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Life on the ledge: Witness tells ICC about his experience with the LRA

Judges in the Dominic Ongwen trial enter the courtroom at the ICC / 27 March 2017

 

By Susan Kendi

Beans, mutton and chicken was for the commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army; the rest of the fighters boiled and ate maize. In extreme times, each LRA fighter would look for his own means and feed on whatever was edible.

“You come across sorghum, you boil it, eat and drink water since there was nothing else,” Witness P-0379 told judges at the International Criminal Court in continuing testimony at the trial of former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen.

Not every LRA fighter had a tent. Only the senior commanders, some foot soldiers and new recruits had tents. Those without tents would lie in the open in the night, enduring the wetness whenever it rained.

The commanders had portable beds with one-inch mattresses while some foot soldiers had polythene bags they bedded down on.

At around midday or 1 pm LRA fighters would come together to cook. In the evening before bedtime they were put in positions where food was being cooked.

“When you eat twice a day, you are not being pursued by helicopter gunships and there is enough food. If there is pursuit, you eat one meal before bed,” the witness told the court.

Before abduction the witness had never killed anyone. As soon as he said that, the court went into a private session.

Earlier, Witness P-0379 told judges Bertram Schmitt (presiding), Peter Kovacs and Raul Pangalangan of the ICC’s Trial Chamber IX about his participation in a World Vision programme for returnees after escaping from the LRA.

At the World Vision, a bell would ring at around 8am for prayers, followed by a breakfast of tea or porridge. In the evening, prayers would be held until 7 pm and dinner thereafter until 9pm.

Whenever new LRA returnees came to the centre, the program participants would gather around to welcome them.

The witness said participation in the World Vision program helped him to cope with what had happened when he was in the LRA. Prayer sessions at World Vision distracted his mind from thinking of the nasty experiences in the bush and he had fewer problems.

After leaving the World Vision, he went home where he was warmly received and questioned about other people alleged to be in the bush.

Witness P-0379 told the court that he felt safer while at World Vision because after getting home, he experienced attacks from cen (spirits).

Francisco Cox, a lawyer representing the first set of victims participating in the case, cross-examined Witness P-0379 on his understanding of cen.

“The way I found out sometime ago, when you are asleep … you feel like there is someone like you, strangling you. You feel helpless … you cannot call for help. If you feel you are shouting that’s when you wake up and feel strong again.”

He told his mother about the dreams and she advised him that the attacks from cen recurred since he was not praying. Once he started praying, the attacks stopped.

Witness P-0379 told judges that after the attack on Pajule Camp, nobody had time to cultivate crops and relief food was distributed. At Pajule, life was immeasurably difficult after the attack by the LRA. For instance, food items were distributed in March; the following month, there was no distribution.

Humanitarian workers would allocate food in relation to the number of people in a household. If there were an extra person, she or he would have to fend for himself or herself, or go without food. The witness’ aunt had extra people to feed and this created many problems.

The food items were inadequate to support the people living in the camp since they were all that they had. When the ration distributed was exhausted, one would be forced to find other means of survival.

There was congestion in the Pajule IDP camp, which led to hygiene and sanitation diseases.

If one’s house was burnt down during the Pajule attack, it was hard to find materials to rebuild since people were not allowed to travel for long distances.

“You could not move more than a kilometre because sometimes the soldiers would look at you as a rebel. They would look at you as a rebel collaborator. They would beat you badly or shoot you. If they shot you, they would say they thought you were a rebel.”

If one encountered the LRA fighters, one could be abducted or killed. Abduction by the LRA was a dream killer for most children. For some, it was almost impossible to recollect and re-join the broken pieces of their lives.

Witness P-0379 told the judges that he was abducted while in “Primary Seven”, the seventh year of elementary school. Uganda’s education system has seven years of elementary school, six years of secondary education and three to five years of post-secondary education. Primary education marks the end of junior school.

The witness told Jane Adong, one of the lawyers representing the second group of victims, that before his abduction, he dreamt of studying and joining a training college so that he would become a secondary school teacher.

“The way it is now, it’s not possible because a lot has happened and I am overwhelmed. I have children. I have siblings and if I’m not there to help them, they will not be able to go to school. I am struggling to give them a good future because I failed …

“On my part now, there is nothing I can do to fulfil the dreams I had in my past. Where I stand now, it is not possible to go back to school,” Witness P-0379 told the court.

He is now a farmer and also buys and sells foodstuff within the community. He is the family breadwinner for his mother, children and siblings. He lives with his mother after his father died.

Witness P-037 explained the traditional Acholi family set-up: An uncle in Acholi family structure would either be the brother to his mother or a child of his uncle’s. That would be a person who loves you so much since on visiting an uncle, he would give you a chicken and when you are experiencing problems he would advise you.

An aunt is your father’s sister, someone close to you and loves you as much as your uncle.

The witness explained about the rituals performed when one dies in the present-day Acholi tradition. If a person dies in the hospital after a short illness, neighbours come together, collect some money, buy a coffin and transport the body home.

Some people are selected to dig a grave, as a tent is put up for people to sit in. A service is held as part of the funeral.

If the deceased is Catholic, the catechist is brought. During the ceremony, offertory is collected to assist the bereaved family.

Witness P-0379 told the judges that there were no funeral ceremonies performed in the bush after an LRA fighter died.

At the conclusion of the hearing in the Ongwen trial on Tuesday, Witness P-0379 revisited his Monday testimony on Okello and said that he was certain if re-abducted the LRA would have eventually kill him.

“I knew I was going to die. I would rather he shot me than abduct me,” he told the court.

Ongwen’s lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, cross-examined the witness on his abduction and education. He said he was abducted in August 2002 while he was in Class Seven.

He stayed in the bush for eight months before escaping to return home. Following his escape from the LRA, the witness retook his Class 7 examination, which marked an end to primary level education and junior school in Uganda.

The hearing takes a break due some Court traditions that will be taking place in the Courtroom and resumes on Monday, March 27, 2017 with the cross examination of Witness P-0379.

 

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