A survivor of a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP) described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) being shot at, being forced to loot, and seeing people’s homes being set on fire during that attack.
Robson Oper told the court he rolled on the ground as LRA fighters shot at him three times and missed. He said one of the LRA fighters then approached him and asked him, “Do I kill you?”
Oper said the fighters called him “Mzee Amuka.” He said this meant they thought he was a member of Amuka, a Ugandan government-backed militia that worked with the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) in the Lango region. He said they thought he was part of this militia by the way he rolled on the ground, evading their bullets. Mzee is a Kiswahili term of respect for an older man. When Abok was attacked Oper said he was 19 years old.
“I pleaded with them, ‘Please don’t kill me I will work with you. I am still young, I can work with you’,” said Oper. He said the fighter spared his life and that is when he was forced to loot for the LRA.
Oper testified on November 16 and November 17 in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Ongwen has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on Abok. Ongwen has also been charged for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps, namely, Lukodi, Pajule, and Odek. In total he faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On November 16, Oper answered questions from prosecutor Sanyu Ndagire and Francisco Cox, a lawyer representing one group of victims in the trial of Ongwen. Oper described what he saw during the attack on Abok and his time with the LRA in long, detailed answers. He also told the court how he escaped the LRA and the impact his experience with the group had on him. In the afternoon of November 16 and through November 17, Abigail Bridgman, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, cross-examined Oper.
Oper told the court Abok was attacked on June 8, 2004. He said between 5:00 and 6:00 pm that day LRA fighters were seen near the camp and the residents were informed to stay in their homes and remain quiet. He said the camp leaders informed the UPDF soldiers posted at Abok about the LRA fighters who had been seen near the camp. Oper said he heard the first gunshots that night between 8:00 and 9:00 pm.
He said as the gunfire intensified, he and his siblings moved from one house in their compound into another, and then his siblings ran away. He said he tried to follow them, but he could not because before the attack he had been injured on his foot and could not move fast. He said that is when he was shot at, survived, and then made to loot.
“I walked with them to the shops, and in the first shop we found merchandise. I used an axe that they gave me to break into the house. I had a rope around my waist. They were the ones who identified the things they wanted,” from the shop, said Oper.
After Oper’s first long answer, Ndagire asked him what things the LRA looted. He said they took cooking oil, biscuits, salt, some sweets, match boxes, and other edible items.
“When you were walking with the rebels and you went to the shop and used the axe, did you see huts burning in the camp?” asked Ndagire.
Oper said he did, and he saw LRA fighters, “torch one [house] and then go some distance and then torch another because the houses were close, and once one is burning the other houses would catch fire.” He told the court that most of the houses had grass-thatched roofs.
He said as he and the LRA fighters continued looting he was beaten after they got to the next shop.
“They beat me because I took them to a shop that had nothing,” said Oper.
He said he pleaded with them and the LRA fighters warned him, “If we don’t find merchandise in the next shop we will kill you because you think you are our father. You are deceiving us.”
“I said, ‘God please continue helping me because I am in a dangerous situation’,” Oper told the court.
Oper said he was next directed to take them to the UPDF barracks. He said when he got to what he considered a safe distance he pointed out the barracks to the LRA fighters. He said they told him to shout, ‘Maka maka,’ which he said means, catch them, catch them.
“I kept quiet and refused to shout because I had already told them this was the barracks. I did not want to be the first victim of the soldiers,” said Oper.
He said he then heard gunshots coming from behind the barracks, and he fell to the ground.
“When I fell down what I was able to see it was the rebels that started firing towards the barracks. The soldiers were firing towards the rebels. The bullets were cutting grass and the grass was falling on me,” said Oper.
Oper said after the exchange of gunfire the LRA fighters retreated from the barracks, and they then discussed what to do next. Oper said one of them said they should leave Abok because the UPDF could send reinforcements after hearing the gunfire and seeing the burning houses.
He said they left Abok carrying the looted goods and they crossed one stream and then another called Kulu Kweyo. Oper said as they moved he could hear gunfire behind them and at one point he heard a heavy vehicle and more gunfire.
Oper said at Kulu Kweyo he was shown some leaves and told that was his ‘luggage’ to carry. He said he saw someone with a bullet wound in one of his knees. Oper said he got the injured man to sit on his shoulders, “just like the way we carry children,” but he could not lift him up. He said one of the LRA fighters beat him on his buttocks with a gun, but he was still not able to lift the injured man.
Oper said he pleaded with the commander of the LRA group he was with to assign another person to help him carry the injured man. He said he did this despite abductees being told no one should speak or question the commander.
He said the first person, Charles Amodo, who was ordered to help him carry the injured person was too short and another person, Dennis Omara, then helped him.
“Me and Omara carried him for the whole night until daylight. We carried him for the whole day. And then the next day he got worse and then we left him there,” said Oper without explaining where exactly they left the injured man.
He told the court they eventually reached Atoo Hills, which, he said, he was told was the base of the Sinia group. He said the commander of the group he was with was called Okello Kalalang, and he heard Kalalang’s superior was called Dominic. Oper said he was trained how to dismantle and reassemble a gun but was not taught how to shot it because firing guns could reveal their position to the UPDF. He said his assignments were to raid places for food, and he went on three such raids before he escaped the LRA in November.
Bridgman questioned Oper about some of the details he testified about. Then she challenged him on parts of his testimony.
“Mr. Oper, what would you say if I told that there is a government report from August 2004 that appears to indicate you were already at home and not in the bush?” asked Bridgman.
“I was in the bush, and I returned. If there is any report that person knows how he wrote a report about me. I even don’t know the date that that report was made,” replied Oper.
Bridgman continued with this line of questioning and asked Oper about what other abductees had said about him.
“Mr. Witness, what if I told that some people have indicated that you returned the same night of your abduction and you did not go further in the bush or at least not for the duration that you said?” asked Bridgman.
“I went to the bush. I explained what happened in the bush. I do not know everyone who was abducted. Each person talks about what he or she thinks and knows,” answered Oper.
Bridgman then asked Oper about his testimony that he had been told Kalalang died during the time Oper was with the LRA in 2004.
“So Mr. Oper, what do you say to my proposition that Mr. Kalalang was alive and well until perhaps 2009, 2010?” asked Bridgman.
“This is my response to that. I was told that he was shot. That Kalalang and Ocan [another LRA commander] was shot. Perhaps he died, perhaps he did not die. The person who told me told me he died,” answered Oper.
Oper concluded his testimony on November 17. The next prosecution witness to testify, Charles Amodo, did so on November 20.
A transcript of Oper’s testimony on November 17 is available here.
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