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You did not dare escape from the LRA lest your whole family be punished, court told

Journalists For Justice / 07 November 2017

 By Susan Kendi

Notoriety had earned the Lord’s Resistance Army the moniker of Otong Otong among the Acholi, Parajok and other ethnic groups in Sudan. Otong Otong translates to something or someone that cuts people; something that kills.

Among the Acholi, the LRA was mainly referred to as ‘Holy’, short for ‘Holy Spirit’, whereas as in the language, they were referred to as Lakwena after the first leader of the Holy Spirit Movement, Alice Lakwena.

Witness P-0138 told the three-panel of Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt and judges Péter Kovács and Raul Cano Pangalangan that the LRA killed civilians in Atiak in 1995 and some more in Palwo a year later.

The witness, who escaped in November 2003, added that in 1995, he and his family sought refuge in Kalum, Masindi District, but later returned home from where he was abducted.

“The information of the LRA was not new -- even an unborn child would know about the LRA,” the witness told the ICC’s Trial Chamber IX, which is hearing the 70 crimes against humanity and war crimes charges facing former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen.

Below is an excerpt of the witness’ testimony under cross examination from lead defence lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo:

Odongo:  We know each other so it won’t be difficult to talk to one another. What frightened people about the LRA?

Witness: What I mainly saw is the brutal killing of people. People were killed and lined up; houses burnt and people fled. I was one of them.

Odongo:  Were there special attributes such as spirituality, brutality?

Witness: There was nothing new that I came to learn about the LRA. The LRA were attacking the government soldiers and burning houses.

Odongo:  You testified that when abducted you were inducted into the LRA by performance of certain rituals. What were you told these rituals were to do to you?

Witness: When the LRA abducted me I was anointed with shear butter oil using the sign of the cross on my chest, back and forehead. This was said to be done to prevent me from escaping. They would submerge you in water, saying this is holy water, it will cleanse you. They also submerged guns in the water for cleansing. If you tried to escape, you would not find your way back … The day that you arrive is the day it is performed, so you cannot ask why it is done.

Odongo:  By and by, did you come to learn Joseph Kony was a strong believer in spirituality?

Witness: I came to learn that Kony was possessed by spirits. What he said came true. This made me believe that what he said was spiritual.

Odongo:  You said it was Thomas Kwoyelo’s group that abducted you. How did they treat you?

Witness: I was given luggage to carry. They tied my waist with rope and connected it to other people. We would move in line then we got to a point where they untied us and we were positioned.

Odongo:  Did you ever at any point try to escape? If not, why didn’t you attempt to escape?

Witness: At that time i was young. I did not know the directions to take. The place Kwoyelo was located was a jungle and mountainous. People who tried to escape were recaptured and all the new recruits were gathered to kill the person. If you mind about your life, you would not escape.

Odongo:  This killing happened with no exception to anybody?

Witness: The killings happened to someone who tried to escape or someone who escaped and was apprehended. They would send soldiers to follow you.

Odongo:  If they were followed and recaptured, what would happen to the people in their home?

Witness: Someone who was followed and found in their area, the order given was to kill all people in the area. I witnessed this myself.

Odongo:  Mr Witness P-0138, you said you witnessed this yourself. Could you tell us [about] an incident?

Witness: The killings happened several times. An example was [that of a] person Wianono in Gulu District. It was an IDP camp called Pagak; it did not take long after the escape since he was a captain in the LRA. He was followed and people were killed in his village since it was said that he escaped with a gun.

Judge Schmitt: Could you try to situate it in time?

Witness: This could have [been] around 2002 when it happened in Lira. The one of Wianono happened when I was already home. That was in the year 2004. In the second one, the captain had escaped.

Odongo:  If you are a commander, major or colonel -- they followed you with much ferocity?

Witness: Yes, that is correct. Since the senior soldiers would leave with more weapons and other soldiers saying it discourages those in the bush. It is not good for those that remain in the LRA.

Odongo:  This order to kill, do you know who issued it?

Witness: The order come from Joseph Kony. He has the right to change the leadership structure. That time he had changed the deputy to [Vincent] Otti. Kony would give orders to Otti, Otti would send the order to the brigade commander, who would then pass it to the battalion commander and down to the unit.

Odongo:  What was your rank the time you escaped?

Witness: At the time of my escape, I was a sergeant.

Odongo:  For whom was it easier to escape -- foot soldier or captain or brigadier?

