By Susan Kendi
Rwot Oywak sits back on a black chair, his white shirt glistening in the fluorescence, black suit and a tie fitting neatly, spectacles on his nose and is introduced as Witness P-0009.
He is testifying for the prosecution in the crimes against humanity trial against Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The dark-skinned, clean-shaven man begins by explaining that a rwot is an Acholi chief who works for his people, listens to their problems, mediates between various parties and ensures there is peace in the community.
“During the insurgency in our land we (traditional leaders) rose up and came openly to our people to ensure that conflict in Acholi-land is resolved peacefully. We advised the two warring parties to try to come around in a round table and solve the issues,” Rwot Oywak said.
As clan chief, he was involved in the peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government. The chiefs received a letter addressed to the president requesting peace talks.
The chiefs went to the bush four times, twice to pick up a letter written by deputy LRA Commander Otti Vincent, and twice to deliver Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s responses.
Following Otti’s letter, Museveni asked the LRA to choose a location convenient to them for the peace talks. Talks were held in the years 2000 and 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2008. Rwot Oywak said in 2003/2004 there was a peace talk meeting held at Koyo Lalogi and in 2007/2008 there was another held at Sudan.
Peace talks were held in Juba, Garamba, and Palabek among other places. Betty Bigombe, the Minister for Northern Ugandan, was the lead person in the Palabek peace talks and worked hard at it. She contacted Joseph Kony a number of times to find out if the conflict would be resolved.
During one of the peace talks, the Acholi leaders gave the LRA items that they had bought, which the fighters at first rejected but eventually accepted them.
Rwot Oywak is the second witness testifying without any in-court protection measures, after the first witness on the stand, Professor Tim Allen of the London School of Economics. He testified as an expert witness laying a foundation by giving an account of pre-colonial and post-colonial history of Uganda and the spiritual forces that played part in the LRA conflict.
Oywak described Ongwen’s attitude during the peace talks at Pabalek: “I think Ongwen was mischievous. He started saying things like, ‘These chiefs are being used and we should kill them’. An LRA commander, known as Sam Kolo, asked Ongwen to stop scaring the Acholi leaders. Ongwen complained that his education had been interrupted. Rwot Oywak told him to stop threatening the elders since it was [the LRA] that invited the elders there and that they were scaring people. The elders were trembling.
In 2006, when the Acholi leaders and the LRA met in Garamba for peace talks mediated by the autonomous government of South Sudan, Ongwen made threats to the Acholi chiefs. He felt that the talks were useless, and said he wanted to kill civilians and overthrow the government.
Garamba, Ri-Kwangba and Koyo are some of the locations where the 50 Acholi chiefs and the LRA met for talks. The Garamba peace talks were smooth, the mediators and religious leaders listened and advised that they should stop the war.
Oywak told the court how he suffered two injuries, one on his arm and the other on his leg, during the peace process. As the Acholi leaders were approaching Koyo Lalogi, the Ugandan government soldiers fired at them and he was injured in the leg while another person broke his leg. The UPDF soldiers’ apologized, saying that they were unaware of the agreement on the peace negotiation since the radio was down and there was a miscommunication.
The second time he suffered an arm injury was after a peace meeting when LRA fighters ambushed a delegation as they were trying to create a road, killing some Ugandan government soldiers. He was taken to Lira, then Kampala so that the bullet could be removed.
Rwot Oywak added that he suffered another injury during the attack at Pajule on October 10, 2003.
“Having been shot by both sides, I was frightened. When the battle was less, we continued. Initially I was afraid to go meet with them but as a leader there is something you cannot avoid. If you don’t keep with the process you start to look weak,” Rwot Oywak told the ICC.
Rwot Oywak told Prosecutor Benjamin Gumpert that when the Acholi leaders were in discussion with the LRA, Kony agreed that photographs be taken, food was shared and the LRA allowed the leaders to stay with them.
The prosecution presented 242 photographs that were taken at Garamba by Witness P-0009. Defence lawyer Charles Taku proposed to file the photographs they would use but Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt stated that there was no reason for further filing.
Photographs taken during the peace talks were presented in court. The witness identified the people in the photograph as himself, the Acholi paramount chief, the LRA spokesman, and Ongwen, among others.
Rwot Oywak told the ICC that a helicopter came with newspapers for the people in the bush to bring them up to date with what was happening in Uganda.
Earlier in the day, Rwot Oywak told the court that in the year 2000, he had moved to his home at the Pajule trading centre.
“I left my home to go to Pajule because there was conflict occasioned by the LRA war. In the village, children could not go to school and there were no occurrences of epidemics but when we came to the camp, there was a lot of problems, hunger, diseases, having to move about looking for food.
“There was no freedom to take our children to school since we were not allowed to move out of the camp from about 5 pm since it was feared we could be abducted. Malaria attacks heightened during the time we lived in the camps,” Rwot Oywak told the court.
The witness said that it was the government that issued instructions that people were to leave their homes and go to the camps to be protected. The government would monitor and protect how the civilians lived.
The government established forces known as home guards that assisted to give directions to the soldiers on how to work well and also put in place a local government structure that was a contact between Acholi leaders and the people.
When the issues arose in the camp, they would be reported to the leaders selected by the government (LCs) then if it is a sensitive or serious matter arose, it was forwarded to the provisional commander (PC) and then to the upper echelons of the government system.
