Ongwen Conviction Evokes Sad Memories, Brings Hope for LRA Victims

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The long wait is over, presenting a new dawn for victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army-LRA rebels’ atrocities in Northern, following the conviction of Dominic Ongwen, the former commander of the Sinia Brigade. 

Ongwen was convicted of 61 out of the 70 counts charged against him for war crimes and crimes against humanity at The Hague Based ICC. They relate to murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery, and using child soldiers committed during attacks in Pajule IDP camp on October 10, 2003, Odek IDP camp on April 29, 2004, Lukodi IDP camp on May 19, 2004, and Abok IDP camps on June 29, 2004.  

According to the judgment, which was read by Justice Bertram Schmitt, Ongwen was found guilty of personally leading raids in which, the Sinia brigade which he commanded, looted property and animals, set fire on homes, burnt people alive, killed babies, and exploited girls as sex slaves.  

“He gave instructions to loot food, abduct people, burn down the camp and the barracks,” the Presiding Judge Schmitt said. “An old woman who could not carry her load was strangled and had her throat cut,” he added. “His men shot, beat and abducted civilians in the head and the face to make sure they were dead.” 

The court heard testimonies about children who were enclosed in a bag and beaten to death, and women who were assigned as wives to Dominic Ongwen. The women, who also testified in the court said that they had been threatened with death if they tried to escape, and many were either beaten or maimed. 

These narrations by the International Criminal Court evoked memories of the atrocities among some of the victims who included Orphans, widows and widowers.  In Lacani village, Pajule Town Council, one of the sites where the former Rebel warlord commanded an attack in 2003, close to 30 victims of the attacks followed keenly the ICC judgment relayed on local radio station.  

Some broke down, weeping when the guilty verdicts came in, and others expressed joy calling the decision a start of a long-awaited healing process. In the courtroom, Dominic Ongwen showed no emotion. 

Lufino Oneka, 85, one of the victims of Ongwen’s led attack on Pajule Internally Displaced People’s camp says the judgment settles the anger victims like him have held over the years. Oneka however, says whereas the court has shown its commitment to fighting injustices committed by the LRA, some of the perpetrators of crimes in the region are still at large. 

Veronica Kinyera 60, a resident of Lacani village in Lapul Sub-county lost her husband during the October 10, 2003 raid in Pajule IDP camp. She says the conviction of Ongwen is a step towards healing from the scars of the atrocities committed by the LRA. Kinyera , however, says compensation for the victims of Ongwen should follow suit to help people like her faced with the huge responsibility of keeping orphans single-handedly. 

Charles Kiyaga, the LCI chairman of Lacani village says Ongwen’s conviction will help to deter such crimes from ever happening in the region and heal the victims who have been yearning for justice.    

At Lukodi village in Bungatira Sub-county, Gulu district, one of the epicentres of Ogwen’s led attack that led to the death of more than 60 people on May 19, 2004, the victims couldn’t hide their joy on the news of his conviction. 

Nelson Abola, one of the survivors of the massacre told Uganda Radio Network that justice has been served to the people of Acholi who underwent untold sufferings as a result of Ongwen’s command. 

Abola says the affected persons had for long waited for such a day, and adds that whereas compensation is a long process, the ICC verdict is a leap towards immediate healing.    

Translation “…This is a fair justice to us the victims, the results of this verdict may directly benefit us, even we don’t get compensated, at least we shall have something to remember that the court found him guilty, this is what these victims have been waiting for a long time. No, that they heard that he was found guilty, their anger will slowly disappear and it was important that they find him guilty because here locals were unsure of this verdict since words on the ground was that Ongwen was a child soldier. But I know now that they will be fine,’’

Muhammed Olanya, who lost 15 people from his family during the 2004 Lukodi massacre lauded ICC for Ongwen’s conviction saying that he feels relieved after a decade-long wait for justice. Olanya says for the first time since the gruesome murder of his family members, he had a peaceful sleep at night without having to think of who would be held accountable for their demise. 

However, the verdict was an opposite of prayers for leniency by family members, on grounds that Ongwen himself was abducted at a tender age and turned into a ruthless rebel warlord. Ongwen, was a 9-year-old boy, in 1998, when he was captured while on the way to school by LRA fighters. From then on, he was recruited into the LRA ranks, where he was taught to kill, rape and commit gruesome atrocities against his own people.

His paternal uncle, Johnson Odonga, 69, told Uganda Radio Network in an interview last week that the crimes his son is accused of were committed due to manipulation from his seniors in the rebel outfit. The court yesterday acknowledged that Ongwen suffered greatly after being abducted by the LRA as a nine-year-old child, but noted that he was being put on trial for crimes committed as a “fully responsible adult and as a commander of the LRA in his mid to late the twenties”. 

Ongwen was handed to the ICC for trial on January 17, 2015, two weeks after he was captured in the Central African Republic-CAR by the Seleka rebels. Over the course of 234 hearings from December 2016 to March 2020, the trial judges at the ICC heard 109 witnesses and experts for the prosecution and 63 for the defence; representatives of victims called seven witnesses and experts. 

Ongwen is the first among the five LRA rebel commanders indicted by the ICC in 2005 to face trial and consequently, get convicted for war crimes at The Hague based court in The Netherlands. Others indicted included LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony still on the run, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, and Raska Lukwiya who are all presumed dead.


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