evidence in its possession… During the OTP outreach in Barlonyo in 2015 and 2016, the OTP explained that they had no evidence of Ongwen’s presence in Barlonyo and there was an appeal for anyone who could provide such evidence to do so. The OTP field investigators interacted with many villagers thereafter and still came up with nothing.”

In addition, the community members also claimed that despite having had several interactions with the ICC field outreach teams they had never received an explanation as to why Barlonyo was not included in Ongwen’s indictment. As declared by one community leader we spoke to: “All of us have met the ICC. They came several times starting from the beginning of the case [against the LRA in northern Uganda].” However, with Ongwen not being charged with any crimes that occurred in the village, it appeared that the appreciation for these interactions may have dwindled. Echoing what seemed to be a shared opinion, the same elder said that “the ICC should not come back here to do screenings and outreach again, if Barlonyo is not included.”

The ICC did confirm that several outreach events and meetings have taken place in Barlonyo before Ongwen’s transfer to the court and after but refutes the claim that no explanation was provided as to why the village was not included in the indictment. “The Prosecutor visited Barlonyo after the surrender of Ongwen and held a community outreach meeting with them. The Prosecutor explained the scope of the case and why it was limited to Lukodi at the time,” said Kamara.

Another concern that emerged from my Barlonyo consultations was that Ongwen is represented by a lawyer originally from Lango sub-region where Barlonyo is located.  One community member said, “We have seen lawyers defending Ongwen, but the truth is that he committed terrible atrocities. Despite that we only see him defended. Krispus Ayena Odongo [one of Ongwen’s lawyers] is a man from Lango. We are not happy he is defending him. Krispus Ayena is defending Ongwen, even though he knows Ongwen committed atrocities even against his own people. He only wants money.” Under international law and the rules of the ICC, Ongwen has a right to counsel. Community members however did not view it in this way and associated the involvement of Odongo with financial gain.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when asked to explain what specific expectations they may have of the Ongwen trial, the Barlonyo community focused on their fears: the fear of not being recognized as a place of atrocity and suffering, the fear of being excluded from any possible reparation scheme as well as the fear that justice would never be realized for the victims of the Barlonyo massacre. One member had a different take, suggesting that the Ugandan government should be held accountable for the Barlonyo massacre. He said, “If Dominic Ongwen wins the case, the government of Uganda will stand to answer because they had the responsibility to protect their citizens. We will take the government to court.”

However, the community members reluctantly conceded the fact that Ongwen is being tried also for thematic crimes, i.e. crimes not related to specific incidents but rather to specific types of conduct, such as the LRA practice of committing sexual and gender-based violence and of using of child soldiers, is a positive development that they hope will also cover Barlonyo.

Overall, despite Barlonyo’s exclusion from the charges against Ongwen, the community members in Barlonyo confirmed their belief in his overall responsibility and in the value of his trial. At the same time, they stated their clear disappointment at not being included in the trial process and expressed a request to be “told” who had committed atrocities in their village, if not Ongwen.

Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and 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.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Stocktaking: Reactions to Ongwen’s Trial Thus Far

It has been over two months since the trial of Dominic Ongwen started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. Once a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok in northern Uganda. His trial began on December 6, 2016, with opening statements from the ICC prosecutor and lawyers representing victims in the case. On January 16, the main phase of the trial commenced with the prosecution presenting its first witness. On February 3, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt announced that the court would take a three weeks’ break with trial proceedings resuming on February 27.

This article presents a brief summary of perceptions and opinions from people in northern Uganda based on what has transpired in the three weeks of witness testimony. It is based on consultations with 20 community members, civil society organization (CSO) representatives, and local leaders in northern Uganda regarding their impression about the trial thus far. The questions posed to them specifically rotated around four areas: if they had been following the trial or not; what they thought about the progress made so far; if they thought that the trial was on the right track; and any other general thoughts and recommendations they had.

The majority of the people who were consulted said they had been following the trial, although they also admitted they had not been doing so on a full-time basis. They cited reasons ranging from inability to access internet connectivity for viewing the trial, to being too pre-occupied with other matters. Five out of the 20 people consulted were straightforward in saying they had not been following the trial at all.

The overall majority of those consulted thought the trial was proceeding well. One community member commended the ICC for having got the trial underway on time. In his words, “The ICC has done a good job in ensuring that Ongwen’s trial starts on time. If you compare with the trial of [Thomas] Kwoyelo [the former LRA commander currently on trial in Uganda], which has stalled since 2008 then you can clearly see that the ICC is more effective than our Ugandan courts.”

