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Witness tells ICC he believed the radio was filled with dead people talking-Part 1

Journalists For Justice / 08 November 2017

 By Susan Kendi

Fighters in the Lord’s Resistance Army depended on a small group of people sprinkling water from a calabash onto a burning charcoal stove to ostensibly control the intensity of the fighting.

These men were known as “controllers” and “technicians”, the International Criminal Court trying LRA commander Dominic Ongwen for war crimes and crimes against humanity heard from a witness.

Controllers and technicians worked in the yard where LRA boss Joseph Kony prayed. They had a charcoal stove from which they could determine the intensity of the weapons in use by the enemy. They would allegedly direct the enemy’s weapons during battle.

“Who is a controller or technician in the LRA?” asked Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers.

“In the LRA, the controllers and technicians worked in the yard where Kony prayed …

“When I was abducted, there was a yard, there were few engagements but I was told that during battles there are controllers and technicians. When the battle starts and the enemy has support weapons, the technicians would manage those weapons to prevent them from harming fighters,” Witness P-0231 told Trial Chamber IX of the ICC.

“What is the charcoal stove used for?” asked Obhof.

“The stove has charcoal and it is lit. The controllers would have water in the calabash and would be sprinkling it in the charcoal stove …

“If the fire of the charcoal stove is not reducing it means the weapons are very powerful. If the water extinguishes the fire, it means that the weapons are weak and might not work, “ the witness replied.

Here are excerpts of the cross examination of Witness P-0231 by Obhof.

Obhof: Good morning, Mr Witness. I did not meet you during the familiarization session. I apologize I was in Amsterdam. For the court record, I would like you to guide the court with the following seasons. When is the dry season in northern Uganda?

Witness: In northern Uganda, the dry season runs from January to March.

Obhof: People ploughed the grass before, is that correct?

Witness: Yes

Obhof: The rainy season comes after the dry season, right?

Witness: Yes

Obhof: How many months does the rainy season last?

Witness: Heavy rain falls at the start of April to May then it reduces. In August, heavy rain falls for a month then in October to mid-November there is heavy rainfall again.

Obhof: Is it correct to say mango season starts in April and runs till June?

Witness: Yes, that’s true.

The hearing then went into private session, which excludes the public from hearing testimony before resuming public sessions.

Obhof: When you were abducted, did anyone make a written record of where you were abducted from?

Witness: When I was abducted, there was no one who took records/statements.

Obhof: When you were in the LRA did anyone know where your home was?

Witness: People knew where my home was.

Obhof: Right after abduction was there anyone in the LRA who performed blessings on you?

Witness: When I was in the bush, some rituals were performed.

Obhof: What types of rituals were these?

Witness: When I just arrived, I was anointed using shear butter oil. They got some camouflage soil and smeared on me, mixed some soil with shear butter and made me drink it.

Obhof: Did anyone tell you the reasons for [these] rituals?

Witness: I was told that the rituals were to cleanse me of all the bad things, and included medicine so that I could join the LRA.

Obhof: What was your opinion of these rituals? Did you believe they were cleansing you?

Witness: I was still young at that time. I saw as if it was something good.

Obhof: From what you noticed in your time in the LRA, did these rituals continue when new abductees were recruited?

Witness: Most new abducted people are initiated and rituals are performed.

Obhof: Did someone explain to you the rules of the LRA?

Witness: It is there.

Obhof: Can you explain?

Witness: Yes, I can explain when we reached the bush the initiation was done. When I became a soldier with a weapon there were rules. When armed, don’t open the safety valve when arguing with your colleague, especially while pointing the gun towards him. Those in the bush were told that we were fighting to overthrow the government. The government of Uganda has many people, even civilians, and the gun you had was for killing people, even civilians. The gun you have should be use as instructed.

Obhof: What would happen when someone escaped and did not get caught?

Witness: If someone escapes and survives, they (the LRA) would kill people in their home area and leave a letter/message saying, ‘We killed people because so and so escaped.’

