Even covered by a mask, Dominic Ongwen’s face is unexpectedly cherub-like. This is the former child soldier turned notorious warlord who tormented northern Uganda for several decades. Yet, dressed in a smart suit and blue-striped tie, waiting for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to deliver its verdict in The Hague last week, it is hard to square his unassuming demeanour with the harrowing and gruesome stories told by the survivors of the atrocities for which he was convicted.
On 61 counts out of a possible 70, the court found 46-year-old Ongwen guilty. The charges included murder, attemped murder, torture, enslavement, forced marriage, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, forced pregnancy and conscripting children as child soldiers. Although no sentence has been handed down, he is likely to spend decades in prison.
The Continent watched the court proceedings in Coorom, a village in Amuru District in northern Uganda. Most of the straw-roofed huts were deserted, as residents crowded into the community centre, where a TV had been set up, or thronged under a tree around a radio.
This area, not far from the borders with South Sudan, has suffered enormously at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) — the feared militia group in which Ongwen rose to second-in-command, answering only to leader Joseph Kony himself. Some of Coorom’s own men, women and children were killed, raped and enslaved by the LRA.
But there was no jubilation when the verdict against Ongwen was delivered. For he is no stranger to Coorom. He is a son of this soil.
A normal child
Johnson Odongo clearly remembers his nephew’s childhood in Coorom, known in Acholi as Apur Kii Pii, the place where you can dig to find water. The surname Ongwen, in Acholi, means “born during the white ant season”.
“He would help clean the compound in the morning, take the goats to graze in the bush and later bring them back. A normal child who loved playing with other kids in the yard,” he told The Continent. He was helpful around his father’s house, respected his elders and aspired to become a priest. There was nothing in his behaviour then that suggested he would go on to commit horrific crimes.
Odongo testified to this in The Hague, in Ongwen’s defence. Like others who knew him as a boy, Odongo believes that Ongwen is as much a victim as he was a perpetrator — and that there are other ways to obtain justice, ones that rely on local customs and traditions rather than the mysterious rules of a Western-style courtroom in a foreign country many thousands of miles away.
An average student, Ongwen was just starting grade three at a nearby school when he was kidnapped by Kony’s newly-formed LRA. He was nine or ten years old, by most accounts. His elder brothers rushed home to tell the family. His mother was inconsolable. Neither parent saw their son again: his mother, Rosette Lalar, was killed shortly afterwards in another LRA attack, while his father, Paul Opobo, was killed three years later by Ugandan government forces, after being mistaken for a rebel.
The 1980s were a period of great political turbulence in Uganda, following the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. Even after the conclusion of the Bush War (1980-1986), which brought current president Yoweri Museveni to power, many defeated fighters fled to the north, where conflict and instability continued, including brutal reprisals from the government. It is against this backdrop that Kony, a former altar boy, formed the LRA. While initially formed to fight against the government, the LRA would turn against Kony’s own people — the Acholi — to “purify” them.
In the decades since, the LRA has become the most feared militia group in east Africa, operating in the border regions between Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). Kony is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the ICC, but unlike Ongwen, he’s still a free man.
Rising through the ranks
Along with Ongwen, the LRA kidnapped two other boys that day. Joe Kakanyero was one of them, and he recalls the terrifying forced march back to the LRA camp. “Sometimes we got sick and tired; we were beaten, but we survived. Ongwen was often beaten because he was not walking very fast,” Kakanyero told The Continent. He was a little older than Ongwen, and tried to look out for him.
At the LRA camp, in a story reminiscent of the Hollywood blockbuster Beast of No Nation, the young Ongwen was assigned to the household of Vincent Otti, who was then Kony’s deputy. It was from Otti, his “mentor”, that Ongwen learnt the ruthlessness that would one day set him apart. Otti would later be executed in mysterious circumstances, with some reports suggesting it was Kony himself who ordered his death.
The young boys kidnapped by the LRA were subjected to psychological and physical trauma designed to break their ties to the outside world. “The first thing they instruct you to do when they capture you is to kill your parents,” said Fred Obita, another survivor of an LRA abduction. “That was the first test to put that hatred in you and make you feel you now have nothing to lose in this world.”
Several qualities set Ongwen apart. One was his apparent dutifulness; the personality of the young boy destined to be a priest was perfectly suited to the LRA’s cult-like atmosphere. Another was his aptitude for combat. “Ongwen’s prowess on the battlefield was renowned within the LRA,” wrote Kjell Anderson, the author of a forthcoming biography of Ongwen, in The Conversation. “He was a courageous fighter and seen by many of his colleagues as a fair and adept commander.”