Other people thought the prosecution was doing a good job. Susan, a lawyer and CSO representative said, “So far, so good. The prosecution is presenting its case well with strong evidence. I am optimistic that the trial will go well.”

Patrick, another CSO representative said, “The prosecution has presented its evidence well so far, but it is too early to tell whether it will be enough. We need to wait and see how Ongwen’s defense lawyers will argue.”

According to Gibson, a community member from Lukodi, “The narrative about what happened during the attack on our village and other places is being presented well by the prosecution, which is a sign that the court is dealing with the truth.”

Despite a general consensus that the trial was proceeding well, some people expressed dissatisfaction with the prosecution’s first expert witness to testify.  Tim Allen, a professor at the London School of Economics, testified on January 16 about a report he wrote for the prosecution explaining how the conflict in northern Uganda began and the LRA’s role in that conflict. Allen was called as an expert witness because he has been researching the LRA and northern Uganda since the 1980s. Some people felt he was not the ideal witness based on the fact that his knowledge of the conflict is theoretical and research based. Many people claimed they were hearing about him for the first time.

In the words of Eli, a CSO representative, “The trial is turning out to be artificial because how do you call a professor from London to testify in a trial where he has not experienced even a hint of the suffering that people went through. I will not be surprised if this professor has never stepped in northern Uganda. If he has, then it was probably for research purposes. This makes the trial look artificial. I do not think the ICC could fail to get an expert from northern Uganda who has also physically experienced the conflict.”

Susan agreed with Eli by saying, “There is a disconnect between witnesses and victims on the ground. I do not think a foreign researcher who has been to Uganda only for purposes of research would be the ideal witness.”

An issue of concern expressed by almost everyone I spoke to was the slow pace at which the trial was progressing. Almost all the people who had been following the trial thought it was proceeding too slowly for their liking. For example while expressing optimism about the prosecution’s efficiency, Susan was also quick note that, “The trial is progressing too slowly. I understand that the prosecution intends to call over 60 witnesses. But at the current pace the trial will drag through the next five years. I noticed that the first expert witness [Tim Allen] took up an entire two days just to describe the background of the conflict in northern Uganda. While it is important that the evidence is presented in detail, time should also be managed,” she said.

Joyce Sebit, the director of a CSO called Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative noted that, “The trial is taking too long. The communities are grumbling that the speed at which the trial is proceeding is not good enough. They are saying that the trial should be finished quickly so that communities rest.”

Joyce’s opinion was shared by Eli who noted that, “A delay in finalizing the trial means a delay in effecting reparations for the victims. Many people are saying that the trial is delaying and they just want the trial to end so that they can be compensated, but this cannot take place until the trial is finished. The delay, therefore, does not correspond to their sense of justice.”

Gibson from Lukodi was not happy about the speed at which the trial is progressing. “The court [ICC] is delaying. If possible they should at least provide assistance to the victims as we wait for the verdict. Some of the victims are dying off, while others are being reminded of what happened as the trial progresses.”

Fred, another CSO representative noted that, “The community members do not understand the cause of the delay, and this is reducing their interest in following the proceedings, while increasing their mistrust in the court.”

It should be noted that the Trust Fund for Victims has had ongoing projects in northern Uganda, although their reach is limited and not specific to victims in the Ongwen trial. Furthermore, despite the fact that the ICC outreach team in Uganda has repeatedly explained to victims and communities in northern Uganda that the trial would be prolonged; complaints about the slow pace at which the trial was progressing were repeated by respondents. The speed of the trial will likely remain a difficult point for victims to accept for the duration of the trial.

There are still many people who strongly believe that Ongwen deserves forgiveness based on the unique circumstances surrounding his abduction and role in the LRA. These opinions emerged during their assessment of the trial so far. Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola, the retired Bishop of Kitgum Diocese in northern Uganda said, “I cannot provide an assessment of a trial which in my opinion is not right. If Ongwen was abducted then he is a victim of circumstances. His humanity was destroyed and he became a killing machine. He is like a tree that was planted inside a dark house. Such a tree will never be the same as other trees. In saying Ongwen should be tried, the world is worse than the LRA that committed the atrocities in northern Uganda.”

Patrick agreed with Bishop Ochola by saying, “While Ongwen should not be completely exonerated of all guilt, the circumstances of his abduction should be taken into consideration by the prosecution.”

