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Fear and loathing at Dominic Ongwen’s ICC trial

A map of the Barlonyo massacre / 08 March 2017

  By Susan Kendi

Fear looms large over witnesses testifying at the ongoing trial of former Lord’s Resistance commander Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court.

Of the seven prosecution witnesses who have so far taken the stand, it is only London School of Economics anthropology professor Tim Allen whose identity has not been concealed. The subsequent six witnesses have been allocated a pseudonym (P-403, P-016, P-059, P-440, P-003 and currently P-205) and testified under court protection mechanisms such as voice and face distortion.

Prof Allen, who was called as an expert witness, laid a foundation for the case by outlining the history of Uganda and explained the role that spiritual forces played in the LRA conflict. Allen lived in Uganda in the 1980s while researching the LRA as it sprung up.

Additionally, the frequency with which the court has had to go into private sessions has been increasing steadily, with testimony in closed sessions sometimes going on for almost to an hour due to the sensitivity of LRA issues. Once in open court, witnesses have expressed fears of arrest or being harmed.

Witness P-205, who has been on the stand all week, has been assigned a legal advisor to guide him on parts of the testimony that might be self-incriminating. His ranks and responsibilities in the LRA have been concealed, and lawyer Sarah Kerwegi is helping him to work through conditions under which he may reveal self-incriminating evidence, on the understanding that such information will not be revealed to the public.

He is a former LRA commander who, according to the prosecution’s Pre-trial Brief, was at some point in the Gilva Brigade of as well as in the Terwanga Battalion of the Sinia Brigade. He was at some point an acting commander of the Terwanga Battalion.

Prosecutors presented the witness with agreements he had signed with them before trial began.

“The second RV [rendezvous] was before the Barlonyo attack … When battalions went to the mission, the authorization given (by Ongwen), was to go and work, meaning there was an objective they wanted to carry out,” Witness P-205 told the told Trial Chamber IX on March 6.

The two objectives discussed in rendezvous were abductions and fighting. Dominic Ongwen, who is facing 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly instructed the battalions abduct anyone who could participate in the army and keep walking. No date was given to the battalions on when an attack was to be conducted unless Ongwen sent out a report.

The witness spoke about other attacks that Ongwen allegedly had led in northern Uganda, specifically on Lalia, Ngora and Patongo.

Witness P-205 told the Court that at one point Ongwen ordered him and other LRA soldiers to attack a military camp at Opit.

He spoke about the RV’s and meetings that LRA bosses had, especially the ones in which Ongwen was a participant, and of the abductions, weapons and food they seized during various attacks.

He confirmed that he met Dominic Ongwen at RV after he had come from the attack on Lalia, saying he had seen the abductees. The youngest boy was around 12 years old. The boys and girls Ongwen came with were handed over to Tabulang, a commander, who picked some and handed the rest back to Ongwen.

Testifying specifically about the attack on Odek, one of the camps for internally displaced persons for which Ongwen is charged, the witness said: “He (Ongwen) asked the soldiers from Terwanga Battalion for about six soldiers and all the officers. They were 10 people that is in addition to the soldiers he has in his brigade, and sent them to Odek, “witness P-205.

The Odek attack led to the displacement of thousands of people in northern Uganda.

Ongwen, he added, was the overall commander at Odek, though the commander who attacked the centre was Tabulang.

Ongwen is alleged to have commanded the Sinia Brigade, one of LRA’s four brigades.

Witness P-205 told the court that before Ongwen ordered the attack on Odek, he addressed the selected soldiers, some from Terwanga Battalion, and told them that there were few soldiers in Odek and they should leave nothing in Odek.

Ongwen gave orders that if the LRA soldiers found good girls and boys, they should abduct them. Those not fit for the army, above 18 years of age, should be killed, the witness told the Court.

The witness said it took a day for the RV’s to walk from where they were to Odek. 

He said the soldiers left in the locations couldn’t hear the gunshots since the terrain was sloping but for heavy booming gunfire could still be heard.

“In the Odek attack, they overran the barracks but most people escaped. They (the LRA fighters) carried some food items and weapons, I witnessed.”

After the attack they went to report back to Ongwen and then proceeded to Terwanga.

Some of the Terwanga officers and soldiers assigned to the Odek operation included: Nyero, Chanawira, Labanya, Ogwar, Okello Patrick, and Ojwak Oite, among others.

Ongwen reported about the Lukodi Camp attack to his bosses, and talked about it at the rendezvous meeting, which was also attended by Ongwen’s wives. Weapons were seized, the witness said. “After the RV with Abudema, when people were going to Teso that’s when I met Tabulang, in Teso. At the time, he had been promoted to division commander and needed soldiers. They took soldiers from Sinia Brigade. We were walking in teams, Otti Vincent picked Ongwen to go into control and we met at RV. I saw this with my eyes ….. Ongwen was moving in the same convoy with Otti Vincent.”

Questioned by prosecutor Pubudu Sachithanandan on the death of Tabulang and the commanders who took over various positions in the LRA, he said: “Tabulang is deceased. He died at the end of October 2003.” He also revealed the commanders who took charge of the LRA battalions after Tabulang’s death.

The commander of, during Tabulang death was Olum Ichaya commanded the Nawanga Battalion, Ocan George Laboingo the of Siba Battalion and Ongwen the Oka Battalion.

Commander Box succeeded Tabulang, and Odomi (Dominic Ongwen) became Sinia Brigade commander.

The witness said he was Kaberamaido with Okum Luchaya after Tabulang’s death.

His testimony continues before Trial Chamber IX with Justice Bertram Schmitt presiding and Judges Peter Kovacs and Raul Pangalangan.


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