Witness: From a foot soldier up to the commander, as long as you have a weapon, it is easier for you to come back home. Even Kony might decide to abandon his soldiers and come home.

Odongo:  You told the court that when a soldier escape, he would be followed.

Witness: It is easy for someone with a lower rank to escape anytime. For a brigadier, he must escape with people. Since he moves with people.

Odongo:  Were Kony’s orders directly from God?

Witness: The orders that were given by Kony … It is not easy to know if they came from God. Sometimes when we go to church we see bishops praying for people but we don’t know if the orders are from God. That was the same for Kony.

Odongo:  Did you at one point notice some point of configuration from Kony when he was possessed by spirits?

Witness: What Kony does, he does not stay close to brigade commanders; most times he is isolated. He sent orders via radio call. You can stay three to four years without seeing Kony himself. You could just hear his voice and you would execute the orders. I did not learn the names of the spirits that possessed Kony; I just learnt of Holy Spirit and Lakwena.

Odongo:  It seems that this Witness P-0138 [was] not very close to Kony as other witnesses. (Refreshing witness’ memory).  Did you hear about King Bruce?

Witness: No, I did not.

Judge Schmitt: Let’s move on. The last evidentiary block, we had a witness with detailed knowledge about this but this one does not.

Odongo:  Can we go into a short private session?

The court went into a private session where the public could not hear questions to the witness or his answers before returning.

Witness: When I escaped Tabuley was still alive but those that escaped after me told me that he died at a place called Kaberamaido.

Odongo:  Did you see Kony participate in operations?

Witness: No. I did not see Kony participate in operations. Kony is a commander who most times remains in Sudan. He is not regularly in Uganda. When I say he remained in Sudan, he had security to protect him together with his wives. He would be on the move. He would not be stationed in one place. He stayed with Control Altar which brought together commanders like Otti and Raska Lukwiya. The commanders would report to Kony about their planned operation, and if Kony said all would be well, then it would be well. I don’t know whether his spirits would go with the commanders for operations. Someone from Control Altar would take special water and shear butter and would sprinkle the water on those going for operations. We believed.

Odongo:  Did you know that Ocan Labong had a special relationship with Kony in terms of work, not a blood relation?

Witness: I don’t know much but Kony does not show that he is close to someone.

Odongo:  Can you tell the court in your understanding why the commanders did not seize the opportunities to escape?

Witness: When you are in the LRA you are convinced you fight to overthrow the government. In addition to different operations, you may not want to leave since you would believe that at some point they would overthrow the government. Kony said that if they overthrew the government they would kill whoever was not with them.

Odongo:  There was a peace settlement with the government of Uganda’ Did you see this is an opportunity?

Witness: Yes.

Odongo:  Did it ever cross your mind or did you wish you were in the bush, that you might have an opportunity to have a share in the government that would result from the negotiated government?

Witness: The negotiations, I was hearing about when I was in the bush. I was interested in coming home and finding peace back at home. There is nothing better than having peace in this world.

Odongo:  Can you tell court, Mr Witness, whether it was an option for anyone to disobey Kony’s order?

Witness: In regards to Kony orders, it is not easy to disobey once he’s given it.

Odongo:  What was the likely punishment of disobeying Kony’s order?

Witness: According to how the LRA operates, you would be demoted, then you become a junior soldier. Other punishments would be death or [you would] be forced to walk barefoot for a week or month. That is what I saw.

Odongo:  Was being jailed a punishment?

Witness: I did not see any jail house for Kony; the punishment included what I said and caning.

Odongo:  Is it [that people were] put in an open prison where movements were restricted? Not necessarily a jail house?

Witness: Yes that happens since when you are demoted you are made to walk with no shoes since you failed; then they would reinstate your belongings and ranks when you are punished already.

Odongo:  Is it possible for a brigade commander to be put directly under Control Altar as a prisoner?

Witness: Yes, that happens when you disobey an order and they select a commander to replace you, then you will be serving a punishment order.

Odongo:  Do you know if at one point Dominic Ongwen found himself in this situation?

Witness: No.

Odongo:  When you were in the bush, did you know that at one time Dominic Ongwen was in the Sickbay, injured?

Witness: Yes, I know

Odongo:  Do you remember approximately when this happened?

I cannot recall the exact period. I first saw him in the year 2002 in Te Kilak. The other injures he could have got I am not sure that I remember. In the LRA, you can get injured anytime and anywhere.

Witness P-0138 continued with his testimony.

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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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