In the opinion of Joyce, “The ICC judges need to be careful when passing judgment because people in the communities still have mixed reactions about whether Ongwen should be punished not. Their opinions are not harmonized”.

Eli noted that, “People in the communities are reacting differently to the trial of Ongwen because they have different perspectives on what justice means. Some people still feel Ongwen should not be tried. Others think he should tried at home in Uganda.”

In line with Eli’s last comments, three other people expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the court was being held far away in The Hague, a factor which they felt did not allow victims to participate effectively. James, a CSO representative from Teso pleaded that, “At least one session of the trial should be held in Uganda. We don’t mind if all the rest are held in The Hague.”

Bernard, another CSO represented noted that, “Some people feel like they should have attended in person, but unfortunately they cannot because of the distance.”

The ICC declined to hold the confirmation of charges proceedings and opening statements of the trial in northern Uganda, notwithstanding recommendations from lawyers in case. However, in the latter decision, judges were open to the idea of a judicial site visit at a later stage of the proceedings.

Despite the slow pace at which witnesses are being examined and the mixed reactions regarding whether or not Ongwen should be on trial, many people overall believed that the trial was proceeding well as demonstrated by the above opinions. Ongwen’s trial resumes on Monday, February 27. It remains to be seen how the people of northern Uganda will react to the trial of Ongwen in the long run.

Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and 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.

Relatives in Coorom Say Ongwen Deserves Forgiveness

Approximately 40 kilometers north of Gulu town lies the little village of Coorom, located in Lamogi Sub-County, Amuru District, Uganda. Coorom is the home of Dominic Ongwen, the former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Prior to the capture Ongwen in 2015, Coorom was just another quiet and tranquil village in post-conflict northern Uganda, struggling to re-establish itself after many years of fighting. However, after the capture of Ongwen, Coorom has risen to prominence, attracting researchers and transitional justice practitioners. In addition, since the trial of Ongwen started in December 2016, the ICC field office in Uganda has ensured that trial proceedings are screened to the residents of Coorom. Given that Coorom is largely inhabited by Ongwen’s kinsmen, this move by the ICC has attracted criticism from some people, especially those who consider themselves victims of Ongwen’s alleged crimes. This criticism is even more pronounced given that many people in Coorom that I spoke to think Ongwen deserves to be forgiven.

Asked why the court decided to conduct outreach in Coorom, Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC field outreach coordinator for Kenya and Uganda explained, “In addition to ensuring that victims and affected communities that fall within the scope of the case are provided adequate information and access to the proceedings against Dominic Ongwen, the outreach program also makes efforts to reach out to supporters or sympathizer communities and groups that show huge interest in following the proceedings. Coorom, being the birth place of Ongwen is therefore a community that has to see ’justice in motion’ – the conduct of a fair and transparent trial in a manner that guarantees due respect to the rights of all the parties and participants in the proceedings.”

The people of Coorom seem to be happy with this move by the ICC. “If anyone told me that Ongwen was so well dressed and can even take notes, I would have dismissed that as a lie. Now I see, therefore I believe,’’ said another community leader during one of the screening sessions.

I traveled to Coorom in late January to have a direct interaction with the residents there. While many of the people I interacted with were happy to be following the proceedings as a result of the initiative by the ICC, many were also direct and straightforward in voicing their opinion that Ongwen should be forgiven.

Just before I arrived in Coorom, I stopped at a large trading center called Olwal and approached a group of three youthful bodaboda (motorcycle) taxi riders who were seated by the roadside, greeted them, introduced myself, and engaged them in a friendly chat. One of the young men who identified himself as Robinson told me they had heard of the trial of Ongwen but had not had time to attend any of the community screening events being organized by the ICC field office. I asked them why, and one of his other colleagues called Godfrey told me they were too busy working to attend the trial. Another young man called Alfred who had joined us said he had been following the proceedings on and off through the radio.

We chatted for a while as I updated them about the trial of Ongwen, but there appeared to be little enthusiasm on their part. I then told them I was heading to Coorom to talk to the people there about the trial. In a move that surprised me, they immediately offered to come with me on condition that I would drop them off on my way back. I accepted as this was an opportunity to further chat with them about the trial. They piled into the car and we set off.

After we had driven for about a minute or two in silence, I asked them why they did not seem to be enthusiastic about following the trial of Ongwen.