Obhof: Could you tell us of a town where this collective punishment happened?

Witness: I know

Obhof: Your honours, I request for a private session.

(Court went into a private session, and then resumed with Obhof questioning the witness)

Obhof: Mr Witness, do you remember when you first met our client, Mr Ongwen?

Witness: The first time I met him, I do recall.

Obhof: Please explain it to the court, Mr witness.

Witness: The first meeting with Dominic Ongwen was in 1996. I think from around that time, in 1996 and towards 1997 when we were in Jebellin. I had left Control Atar to go to Sinia Brigade, of which he was commander.

Obhof: What was the life in the bush like?

Witness: In the year 1994 to 1995 between January and February when we left Uganda for Sudan, there was a problem with travel: it was long distance, as you would walk there without shoes. Along the way, people who failed to cope up lost their lives.

The witness also testified about the LRA training in Sudan.

Witness: One of the commanders, Buk Abudema, came and saw the conditions in the camp. When he returned to Kony, he told him the training should stop since many children would die. We returned to the big group. Cholera incidents had reduced but there was lack of food. During the training, I suffered the disease but by God’s [grace], I made it through. We were using local herbs and I survived.

Obhof: What was the suffering and injuries you sustained?

Witness: I was injured in the leg; that was the first injury. Later on, I got injured in my stomach; that was the second injury. Those were actually minor. I was hit by bomb fragments, which entered my body after that I received injuries in the chest

Obhof: Do these injuries affect your life today?

Witness: The injuries that I sustained were at least two. The one in my stomach, and the other in my chest. I feel pain when I perform heavy duties.

Obhof: Let’s talk about your life. Why did you escape?

The court again went into a private session before resuming public hearings.

Obhof: The victims’ lawyer said that people were talking behind your back. Does everyone get treated the same you got treated when they come back?

Witness: No, not everybody is treated the same way.

Obhof: You talked of an attack by Otti Vincent in Alworo close to Dominic Ongwen’s home.

Witness: To tell the truth, it is difficult. Whether you were present or not, people don’t regard you in good way and that makes it difficult to go home since people will tell you that you participated in the attack.

Obhof: Could people in your area be worried about a person bringing cen?

Witness: Yes, people in the family talk about it. For instance, when I returned, I realized that when people picked a quarrel, they would use you as an example. You need to know how to take it since if you respond in a bad way they would confirm that there was cen in you.

Obhof: In the bush, were you told what the UPDF would do to you if you escaped and turned yourself over?

Witness: That is frequently explained to people. Once you become a soldier, you are told that if you return home, the government soldiers would catch and imprison you and not allow your family members to see you. Politics is not just in government but also in the bush. They would say that the voice played on radio is a person that was killed and that the radios were playing the person’s recorded voice.

Obhof: A large number of the LRA fighters believe this lie?

Witness: When still in the bush, I believed it was true.

Obhof: Did others in the LRA tell you that they believed it was true also?

Witness: Most times, when information came, we would chat among us and many in the bush believed that it was true.

Obhof: For how long did you stay in Sudan?

Witness: I stayed in Sudan from 1995 until the year 2002 when we were flushed out of Sudan by Operation Iron Fist.

Obhof: Mr Witness, considering the LRA were in a foreign country (Sudan), was it easier to escape?

Witness: When you were in Sudan, it was not easy to escape. I did not know the direction that I should take.

Obhof: Were there also other armed groups in the area with whom the LRA was not friendly?

Witness: At that time, there were many groups like the rebels of the greater Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, they had guns. By then Sudan was still one.

(Reading a document to the witness)

Obhof: In 19B, there was the question of the transmission of HIV/Aids and the first answer is by supernatural means or witchcraft. Did people in the LRA believe in witchcraft?

Witness: Yes, they did. When we were in the bush. The LRA had issues with the witchcraft and several things regarding “Jwok”.

Obhof: Did LRA kill suspected witch or what we call “Ajwakas”?

