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Ongwen planned to escape from the LRA, witness tells ICC

Gulu residents in northern Uganda follow proceedings of the trial of Dominic Ongwen through live webtreaming / 26 January 2017

By Susan Kendi

Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen was always planning to escape from the war and return home, a witness told judges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

“An escapee, Ocaya Luwum, had said Ongwen was always planning to escape from the LRA. I also heard Ongwen discussing with Ocan Labongo about someone whose attempted escape they had heard on Mega Radio,” the witness, a former LRA radio operator, told the court.

In intercepted radio communication, LRA boss Joseph Kony is heard ordering Ongwen to take all the soldiers, go to Pageya, and kill all of them [those escaping].

The witness, who was testifying under a protected identity – with face pixilation and voice distortion to avoid being recognized by the accused and others in court – identified the voices of LRA commanders on intercepted radio communication reviewed alongside transcripts in Acholi with English translation.

P-016, as the witness is known in court, is said to have returned home 12 years ago.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the attacks on Lukodi (May 2004), Pajule (October 2003), Abok (June 2004) and Odek (April 2004) camps in northern Uganda. He is the only LRA commander on trial, even though the ICC issued warrants of arrest again him, Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Rukwiya and Okot Odhiambo

In one radio intercept, Kony, who was code-named Zero Bravo, and Abudema Oringa Sisto are heard talking about what people were saying about civilian conditions on the British Broadcasting Corporation radio. Abudema suggests that all civilians should be killed but Kony disagrees, saying they should be spared. He says trying to kill all civilians was a bad idea, giving an unusual metaphor of a Langi person running across the Nile.

In another audio recording, Otti and Ongwen are heard conversing about two dead enemy soldiers, two uniforms, two pairs of gumboots, a gun, money and a Motorola phone, which were found during an ambush on the way to Opit. Kony, Ocan Pa Labongo and a signaler, Omona Michael, joined the conversation.

Kony asked that the mobile phone be destroyed. “The Motorola phone is said to be worth 10 Ting Tings (Acholi for a young girl but LRA code for something of great value that could be bartered for walkie-talkie radios or bullets in Southern Sudan),” the witness told the court.

Opit is on the way to Odek, one of the places where Ongwen is accused of leading a massacre in 2004.

“It was difficult to hear voices but I heard them talk about the attack on Pajule,” the witness said after another audio recording was played in court. A helicopter gunship was sent to shoot at the LRA forces but it was not brought down.” Kony said Otti should have shouted: “Kony Yee”.

The LRA was formed around 1987 to fight Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement government. The attacks that were led by Kony took place between 2003 and 2004. Ongwen was promoted to commander of the Sinia Brigade.

Kony referred to the ‘shoulder’ when awarding ranks since insignia were worn on the epaulets, the witness told the ICC judges Bertram Schmitt (presiding), Peter Kovacs and Raul Pangalangan. Kony reportedly promoted Vincent Otti, Okot Odek, Michael Odek, Ocen, Ongwen and Tulu to lieutenant general but also complained about officers Amola and Odongo, who were “not doing their work well” as compared to Ongwen, he added.

The LRA conflict spilled into neighbouring countries like South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The LRA reportedly killed over 100,000 civilians, abducted over 60,000 children in the regions that were under incursion, and was notorious for using boys in combat operations and girls as sex slaves. More than 400,000 people were displaced from their homes.

Some 4,000 victims of the war are participating in the trial. The hearing continues.

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