By Tom Maliti
A clansman of Dominic Ongwen, who is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), told judges that Ongwen’s family was not sure whether he was alive or dead for 28 years until Ongwen first appeared in the court in January 2015.
Joe Kakanyero told the court Ongwen’s family heard from time to time that Dominic Ongwen, or Odomi, was still in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from people who had escaped the LRA. Kakanyero said the family was not sure whether the person they referred to was their Dominic Ongwen—or Odomi, which Kakanyero said is the name Ongwen is called by at his home village, Coorom, in northern Uganda—or another Dominic Ongwen.
Kakanyero said during his testimony on November 8th that he was abducted with Ongwen in 1987 and in the three months he was in the LRA he knew there were two Dominic Ongwens in the group.
“There was Dominic Ongwen and then there was another one (from) Coope,” said Kakanyero.
“People who returned from the bush from the different groups of the leadership of the LRA used to say Odomi was there. They were not sure which Odomi we were asking about,” said Kakanyero.
Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed between July 2002 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On November 8, Kakanyero testified that at some point the family assumed Ongwen was dead because they did not hear anything about him. He said that even when they heard the ICC had issued an arrest warrant for Ongwen they were not sure, “whether it was it was our Dominic Ongwen or another Dominic Ongwen.”
“It’s actually a miracle that I am seeing him today,” said Kakanyero, who testified at ICC in The Hague. Ongwen was present in court on November 8th as he has been throughout his trial, with some rare exceptions when he has been absent. He has been in the custody of the ICC since surrendering in January 2015.
Kakanyero said he, Opio Oloro, and Ongwen were students at Alero P7 School when the LRA abducted them at seven one morning in 1987. He said at the time of the abduction Ongwen could not have been older than 11 years. He said soon after they were abducted, they were separated. Kakanyero said he and Oloro were assigned to different coy, or companies, in the Special Mobile Force brigade and Ongwen was assigned to a different brigade.
What Kakanyero said about the year the LRA abducted him and Ongwen is different from what has been said at the ICC previously. When he first appeared before the ICC on January 26, 2015, Ongwen told the court he was abducted in 1988. This is also what his lawyers said in their opening statements on September 18 this year.
Also, what Kakanyero said about how old Ongwen was when he was abducted is different from what has been said at the ICC previously. When he first appeared before the ICC on January 26, 2015, Ongwen told the court he was 14 years old when he was abducted. In their opening statements on September 18 this year, Ongwen’s lawyers said he was nine or 10 years old when he was abducted.
During his testimony on November 8, Kakanyero said that soon after they were abducted, he witnessed the killing of a commander called Omony who was caught trying to escape. Kakanyero said three LRA fighters were assigned to kill Omony and they took turns killing him with an axe. He said this discouraged him from questioning anything in the LRA.
“The fact they can kill somebody in a very gruesome manner, in broad daylight … I realized if I was to defy any of their orders, they would kill me,” Kakanyero said.
Abigail Bridgman, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Kakanyero whether he knew how Ongwen was feeling at the time.
“What I know was Odomi was there, but he wasn’t feeling easy. He was really depressed but we didn’t have any (choice). If you are in the hands of the beast you have to do the commands of the beast or otherwise you will die,” Kakanyero said.
Kakanyero said that he and Ongwen and the brigades they were assigned remained close but there was no time for him and Ongwen to talk. He said they were constantly on the move.
“The UPDF (Uganda People’s Defense Force) were pursuing us every other minute. The only thing you could do is pray to God that you continue living,” Kakanyero said.
Kakanyero told the court that he got injured and was sent to the sick bay. He said this was close to three months after they had been abducted. He said for some time they were in the Kitgum area, which he was unfamiliar with. Kakanyero said that at some point they moved to an area where he could see what looked like the hills close to Coorom village. He said this is when he decided to escape.
“What helped was the fact I was at the sick bay,” Kakanyero explained, saying that he knew the people at the sick bay were not all able to pursue someone who had escaped.
He said if he had remained in the Special Mobile Force brigade or had been assigned to a different group, “it would not have been possible for me to escape.” He said when he got home, he asked about Ongwen’s parents.
“They told me that these people were killed. ‘When you people were abducted the parents were taken and luckily or unluckily, they were killed’,” said Kakanyero, quoting what he was told.
At this point Ongwen kept his head down and it was unclear what was happening to him. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt asked Beth Lyons, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, whether the court should take a break. Lyons conferred with Ongwen and she said he wanted the hearing to continue.
A little later Bridgman asked Kakanyero whether he got to know who killed Ongwen’s parents.
“When I came home and found (Ongwen’s parents had been killed) I was told it was the LRA that killed Ongwen’s parents. I was told it was the group that was called Gilva,” that killed them, Kakanyero said.
Bridgman asked Kakanyero to describe Ongwen before they were abducted.
“When we were with Dominic Ongwen at home before abduction, he was a very good child. He was a calm child among all the children who were with us,” said Kakanyero. He had told the court that his father and Ongwen’s father were members of the same clan.
At the end of her questioning, Bridgman asked Kakanyero to explain why he volunteered to testify before the ICC.
“I can testify that Dominic Ongwen was abducted. I can testify that I knew Dominic Ongwen as a child. I came to show how I was separated with him from the bush and the other things that are already in the statement that I gave,” said Kakanyero.
Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, asked Kakanyero a few questions. When Odongo concluded his questioning, the prosecution said they had no questions Kakanyero. He concluded his testimony on November 8th.
A transcript of his testimony can be found here.
This article was first published on the International Justice Monitor website.