By: Tom Maliti
A former fighter for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) about two attacks on camps for internally displaced people (IDP) 13 years ago, at times sobbing as he described his role in the attacks on Odek and Lukodi.
Witness P-410 also told the court on Wednesday, January 31, about how he tried to save the lives of a family during the Lukodi attack in 2004, but another LRA fighter later locked them in their home and burned them alive.
The witness testified between Wednesday, January 31, and Thursday, February 1, during the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Witness P-410 said he was abducted when he was 14 years old and spent his time with the LRA in a unit of the Sinia brigade. The witness also told the court Ongwen was a commander in Sinia brigade during the time he was there.
Ongwen has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the LRA’s April 29, 2004 attack on the Odek IDP camp. He has also been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the May 19, 2004 attack on Lukodi.
In total, Ongwen faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that he is alleged to have committed between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Witness P-410 told the court on January 31 he was abducted by a group of LRA fighters led by someone called Okello Komakech. He said others he remembered who were part of that group were Okello Latiri and Okumu. The witness said he was one of 10 people who were abducted from the same place.
Some of his testimony about his abduction was not given in open court because Witness P-410 testified under in-court protective measures. This included his name not being used in open court and his face being distorted in public broadcasts of the proceedings to protect his identity. Other measures included closing to the public parts of his testimony that could identify him.
Prosecutor Colleen Gilg asked Witness P-410 whether he knew who Komakech reported to. He said the group that Komakech was in charge of often met with Odomi’s group. Odomi is the name Ongwen was commonly known by in the LRA. Previous witnesses have also referred to Ongwen as Odomi, most recently Witness P-374.
“And when you would meet Odomi’s group, would Komakech report to Odomi?” asked Gilg.
“Yes, he would report to him,” answered Witness P-410.
On the subject of the attack on Odek, Witness P-410 told the court the decision to attack the camp was made while the LRA group he belonged to and other groups were in Sudan. He said one day LRA leader Joseph Kony called a meeting during which Kony said there were signs the Ugandan government was about to be overthrown.
“He [Kony] said the lakwena [spirit] had already given permission for operations,” said the witness. He said Kony then told the gathering he wanted Odek attacked.
Witness P-410 said soon after that meeting, his group and other LRA groups left to return to Uganda. He said some time after their return to Uganda various LRA groups converged at the banks of the Aswa River to discuss an attack on Odek.
The witness said Ongwen and other commanders present during that meeting addressed the fighters gathered there.
“He [Ongwen] said lakwena has made it possible for people to go on operation. The first operation would be on Odek. The mission in Odek would be to exterminate everything in Odek,” said Witness P-410.
The witness said once the talk ended, someone said a prayer that was a mixture of Protestant and Catholic prayers. He told the court he and the other fighters were told to remove their shirts and they were smeared with a mixture of oil and water on the forehead, chest, arms and thighs. He said they were also each given a bracelet made from banana leaf to tie on their wrists and a small stone to tie to their waist. Witness P-410 said they were told this would protect them and stop bullets from killing them. He said he believed what he was told.
Witness P-410 told the court they moved to Odek and got there around three in the afternoon. He said they then waited until the children left school at about 5:00 pm before attacking Odek. He said one group went to attack the camp. He said he was part of the other group that went to attack the barracks.
“It took us a long time to overcome the soldiers. There was a heavy fight with the soldiers in the camp. Once the soldiers were overrun we took things. We took soldiers’ things, guns, ammunition, uniforms, shoes. Civilians were abducted and food stuffs were taken. That was approximately 6:00 pm,” said Witness P-410.
He said they left fearing Ugandan army soldiers based at either Acet or Opit would be sent to attack them. Witness P-410 said the Ugandan army soldiers caught up with them in the morning. He said they also had helicopter gunships.
It was while Gilg was asking Witness P-410 follow up questions about what he observed during the attack on Odek that he began sobbing. As he testified about what he observed, Gilg asked him to give an example of a civilian he saw shot during that attack.