Robinson, who was seated next to me in the front passenger seat, replied: “This trial is taking place in The Hague, at a very high level. It makes it very difficult for us to follow closely. Many people are also saying that he [Ongwen] is going to lose since he is being tried by a big court [the ICC].” His response attracted a laugh from his two colleagues in the back seat.

I then asked the other two what their opinion about the trial was. Godfrey said, “In my opinion, I think Ongwen should be forgiven because he was acting under orders of people higher than him. I am also told that he was abducted at a young age.”

Alfred concurred with Godfrey by saying, “Ongwen cannot be compared to Joseph Kony who started the war and formed the LRA. I heard that when Ongwen was asked by the judge to respond to the charges against him, he said it was the LRA to blame for all what happened and not him as an individual. I think I agree with him.”

Interestingly, the above opinion was what I would repeatedly hear from many people in Coorom for the next hour I was to spend there.  We continued chatting as we drove, and a few minutes later we got to the small trading center that was the village of Ongwen. The trading center itself was so small, with only a few kiosks and huts in sight given that many people lived in the outskirts. It was also deserted with only a few women selling goods in the nearby market.

My arrival did not go unnoticed. I was soon surrounded by a group of youth and a few elderly people. I explained my mission to them and asked if they were comfortable chatting about the trial. No one had any objections, I spent the next hour casually chatting with them and walking around the trading center as I took notes. I narrowed my questions down to asking them their opinion about the ongoing trial of Ongwen and what they thought about the outreach being conducted by the ICC.

Generally, many people I talked to were happy with the live screenings being conducted by the ICC field office. A local leader said, “At least our fears are reduced when we see him in court, alive and healthy.” His opinion concurred with an earlier conversation I had had with Kamara where she had noted that, “They [people of Coorom] feel reassured seeing that Ongwen is well taken care of at the ICC and that he has a lawyer that represents his interests.”

A general consensus, however, seemed to be that Ongwen should be forgiven. The people cited reasons ranging from the fact that he was abducted and forced to fight, to saying he was acting under orders from Joseph Kony, and that he was not the only LRA commander to have committed crimes in northern Uganda.

One young man who identified himself as Jackson told me that “the program [live screening] by the ICC is enabling us to follow what is happening at the court, and we are grateful for that. However, many people are praying that Ongwen wins the case.”

Another young man called Patrick chipped in and said, “Ongwen should be forgiven because he did not join the LRA willingly. He also did not commit the crimes alone.”

I asked them why the majority of the people in Coorom were in favor of having Ongwen forgiven and if there were any people who had expressed a contrary opinion. Jackson replied before anyone else by saying, “Ongwen is our relative and the majority of people here are related to him.” A local leader called Mukora explained more patiently that “the majority of people here say he should be forgiven because he was abducted while young, but there are some few people who say he should be tried and convicted.”

In my short interaction with the few people I met in Coorom, I was not able to come across anyone with a contrary opinion.

I then asked them if they would be comfortable with having Ongwen coming back to live among them in the event that he was acquitted. This attracted mixed reactions, but the majority of people seemed to have no problem with Ongwen returning to live among them. A young man called Owiny replied, “It will be his choice. If he wants to come back and live here we shall welcome him.” Another young man called Patrick said, “I am not sure if Ongwen will want to come back and live in northern Uganda. I am sure he will be afraid because of the crimes he accused of committing. If he chooses to return to Uganda I think he will not stay in northern Uganda.”

I finally asked them how they would react to a guilty verdict given that the majority of the people in Coorom were calling for Ongwen to be forgiven.

The local leader called Mukora replied, “The people should not be saddened by a guilty verdict because that is part of the law. I only pray that people are properly sensitized on why he was convicted then they will accept the verdict.” His opinion was shared by many other people present.

Robinson, my new friend from the trip had the last word saying, “People in Coorom will not be happy with a guilty verdict, however, the law is the law and there is nothing we can do. The people will only need to understand why he had to be convicted. We also pray that if he is convicted they give him a sentence that takes into consideration the fact that he was abducted.”

As the trial of Ongwen continues, the above opinions from the people of Coorom indicate the mixed reactions that people in northern Uganda have had. It is also an indicator of the need for continuous outreach even in the aftermath of the trial. As significantly noted by Kamara, “The screening of the trial in such a community does not only bring the process closer and accessible  to interested stakeholders, it’s a conduit that addresses the concerns and fears of such communities, reinforces key messages, thereby dispelling rumours and creating a better understanding of the Court’s judicial procedures.”

Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and 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.