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How reading letter on air got a radio station shut down in Uganda

Journalists for Justice / 07 November 2017

By Susan Kendi

A radio station was closed down for reading a letter that exposed a negative side of President Yoweri Museveni to the people of Uganda.

Witness P-0138 told judges at the International Criminal Court on Monday, October 30, 2017 that he was abducted in 1996 by Thomas Kwoyelo’s group and spent four years before being moved to Control Altar, the LRA headquarters which was under the command of deputy leader Vincent Otti.

Testifying with his face pixilated, voice distorted and using a pseudonym, the witness told the ICC judges that Lakati, an LRA brigadier, sent the letter that caused the closure of the radio station by the Ugandan government souring relationship between the LRA and civilians. He was testifying after the Dominic Ongwen trial resumed after a three-week break.

Lawyer Diana Ellis has been appointed to help him avoid incriminating himself. Witness P-0138 told Trial Chamber IX of the ICC that an arrow group militia composed of youth from Teso and Lira was established to fight against the LRA. Uganda government soldiers trained and armed to flush out the LRA from Teso.

“They were called the arrow groups not because they had arrows but they had guns,” Witness P-0138 explained to the court.

Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, said that the civilians had become stubborn as they were joining the army, homeguard groups and taking information to the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers and needed to be disciplined.

Here is an excerpt of the exchange between Prosecutor Colleen Gilg and Witness P-0138.

Gilg: Were you aware of an incident that a civilian reported on an LRA location?

Witness: The civilians would give reports when LRA passed them. For instance, in 1997 when a civilian had gone hunting in Palabek, he came across Kony’s weapons hidden somewhere; he went and reported.

 Gilg: What happened after the relationship with the civilians broke down in 2003?

Witness: Things were happening in Teso. Many times people were on the run. You would find one or two people, and they would be killed. This majorly happened to the male civilians.

Gilg: Why were civilians killed at the time?

Witness: The killings came as a response to the establishment of the arrow group. They (LRA) said all males were part of the arrow group and they should be killed.

Gilg: You said you were in Uganda when you first joined his (Otti’s) group; which area were you in?

Witness: Soroti.

Gilg: What is Soroti?

Witness: Soroti is a district in Teso region. We moved to Soroti, [then] we went to Wera and Amuria. Those were the areas we were moving when in Soroti.

Gilg: After how long was this when you were in Otti’s group?

Witness: That was around August 2003 when we were in Soroti.

Gilg: When moving in Soroti and Teso region were there any other LRA brigades?

Witness: Most of the LRA commanders in the LRA were in Soroti. There was Tabuley and other commanders. All brigades went to Soroti as the order came from Kony.

Gilg: Tell us the story of your abduction.

Witness: I attended school up to Primary 4, then I was abducted on April 14, 1996. At the time, the LRA activities were heightened; we would leave our homes and go to sleep in the bushes. The LRA maneuvered and found us sleeping in the bush. They abducted 10 of us, and they took three of us. Some of those abducted were released then the three of us were taken out of the lot. Two girls and myself. I was the only male in the lot … The one referred to as an old soldier was taken and shot … We were trained to become fighters. I was given a gun three months after that. We continued staying in the bush.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt: How old were you then?

Witness: At the time I was 14 years old.

Gilg: Mr Witness, I won’t ask who abducted you but who was the leader of the group?

Witness: The group was under Thomas Kwoyelo.

Gilg: What was the rank of Kwoyelo?

Witness: At the time Kwoyelo was a major. Kwoyelo’s group was known as Sickbay and was in charge of taking care of sick people.

Gilg: Was that in Uganda?

Witness: Yes, it is in Uganda.                                                                                                                                 

Gilg: How long did you stay in the Kwoyelo group?

Witness: I was in Kwoyelo’s group for approximately four years.

 Gilg: When with Kwoyelo, did you spend time in Sudan?

Witness: I went to Sudan afterwards, after I left Kwoyelo’s group.

Gilg: Was Kwoyelo the senior?

Witness: He was the senior commander in the Sickbay group but within the LRA, he was not the [highest] ranking person.

Gilg: Who was the most ranked person?

Witness: The most senior person in the LRA was Joseph Kony.

Gilg: Could you tell us how the LRA was organised?

Witness: The LRA had approximately five brigades. The fifth one was the headquarters. There was: Sinia Brigade, Stockree and Control Altar. Those are the ones I recall. The Sickbay is like a hospital and Kwoyelo was responsible for taking care of injured soldiers from other brigades.

Gilg: You said you spent four years with Kwoyelo; who was the commander who you were allocated to next?

Witness: I went to a commander known as Otti Vincent. He was in Control Altar.

Gilg: Mr Witness, are you familiar with a term “Operation Iron Fist”?

Witness: I am aware that it was the operation that expelled the LRA from Sudan.

Gilg: Where were you during Operation Iron Fist?

Witness: Operation Iron Fist was organised to chase the LRA from Sudan. They came back to Uganda, then I came and joined Otti’s group.

Gilg: Who was Vincent Otti? What was his role in the LRA?

Witness: Vincent Otti was the second in command. Kony would issue the orders to him, then he would issue them to the other brigades.        

Gilg: What is the name of Otti’s brigade?

Witness: Otti was under the Control Altar, which was the LRA headquarters.

The hearing then went into a private session, to which the media and the public do not have access before it resumed, with the prosecutor still questioning Witness P-0138.

Gilg: Moving to a different topic but in relation to your time in Soroti, were there new recruits?

Witness: Abductions were carried out. Children from 10 to about 17 years were abducted during the time.