Witness: Those people were killed by the LRA when we found them.

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By Terry Jeff Odhiambo

Gambia stands as a testament to the glacial progress Africa is making in the sphere of human rights. With the country on the mend and efforts under way to bring former President Yahya Jammeh to justice, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights could scarcely have found a better host country to hold its 30th anniversary.

The celebrations in Banjul, between November 1 and 4, 2017, come at a time of hope and restoration for the Gambia after the end of Jammeh’s 22-year dictatorial regime. Jammeh’s government was notorious for its disregard of international human rights norms despite ironically hosting the ACHPR. Arbitrary arrests, threats, enforced disappearances and torture were commonplace. There is still plenty of room for improvement. Attorney General Abubacarr Tambadou, who is also Justice Minister, told the opening of the 35th Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR that notwithstanding the various strides made by nations in the application of human rights instruments, the full enjoyment of basic rights and freedoms since the adoption of the African Charter, continues to face challenges. The Justice minister reiterated that the new government of Gambia had reaffirmed its commitment to protecting human rights and to living up to its position as the human rights capital of Africa. As recently as September 2017 the Gambia, signed five international treaties on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, including the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which seeks to abolish abolition the death penalty. In the coming months, Gambia is committed to ratifying more human rights treaties, including the Convention against Torture, and adopting a new republican constitution within the shortest time possible and developing a system of justice that can look into past atrocities and sustain its democracy. The NGOs Forum, which is usually held on the margins of the ACHPR Ordinary Sessions, is a platform for fostering collaboration between civil society organisations on the one hand and the ACHPR on the other, with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights in Africa.

Human rights abuses in Africa are a sad reality. The tableau of human suffering on the continent is scar on humanity’s conscience. From South Sudan[1], to the Central African Republic[2] to Egypt[3] and Ethiopia[4], abuses are increasingly being witnessed more than ever before. As one of the bulwarks against this depressing trend, the work of the ACHPR since its inception calls for evaluation. The promise by states and governments to guarantee human dignity and rights – through almost universal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ever-increasing ratification of international human rights treaties – seems to have had little impact on the daily lives of millions of people in the region.

The sad reality is that the human rights situation in various African countries continues to deteriorate on the ACHPR’s watch. There has been an escalation of threats to the enjoyment of human rights on the continent, ranging from arbitrary arrests, infringement of freedom of association and assembly, police brutality and threats to human rights defenders. 

Since the inception of the ACHPR, seven states have never reported on the situation of human rights to the commission. The states -- Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia and South Sudan -- continue to witness some of gravest human rights violations on the continent. Twenty other states have three or more pending state reports -- including Gambia, while 16 other states have one or two pending state reports. Only nine states, namely Kenya, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger and South Africa are up to date with their state reporting obligations. The Democratic Republic of Congo[5], Rwanda[6] and Niger[7] are set to report during the 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR. State reporting procedure is a stock taking that serves as a forum for constructive dialogue and enables the Commission to monitor implementation of the African Charter and identify challenges impeding the realisation of the objects of the African Charter.

Some of the critiques that the Commission has received over time include the failure to implement its findings, such as decisions on: individual communications, concluding observations on State reports, country and thematic resolutions, and recommendations made in relation to missions to countries. 

The 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR will see the swearing in of new commissioners and the exit of those whose terms have ended. The ACHPR is composed of 11 Commissioners, who are “chosen from amongst African personalities of the highest reputation, known for their high morality, integrity, impartiality and competence in matters of human and peoples’ rights; particular consideration being given to persons having legal experience” (African Charter, Article 31).[8] They are elected by the African Union Assembly from experts nominated by States parties to the Charter. The Commissioners serve in their personal capacity and are elected for a six-year renewable term.

The upcoming 30th Anniversary celebrations are an opportunity to reaffirm the values and enduring principles enshrined in the African Charter mobilize people around the continent, and take stock of human rights today in Africa. 

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