“The things that I saw were children who were removed from their mothers. These children were killed while they were crying,” said the witness.
“They [the children] were hit on a tree. Some were hit on a tree and … others were killed mercilessly. Others were pierced with knives,” Witness P-410 told the court.
A few questions after this when Witness P-410 was asked to estimate the age of someone he saw dead, he started sobbing. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt decided the court should break for lunch early to allow the witness to recover.
When the hearing resumed on the afternoon of January 31, Gilg asked the witness about what happened to the abductees as the LRA moved back to the Aswa River bank where they had gathered before the attack on Odek.
“Based on what I observed, they killed a lot of children. They also killed lots of people who were unable to carry luggage,” replied the witness.
“Did you see these killings happen?” asked Gilg.
Witness P-410 breathed in. Then he answered, “This is what I saw.” He paused and breathed in again.
“When we were on our way back, I was forced into killing one person, a young boy,” the witness told the court, then he started sobbing and crying. Judge Schmitt said, “We understand that this is difficult for you,” and then he ordered a short break.
The hearing resumed after about 30 minutes, and Gilg told Witness P-410 that she would pursue a different line of questioning. She asked him about his duties while in the LRA, the duties of women in the LRA, and how they were treated.
Gilg then questioned the witness about the attack on Lukodi. He said it happened some time after the attack on Odek and another meeting was called of LRA groups. He said at that meeting, the commanders “criticized the attack on Odek and hoped that the one which is coming would be better than the one on Odek.”
Witness P-410 said he was among those chosen to attack Lukodi, and they set off and got to Lukodi around 5:00 pm. He said when they got there they found soldiers and civilians playing football in an open field. He said these were the first people to be attacked, and the LRA easily overpowered the soldiers. Witness P-410 said the soldiers ran away, and the civilians stayed where they were because they were surrounded. He said other fighters went to the camp and burned houses.
“We were told that whatever you find walking in the camp and in the barracks should be killed,” said the witness, recalling what they had been told at the group meeting.
“For that matter the deaths that took place in Lukodi was more than the deaths that took place in Odek, if I compare,” Witness P-410 said.
Witness P-410 said during the Lukodi attack he entered a house and found “many civilians” crowded there.
“I felt pity for them. I closed the door. I locked it as if there was no one inside,” he said. Witness P-410 said another LRA fighter went to the same house and opened it and found the civilians who were hiding there.
He locked the civilians in, set the house on fire and waited “until the people had burnt down and then he left,” said the witness.
Witness P-410 said later that fighter asked about that house where the civilians were hiding and whether he entered it. The witness said he told him he had not, but the fighter did not believe him and reported to the commanders.
The witness said he expected to be killed for sparing the lives of civilians, but he did not say what the commanders decided to do with him. He did testify that as the LRA fighters retreated from Lukodi they were ambushed by soldiers and got separated, and they left behind the loot they had as well as the civilians they had abducted.
Gilg later asked Witness P-410 about how he escaped the LRA, his life in the LRA, and how he was received when he returned to his community. When the hearing resumed on Thursday, February 1, Anushka Sehmi asked the witness only one question about what his life was like before he was abducted. Sehmi is a lawyer for one of the groups of victims in the trial of Ongwen.
Next to question Witness P-410 was Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers. Obhof asked him about his time in Sudan and what he knew about spirits. He also asked the witness to describe the location of the group meeting that was held before the Odek and the terrain of Lukodi.
Obhof then asked about allegations that had been made against Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo.
“So, it is your testimony that you did not tell the prosecution investigators that our counsel is planning on kidnapping people?” asked Obhof.
“I remember I did not say anything,” replied Witness P-410.
“Were there such rumors going around your village at the beginning of last year?” asked Obhof.
“I did not hear,” answered the witness.
Witness P-410 concluded his testimony at the lunch break of Thursday, February 1. Witness P-307 began his testimony after the lunch break of Thursday, February 1.
This article was first published on the International Justice Monitor website
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