By Tom Maliti
A former social worker described to the International
Criminal Court (ICC) his work at a center that helped former child abductees of
the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) reintegrate with their community.
Eric Awich Ochen also told the court on Thursday last
week about research he had done on the difficulties women faced after they
escaped the LRA. Ochen described how the decades-long conflict in northern
Uganda affected Acholi society as many of the LRA’s leaders were Acholi, and
the rebel group targeted mostly Acholi in its attacks.
Thursday’s hearing in the
trial of former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was the first hearing in a month.
The last hearing was on September 30 when Justine
Edeku Ooja testified. Ooja, a former member of the government-backed Arrow Boys militia group,
testified about LRA activity in the eastern Uganda sub-region of Teso.
Ongwen is on trial for crimes he is alleged to have
committed in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has been
charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen has
pleaded not guilty to all counts.
At the start of the hearing on Thursday last week,
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt gave an oral ruling on an application the
defense made two days earlier, on October 29, to have Ochen declared an expert
witness. Judge Schmitt said the chamber declined to do so because the request
was “manifestly untimely.”
He said Ochen had been on the defense witness list since
July 2018, but it was only two days before his testimony that the defense
requested Ochen be designated an expert witness. Judge Schmitt said the defense
did not offer any reason why the request should be accepted on “an exceptional
basis.” The judge said, however, the chamber would allow Ochen to offer
opinions during his testimony, and they would determine on a case by case basis
whether such testimony was permissible.
When he began his
testimony, Ochen told the court he is a lecturer in the social work and social
administration department of Makerere University. He said he worked for about
three years as a social worker with the Gulu Support the Children Organization
(GUSCO) between 1999 and 2002.
Ochen said GUSCO ran a reception center in Gulu, the main
town of northern Uganda that only received former child abductees of the LRA.
He said GUSCO also worked with the communities these children were set to
re-join. Ochen said a separate reception center that World Vision ran accepted
children and adults who had left the LRA. Ochen estimated GUSCO reunited with
their families 7,000 former child abductees of the LRA between 1994 and 2016.
He told the court the children spent on average six weeks
at the GUSCO reception center before being reunited with their families. Ochen
said the children who spent as many as three months at the reception center
usually did so because they had injuries when they first arrived at the center.
He said some of them had to be hospitalized and needed a long time to recover
from their injuries.
Ochen said it was widely known that many children who
escaped the LRA did not pass through the GUSCO or World Vision reception
centers. He said the number of those children was unknown. Ochen told the court
there were two reasons some of the children who escaped the LRA did not go to
the reception centers. He said one reason was that they feared encountering the
“There are many children who did not want it to be known
widely that they had been in the bush,” said Ochen, explaining the other reason
some children did not go to the reception centers. He said if someone returned
to their family via a reception center then the community was likely to know
the LRA had abducted them.
Ochen said for his PhD
thesis he interviewed 45 women who had left the LRA, all of whom had given
birth while with the LRA. He said from his interviews he found that they faced
a lot of stigma once they returned home. He said people who returned home from
the LRA were commonly referred to as dwog cen paco in
Acholi, which Ochen translated to mean those who had returned home. He said,
however, the term was used in a derogatory manner.
“One of the biggest challenges that the young women faced
… was their failure to find homes where they could be married. Their failure to
find stable relationships,” said Ochen.
He said many of his interviewees told him, “When I was
living in the bush life was better … I was not called all these names … Maybe
it is better to go back to the bush where I am more accepted.”
Ochen said other research had found that 80 percent of
what he called “the formerly abducted child mothers” have failed relationships.
“The problem seems to come from the male and female
relatives of the man and not the person who has gone into the relationship,”
Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, questioned Ochen
for the defense. Shkelzen Zeneli cross-examined Ochen for the prosecution and
Anushka Sehmi questioned him for lawyers representing one of victims in the
Ochen concluded his testimony on Thursday. Judge Schmitt
said the next hearing is scheduled for November 14.
A transcript of Ochen’s
testimony can be found here.
This was first
published on the International