Florence Ayot was nine when she was abducted from her home in Uganda’s vast and arid north. That was in 1989. She would spend 15 years with the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), trekking through the seemingly endless bush. In 2004, she managed to escape.
“I feel bad that I was abducted,” she says. She is sitting next to a charcoal fire and a tin cooking pot in her hut of clay and reeds in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu.
“I wasted my time and came back with injuries. I have a bomb splinter in my head and a bullet in my leg.”
A lump can be felt in her right calf.
The story of Ayot is acknowledged by Ugandan authorities who interrogated her when she returned. She lives among other returnees in a settlement called Holy Rosary, a cluster of round huts that in the language of Ayot’s ethnic Acholi group are called otlum (thatched house). Sometimes she earns a bit of money by fetching and selling water and the maize that grows next to her house.
In 1994, Ayot was assigned as a wife to one of the LRA combatants. He died in 1996. Then, she says, she was given to a senior commander. In October 2004, Ayot’s child by her first “marriage”, called Back to God, was killed during a bombardment by the Ugandan army. One of the senior commander’s other wives was also killed, by a grenade. That was when Ayot decided to flee. She was carrying an unborn baby fathered by her second rebel “husband”.
Charges of war crimes
The senior commander Ayot speaks about is Dominic Ongwen, who, on January 26, became the first of the LRA commanders to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague where he faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the people of northern Uganda.
Florence Ayot (above), was abducted by the LRA as a child and ‘assigned’ to be Ongwen’s wife. (Mark Schenkel)
Despite her abduction and hardship, Ayot pleads for Ongwen to be forgiven. He was taken by the LRA as a child, at “a tender age”, just like her and thousands of others.
“What else could Ongwen do but to follow the orders and kill?” Ayot asks.
Abductees who refused or tried to flee risked being killed themselves.
What’s more, Ayot says, thousands of LRA members who did manage to return received amnesty, including her. Ongwen “treated me well” and even allowed her to escape, she says, but he is the only one to face trial.
“If Dominic would come back, he and I could join hands and raise our two children,” she says.
Justice or reconciliation?
Ayot’s emphatic plea to pardon Ongwen illustrates the recent rekindling of Uganda’s lingering debate and questions about what constitutes the best approach towards one of the oldest and one of the most notorious armed groups in Africa: justice or reconciliation? Should the people of the LRA be prosecuted or forgiven? Or is a combination of the two feasible?
Agnes Ocitti (34) wants to see Ongwen tried. She and 138 other girls were abducted in October 1996 from the Catholic St Mary’s School in Aboke village. Pope John Paul II called on the LRA to release the girls, thereby drawing international attention to the LRA conflict.
In the hands of the LRA, the then 14-year-old Ocitti was forced to use logs to beat to death a younger girl who had tried to escape.
After three months, Ocitti managed to run away from the group during turmoil caused by an attacking Ugandan army helicopter. Her experience in the bush inspired her to study law. She completed an internship at the ICC and now works as a legal expert in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. “I ended up with the LRA the same way Dominic Ongwen did, through abduction. The difference is that he then went overboard. Even a child has something of a moral conscience; I also know that of my own son of 10. But Ongwen rose through the ranks, which says something about the crimes he committed,” Ocitti says.
She also believes that, as a commander, Ongwen could have created circumstances under which he could have escaped from the bush much sooner, if he had wanted to.
“Now, let them try him,” Ocitti says.
The LRA originated in the late 1980s when a former altar boy with alleged spiritual powers, Joseph Kony, assembled an armed group to fight against the government of President Yoweri Museveni, who himself had fought his way to power in 1986 and had toppled a junta leader who belonged to the same ethnic Acholi group as Kony.
The self-declared liberation movement soon turned into a militia that terrorised the very Acholi people whose interests it said it represented, as well as other people.
Years of mayhem ensued in the heart of Africa.
The United Nations estimates that the LRA has killed more than 100 000 people, abducted more than 60 000 and displaced about 2.5-million. The combatants have been known to cut off the ears, noses and lips of their victims and to hack and smash people to death with machetes, stones and clubs. Girls have been made sex slaves and children have been forced to kill their parents.
About 10 years ago, the Ugandan army pushed the LRA across the border into southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC and the Central African Republic (CAR). Today, an estimated 200 militia members are left roaming in the wilderness.
Ongwen, who commanded the LRA’s Sinia Brigade, surrendered in early January in the CAR after more than a quarter of a century in the bush and was transferred to The Hague. During his pre-trial hearing, he said he was abducted in 1988 when he was 14 years old.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, wants him jailed for a massacre in a displacement camp called Lukodi in northern Uganda in May 2004, at which time Ongwen was an adult.
The government of Uganda referred the matter of the LRA to the court in 2003 and, in 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants against Ongwen and four other top LRA commanders, including Kony, who remains at large. The other three commanders are presumed dead.
Referring to Ongwen’s background as a young abductee-turned-killer, Denis Otim, of the Ugandan human rights organisation Refugee Law Project, asks: “When does a victim become a perpetrator?”
It is a dilemma that will probably attract attention during further proceedings at the ICC.
In 2012, in its first conviction, the court handed down a 14-year jail sentence to the former Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for recruiting child soldiers, the fate of Ongwen. Human rights organisations that call for prosecution instead of forgiveness for the most serious crimes, such as Human Rights Watch, say that Ongwen’s abduction should be a mitigating factor during his trial.
But many Acholi don’t want Ongwen prosecuted at all. The thought behind the often-voiced pleas for reconciliation and forgiveness in northern Uganda is that the LRA chapter can only be properly closed by bringing the remaining abductees home and by mutual understanding.