Gilg: Who ordered the abductions?

Witness: Orders came from Kony to Otti, then Otti would relay (the information) to the brigades.

Gilg: Did you hear this orders with your own ears?

Witness: Yes, I heard via a radio call many times from Otti.

Gilg: What was the age of the youngest person you saw (among the abductees)?

Witness: The youngest person was about 11 years old

Gilg: Was this order to abduct children from 10 to 17 years a new order?

Witness: When I was abducted, this was a standing order. I am one of the people abducted pursuant to the order.

Gilg: What role did these people abducted play?

Witness: Most were used as trainees. They were taught to become fighters but from the outset, they helped to carry smaller [pieces of] luggage. After three to four months after assessing that you could not escape, you would be armed. If that did not happen, you would be trained in Sudan for about one or two years then sent to Uganda to fight.

Gilg: What did you understand as the role of the LRA? Why were they abducting people and training them to be soldiers?

Witness: Children were easier to be trained. When they were abducted, they would be forced to kill. The LRA would then threaten you that Cen would follow them. Being a child you have never killed. You have never seen a dead body so you become scared.

Gilg: Were orders issued daily or monthly?

Witness: Orders were issued regularly. There is no specific time when orders were issued.

Gilg: How do the LRA issue its orders?

Witness: Orders that were issued include attacking several places such as Pajule and a sub county which was in Lira. They also attacked Adilang. So when you go on an attack, the attacks relate to killing and abducting civilians. During an attack, they split people into two groups. Some people would go to the barracks, the others in the civilians’ settlements.

Gilg: Why were those places selected for the attacks?

Witness: Sometimes, if there are not so many [fighters] and they could defeat the soldiers, the LRA would send their soldiers there.

Gilg: If you wanted to get food in the LRA, where could you go?

Witness: Most times we would pillage food from camps. When we go to pillage a camp that means they (LRA fighters) have to fight the UPDF soldiers. There is crossfire and that is what aggravates people being killed and houses being burnt. He (Kony) said that a barrack should not be close to any civilian settlement so those settlements that lay close were attacked as the LRA pillaged food. They would not collect the food; they would pillage the food.

Gilg: What types of people were abducted? Men or women?

Witness: The LRA would abduct boys as well as girls. If you are 10 to 17 years, you would be abducted.

Gilg: What role did girls play in the LRA?

Witness: Most the girls abducted by the LRA were distributed to the different brigades then after six months they would be given to husbands. Nobody was allowed to abduct their own wives, nobody was allowed to select their own husbands. Most times in the LRA, the girls would be kept for about six months to “get used” to the LRA and for them to determine that they do not have any illness. If the person had any illness, in seven months or a year, it could be detected. If the girls had been there for a certain period, orders would be made on their distribution. The decision on who a girl would be distributed to was made in consideration of how long the person had been in the LRA. They (LRA) take the girl then give her out. There is no courtship. The order can come from the brigade commander, not necessarily Kony. Secondly, if one felt they needed a wife they stated their case to the brigade commander then the commander would decide.

Gilg: Could a girl refuse to marry the man selected to be her husband?

Witness: No, there is no way you can refuse when you are in the LRA. If you are given to any man either old or young, you have to go. The commander can decide any time that he needs a girl and he would take the ones he preferred then the leftover girls be distributed to the rest in the group.

Gilg: What would happen if a girl refused?

Witness: That is a rule. If you refuse to go to a particular husband it means you don’t want to live. You would be killed immediately. If you want to live you go to the particular man.

Gilg: How do you know this?

Witness: There were two girls we were abducted with and they were distributed. One was 13, the other one was 12.They were given to husband.s I personally experienced this, no one told me. Most times the girls were scared if they (LRA commanders) issued any orders, you decided to obey. 

Gilg: When did you see abducted girls and women; and tell us what happened to them?

Witness: I saw them when I was newly abducted in Te Kilak, when they killed the girl. They (LRA fighters) collected a number of female recruits and asked them to kill her.

Gilg: Did you see any girl or women abducted in Teso?

Witness: In Teso, I saw girls abducted. There was a commander known as Tabuley. He abducted girls from a school. Sometimes they (the LRA) would abduct one, two or three girls and this happened in most of the brigades.

Gilg: You said that Dominic Ongwen was selected to go and fight in Pajule. Did you see him with your own eyes?

Witness: I saw him personally with my own eyes. The brigades that went to Pajule were Sinia and he was part of the brigade. People that were abducted were put in different groups. Each battalion abducts their own people to help them carry food. When they get to a place where they want to release abductees, they select those that they want and let go those that they do not want. The youngest people abducted from Pajule were 11, 12 and 17 years old. Those are the ones I saw and the ones that LRA took to the bush. When the abductees were coming to the place we were encamped at, the LRA fighters did not address them as they were being pursued by UPDF gunships and the LRA were using G3 guns to shoot back.

Civilians were addressed the next day by Otti, Raska Lukwiya and other commanders who showed them the weapons that they had seized.

Gilg: You said that Rwot Oywak was also abducted. What happened to him?

Witness: When people were being addressed, Otti was explaining the strength of the LRA by showing Rwot Oywak and the rest of the abductees the guns they managed to seize from the UPDF. This served as a proof that there was no protection offered by the UPDF and moving to the camps did not help, as they were still able to take weapons from the UPDF. I did not hear them discussing in depth with Rwot Oywak. I heard Otti explaining what happened in Pajule. Approximately 200 to 300 people were abducted.

Witness P-0138 continued his testimony on Tuesday, October 31, 2017.

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