If a person was caught in error, he would be summoned to a roundtable to address the issue.
The LRA wrote letters and left them on tree trunks warning people that if they did not leave the camps, they would come for them. Whenever they abducted civilians, the Acholi leaders knew that they had to go to Koyo. The LRA would sometimes abduct people and send instructions through the same people.
The LRA commanders were asking people to leave the camps for the villages since when the civilians were in the camps they would not access food.
Additionally they alleged that people living in the camp were on the government’s side.
Gumpert questioned Oywak on the time he woke up on October 10, 2003.
“I went to bed in my house. On the dawn of October 10, at approximately 4 to 6 am, we heard loud gunshots. People were yelling, screaming and running. I heard the door being kicked. I told them that I am the chief and enquired what the problem was? They were speaking in the Luo language as they beat me with the butt of the gun … My neighbour had also been abducted,” the witness said.
Seven male LRA fighters came to Rwot Oywak’s house and took him to the road where they gave him a 60 kg bag of rice and left. He walked, hunched over and fell down. They lifted the rice and put it back on his shoulders.
The fighters were perhaps 12 years to 15 years old, with the youngest holding the gun.
They abducted women, men from 12years to 50 years, some of whom carried flour, chicken, goats and whatever else the fighters found in one’s house. Some women left their children behind.
The LRA and their abductees got to the main road and started walking through Kitgum road and got to the Mvule tree where they found a lot of commanders under Ongwen.
They kicked and beat the abductees. There was nothing one could say, people were fighting and brought items.
Ongwen had a stick in one hand, a radio, a gun, and an escort on the side. He was a tall, stocky person with lots of hair and walked with a limp.
The escorts would refer to Ongwen as Lapwony Dominic. They would not call him by name whenever they brought a person. Upon bringing an abductee, the LRA fighters would leave and continue with their work.
When the witness was brought to Ongwen, he was struggling with a load. He was kicked and, beaten with the butt of a gun and then prodded with it. Ongwen held a long stick that was sort of shattered since it had been used to beat a lot of people.
He ordered the LRA fighters in Pajule camp to abduct people, loot items, burn items and fire guns.
Ongwen told the abductees that they would be killed for supporting the government.
As the abductees were on the move, they found some bodies of people who had bled to death. People were walking in groups and one would not stop to ascertain who it was since one was beaten and prohibited to ask questions.
The first time the witness met Ongwen was in an official capacity when the LRA and Acholi leaders were having peace talks. The second instance was during the Pajule attack on October 10, 2003.
Judge Betram Schmitt read out the witness statement recorded in 2015 for clarification.
“I met him (Ongwen). There was a place in my statement I said that I met him at Koyo Lalogi,” Rwot Oywak told the trial chamber IX of the ICC.
The LRA and abductees walked towards Latanya about six to eight miles. The witness told the court that the hill would be on the eastern side in an area known as Ogago.
The helicopter was bombing the LRA and the abductees. They wanted the helicopter to see the civilians and leave the LRA. The abductees got to a place where there was Otti and Raska Lukwiya.
Upon arrival at Latanya, the abductees were gathered together.
“You people of Pajule said that you are strong. We will kill all of you,” Otti said to the abductees.
Otti said that the LRA had sent information to the civilians for them to leave the camps but they did not and that signified that they supported the government.
On getting there, Ongwen started discussing with Otti. Otti introduced himself and addressed the abductees asking, “You thought we would not come to you, haven’t we not come? We will kill of you.”
The looted goods from Pajule camp were distributed to several people. The abductees were about 400 and were more than the LRA fighters.
Otti asked Witness P-0009 “Aren’t you the chief?” and he responded in the affirmative. Otti turned around and continued to address the abductees.
“We the LRA are fighting to overthrow the government at the moment you are supporting the UPDF.”
Rwot Oywak asked Otti why he wanted to kill the abductees whereas they have done nothing wrong and were in their homes sleeping.
At Latanya, Otti discussed with Ongwen and agreed that all the people were to be killed but he later on reconsidered the decision.
They made Oywak stand up and told him that in the bush they do not kill chiefs since they cannot compensate the life of a chief, and the rest of the abductees were lucky as they would be dead by now.
The abductees sat down as Otti introduced his commanders. All the commanders kept talking and arguing with their backs turned on the people.
“In Acholi, we do not kill a chief. Right now it is daylight. We can release a number of people. We will pray for you so that you could get home safe. A lot of them (abductees) were left behind,” Rwot Oywak told the three-panel judge hearing the case.
A confidential document, a hand -rawn map the witness had presented was shown on the screen in court.
“I can see the diagram is the shape of an egg, the word Pajule and Lapool Sub-County, between them two roads. Kitgum on the left hand and Lira on the right hand,” Prosecutor Gumpert said told Oywak.
The witness explained that the upper part of the map was marked as Pajule since it is an independent sub-county and the lower side is Lapool. He also said that the place marked Rwot was his home and the semi circles showed shops on the lower side and in Pajule shops on the roadside.
Paolina Massidda, the Principal Counsel for victims, questioned the witness on the effect that the Pajule attack had on his family.
“It was traumatic. They ruined our houses. I have become weak. I have no relative,” Witness P-0009 told the court. People in Pajule lost their loved ones.
Rwot Oywak will continue testifying.