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.