They argue that the perpetrators and victims are often from the same Acholi community. Victims often became perpetrators themselves. The forced killings were meant to break abductees’ resistance and to implicate them.
Ayot also argues that Ongwen was abducted by the LRA only because Uganda’s government “failed to protect him”. That, she says, surely wasn’t his fault.
“The president should not take Dominic to the ICC because a president is like a father and it is not fair for a father to try his son,” she says.
The only one who should be tried, according to Ayot and other Acholi, is the LRA’s top commander and founder, Kony.
Suspicion of Museveni’s government is not uncommon in Uganda’s north. Many Acholi accuse the government forces of crimes against innocent citizens during the fight against the LRA. There has been no accountability for that, so who is the government to support the prosecution of Ongwen, many locals ask.
Ultimately, these sentiments reflect the historical divide in Uganda between the Luo/Nilotic communities north of the Nile and the Bantu communities south of the river. The south was favoured by the British colonialists and the north has remained relatively underdeveloped.
In 2000, the Museveni government passed the Amnesty Act for LRA members, whether they had joined the rebellion willingly or unwillingly, who had renounced violence.
The Act is meant to lure LRA members from the bush, although the reconciliatory approach went hand in hand with military action, a carrot-and- stick approach.
About 13 000 former rebels received amnesty, including Ayot, who proudly shows her certificate, a laminated document dated April 27 2005. The amnesty doesn’t apply to Ongwen because he is in The Hague.
A Ugandan journalist in Gulu says there are Acholi who want LRA rebels prosecuted but they won’t say so because they don’t dare to question the Acholi religious, cultural and political leaders, who push for reconciliation.
“In Uganda you don’t easily go against the elders,” says the journalist, “especially not as a woman or a child, many of whom were victimised by the LRA.”
Nelson Onono-Onweng, the retired bishop of the Anglican Church in Gulu, maintains that forgiveness is the way forward. He was involved in peace talks with the LRA a decade ago. In his office, he still keeps a framed picture of himself in his purple cassock seated next to Ongwen and other rebels wearing camouflage outfits. It was taken somewhere in the bush.
Onono-Onweng says the LRA conflict moved beyond Uganda’s borders many years ago, and calls for everyone to move on instead of calling for vengeance and tearing open old wounds.
“Let life flow, my friend,” says Onono-Onweng, while he swings his arms in the air. “Look at the Nile – when its water hits a rock, it always flows on in a new direction.”
Paul Omach favours reconciliation and forgiveness not so much out of conviction but as a pragmatic way of ending the traumatising LRA conflict.
Omach lectures in political sciences at Makerere University in Kampala. He is also Acholi.
He says: “More than 10 years ago, people in northern Uganda were desperate – don’t forget that. More than anything else, people wanted an end to the violence and a return of the abducted.
“That doesn’t mean people didn’t want justice; people were just being practical. The movement for amnesty and reconciliation was seen as an alternative to the military strategy that had not yet entirely worked.”
But Omach wants Ongwen to be tried. “We should really not let people get away too easily,” he says. “Ongwen committed horrible crimes.”
Omach says Ongwen could still undergo a traditional cleansing ritual in northern Uganda after serving time in the Netherlands.
Others argue that if Ongwen is to be prosecuted then let him face judges in Uganda. After all, he is wanted for crimes committed in Uganda.
His trial could take place in the international crimes division of the high court in Uganda, which was established in 2011 to enable Uganda to deal with the most serious crimes itself. Uganda could still request the ICC to transfer Ongwen’s case.
But the Ugandan government said recently that an international court should try Ongwen because the LRA also committed atrocities outside Uganda.
A European diplomat in Kampala claims that the Museveni government wants to avoid Ongwen standing trial in Uganda because he might qualify for amnesty under the Amnesty Act.
The state’s only attempted case so far against a former LRA rebel has failed to take place because of a similar issue. In 2011, Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruled that Thomas Kwoyelo, a mid-level commander who was captured in 2009 in the DRC, is entitled to amnesty. The state has appealed to the Supreme Court, and is contesting the constitutionality of the Act itself. The court has yet to rule on the matter.
In the village where Ongwen was born, legal arguments seem distant. Here, Ongwen’s fate is a matter close to everyone’s heart. His relatives want him to be pardoned and to return home.
During his first appearance at the ICC, Ongwen declared that he was born in 1975 in Coorom, although a family in another village in northern Uganda claims Ongwen is their relative.
But local authorities believe that the family must be mistaken.
“After all those years, parents don’t know whether their child is still alive or where their child is,” says a civil servant in Gulu, who works with returnees and asked not to be named. “People don’t have pictures or birth certificates. Memories get distorted, people create their own truths. Everybody wants their child to be alive, so when someone comes out, like Ongwen, people assume it is their child. This illustrates the tragedy of the missing children in northern Uganda.”
The ride by car from Gulu to the village of Coorom takes an hour on gravel roads, fringed by tall grass, tinged by the red dust whirling up into the air, with a copper colour.
Coorom turns out to be a homestead of 10 mud huts. Goats forage and fowls scratch the dry earth under a blazing sun.
“Dominic is from here, yes,” says Madelena Akot, sitting in the shadow of one of the huts.
She says she was one of Ongwen’s father’s wives.
“I remember Dominic as a little boy. He used to be hard-working. And shy – he never talked much.”
She says his father and mother were killed the day after he was abducted. “The rebels attacked us and stoned the mother to death with bricks.”
She says Ongwen should be pardoned. “He was still very young when he was taken.”
Akot wishes she could embrace him again. She just wants to forget the entire conflict.