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How I survived the LRA attack on the Pajule camp, by ICC witness

Journalists for Justice / 21 April 2017

 By Susan Kendi

Gunshots tore through the dawn quiet of Pajule Camp at around 5 am, and he opened the door to run but his uncle stopped him.

He had defected from the Lord’s Resistance Army a month and a half earlier after escaping from forcible conscription.

Sitting back on a black chair at the International Criminal Court, his face shielded and pixilated on the video screen, his voice distorted, Witness P-0379 tells the judges how he survived one of the most gruesome attacks for which former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen is on trial.

His uncle blocked the door with sacks to stop the LRA fighters from coming in, but the gunfire got so intense that he changed his mind, took them down and unsuccessfully tried to flee. Half an hour after the attack began, Witness P-0379 ran out of the house but returned because he did not know what to do. His aunt shouted at him, asking why he was sitting out in the compound instead of hiding inside. What if the bullets him? Squatting by the door, the witness saw two LRA fighters run past the house without noticing him.

Another LRA fighter followed them, dragging a girl. The fighter saw the witness and recognised him. He drew a gun and aimed it, threatening to shoot if he ran. The gun-wielding LRA fighter, Okello Tango, belonged to the same unit, the Oka battalion, as the witness.

The girl broke free from Okello Tango’s hold and ran off, momentarily distracting him, and that is when Witness P-0379 escaped.

It was a day after Uganda’s Independence Day, on October 10, 2003 when the Oka Battalion attacked Pajule.

In the bush, Okello Tango had many roles, among them providing patrol security, looking for food and going for ambushes as part of a standby force.

“He is still a young person, he is probably around 15 years. We are the same age with him,” Witness P-0379 says. “The last time I saw him was in the Pajule attack when he was coming towards me,” the witness tells the court.

As he was running, he encountered Ugandan army soldiers, who saw that he was unarmed and did not shoot. He ran past the soldiers towards a bush, where he found cut grass that he hid behind for a while.

By 8 am, helicopter gunships were pounding Pajule with gunfire and bombs, and the LRA fighters in the camp ordered all houses for the internally displaced persons burnt to shield them from the attack. Still, government soldiers arrived and drove the rebels out of the camp.

“The bush I hid in was close to my aunt’s house. I stayed in the bush for a while until the gunshots subsided.

“That day was strange,” Witness P-0379 recalls quietly. “You could hear crying from every corner. Some were abducted. Some people were killed. There were two people shot -- Achiro Agnes and another woman. Her home was close to our place. Those are the people I saw being shot dead. When walking, I saw a young boy. He had a ball gum in his hands but it had fallen down,” Witness P-0379 told the Court.

Achiro Agnes, he told the judges, was probably 14 years old whereas the boy who was shot was at most 13. Achiro was shot around her waist, near a sorghum garden, and the bullet exited her body around the groin area.

His brother and female cousin were among the abducted people.

Prosecutor Pubudu Sachithanandan asks Witness P-0379 how he concluded that Achiro Agnes was shot around the waist and not in any other part of her body.

“Where the bullet entered from, is a very tiny point,” the witness said. 

After the attack, people in the Pajule Camp walked towards the barracks to see the bodies of alleged LRA fighters. Government soldiers were restricting people and so Witness P-0379 opted to walk towards the market.

He told the court that he saw the helicopter gunship heading towards the barracks, and assumed that they were picking up bodies of the dead. Gates to the market were broken as were the shops.

Earlier, witness P-0379 told the court about the process defecting LRA fighters were put through by Uganda government soldiers. After questioning, the LRA returnees went to World Vision to fill out an amnesty form, which served as asking for forgiveness.

LRA returnees were then taken to Lira for two days to await the army car that would take them back home. The returnees were given some money for food by World Vision. At Lira, Witness P-0379 went to the centre and met a person he recognized who helped him and his colleagues to get to Pajule Camp.

Witness P-0379 is the second to testify on the life of LRA returnees from the bush, the assistance they received and the amnesty offer. Witness P-016 had told the court on January 26, 2017 that fighters fleeing from the LRA would receive a blanket, a hoe, a machete, two saucepans and 265,000 Uganda Shillings ($73). Additionally, the LRA returnees would receive an amnesty certificate and a form in which they would fill their personal information and where they had been.

Witness P-016, a former LRA signaler, said amnesty certificates were used as proof that a defector was no longer an LRA fighter.

Witness P-0379 has been assigned a lawyer, Sarah Kerwegi, to guide him in his testimony.

The ambush that the government soldiers laid for the LRA fighters which led to the shooting of Ongwen also came up in Witness P-0379’s testimony.

Witness P-330 had testified on how government soldiers laid an ambush for the LRA fighters, started firing at them, and they in turn returned fire. Ongwen was wounded in the gunfight.

Witness P-0379 concluded his Monday testimony by speaking about an ambush that the LRA had laid for government soldiers who were on patrol under the instructions of Kidega. The soldiers who entered the ambush were shot and the LRA fighters retrieved four guns. Dominic Ongwen had selected Kidega to take lead and report on guns and other items collected.

Witness P-0379 explained to the court on that after Ongwen was wounded, he was brought to the Gilva sickbay for “treatment”.

At the time, the witness and his colleagues were at the sickbay. He told the court that Ongwen was visited by so many people and that the sickbay would not always remain in a fixed location.

The people that visited Ongwen were some of LRA senior commanders: Tabuley, Buk (Abudema), Lagoga, Odhiambo among others.

 

The witness continues testifying on March 21, 2017.

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