Moses Okello remembers Ongwen’s willingness to lead daring missions, unlike other abductees-turned-commanders who were captured at an older age. Okello was abducted by the LRA in the mid-1990s, and escaped eight years later. “Being captured at such a tender age, you can [be made to] do anything. I know he was a child soldier just like me and many others.”
But Ongwen’s rise through the ranks was also pragmatic, says Okello. Kony was running out of options. “By the time I escaped in 2004, he was just a junior commander. Many commanders defected, meaning those who remained were forced to assume top positions.”
By 2007, Ongwen’s importance to Kony became clear to the rest of the world. At a failed peace conference in Juba, in what is now South Sudan, Kony met with South Sudanese rebel leader (and now vice-president) Riek Machar. At Kony’s side, having just completed a punishing trek from northern Uganda into South Sudan via the eastern DRC, was Ongwen. “He was not seated, but was moving up and down. It appeared that he was checking the security of the venue. He was serious-looking, with a Rastafarian hairstyle,” said Alphonse Owiny-Dollo, the current chief justice of Uganda, who was there that day.
Escape and captivity
In 2005, prosecutors at the ICC charged Ongwen with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The United States offered a $5-million reward for information leading to his capture. But it was the breakdown of Ongwen’s relationship with the notoriously capricious Kony that eventually led him to The Hague. He escaped detention by Kony in 2014, and fled into the CAR where he was picked up by the Seleka, another rebel group, who alerted US special forces. An American helicopter was swiftly dispatched to collect Ongwen, who was transferred into Ugandan custody and then to The Hague.
The Seleka, unaware of the bounty on Ongwen, was never paid. After being captured, Ongwen spoke briefly to Ugandan media, describing what it was like to work for Kony. “He only wants to be the chief and for you to work for him like a slave, for him and his family. See, now even officers are made to carry his food and luggage.”
At his trial, the case for the prosecution was overwhelming. There was little dispute that Ongwen had committed the atrocities attributed to him, the brutality of which cannot be downplayed. As Human Rights Watch’s Elise Keppler recounted: “Girls and women had to choose between forced marriage to Ongwen and other LRA fighters, and death. They had no option but to leave babies in the bush so they could carry LRA loads. Abductees were forced to kill other abductees or be killed themselves. They walked barefoot through the bush and ‘shook with fear’ that they would be killed if they could no longer continue. Ongwen planned and executed attacks on camps for displaced people as Ugandan forces fled the scene. Civilians were shot, burned and beaten to death. Houses were set on fire and bodies were strewn across the camps.”
His defence rested not on his innocence, but on the argument that Ongwen was himself a victim.
In his opening statement in 2018, lead defence lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo, also from northern Uganda, said: “Children abducted by LRA, the accused inclusive, and used in the war in northern Uganda grew up in one of the most brutal environments, never before known to humanity, with little room for moral development that would enable him to later take independent decisions. Given the nature of the LRA and their modus operandi, we shall show that Dominic Ongwen’s presumed culpability is a sham.”
Last week, this line of defence was decisively rejected by the ICC’s judges, who found that Ongwen was a “fully responsible adult” who had chosen to remain in the LRA despite opportunities to leave.
The verdict will be appealed. But at home, not everyone is convinced that justice has been served.
“The mode of accountability you see in the ICC is alien to us. We cannot say because it has gone through the ICC, then it is a form of justice for us,” said Ambrose Oola, the prime minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi, a significant cultural institution in Acholiland, in an interview with the International Justice Monitor.
Oola said that the Acholi have their own traditions of delivering justice; traditions that may have been able to take Ongwen’s cognitive state into account, as well as his dual victim-perpetrator status.
Among the Acholi, Jok [Gods or divine spirits] and ancestors guide the moral order. If a wrong is committed, the Jok send misfortune and illness until appropriate actions are taken by elders and offenders. Both parties perform cleansing rituals, such as Mato-oput (“to drink the bitter root”, where a potion of herbs is consumed to symbolise the blood spilled and the bitterness of conflict); and Gomo tong (“the bending of the spears”, to mark the end of hostilities).
“It is a long, drawn-out tradition in Acholi that there are processes and practices to deal with such individuals. The element of stigmatisation is minimal, and nobody even remembers what they did while in the LRA,” said Oola. “The community has accepted worse people than Ongwen.”
This article first appeared on The Continent, the Mail & Guardian’s new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.