By Tom Maliti, IJ Monitor
A former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighter told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that young new abductees were often ordered to kill people who attempted to escape the group to instill fear in the recruits.
Witness P-314 testified about how newly abducted boys and girls were treated in the LRA when the trial of former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen resumed on Monday after a 20-day break.
He is a dual status witness, which means he is also registered as a victim in this trial. Witness P-314 is part of the group of victims represented by the ICC’s Office of Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV).
The witness recounted on Monday how he was abducted by the LRA in 2002 and the training he received. On Tuesday, he told the court about what happened during an attack on a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Odek and a military barracks near the camp. He also told the court how being in the LRA has affected him since he left the group in 2004.
Ongwen faces several charges for his alleged role in the April 2003 attack on Odek, which is in northern Uganda. He also faces two charges for conscripting child soldiers. Other charges include his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps in northern Uganda: Pajule, Abok, and Lukodi. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004. In total Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Today there are no IDP camps in northern Uganda where the LRA used to be active because the group ceased its attacks there in 2006.
Abduction into the LRA
On Monday, Witness P-314 told the court that some of the people who were abducted were adults, and they were used to carry items that were looted from villages or camps.
“Because most of the people who were older, some of them would try to escape, and if they are caught, they would be killed,” said the witness.
Trial lawyer Adesola Adeboyejo asked him who was usually ordered to kill those who had tried to escape.
“They would select the newly abducted people,” the witness replied, explaining this was to show “that if you also escape, your friends would kill you. That was a way of instilling fear.”
Adeboyejo asked him what age would be the abductees who were ordered to kill those who tried to escape.
“Most of them were probably 16, 15, 14, 13, around that age,” said Witness P-314.
“Who would give the order for these abductees to be killed?” asked Adeboyejo.
“The order would come from the superior officer,” the witness said. “In our case, our superior officer was Ongwen.”
Earlier on Monday the witness explained that he was abducted in September 2002 by a unit from the LRA’s Sinia brigade in which Ongwen was a commander. Witness P-314 said he was then assigned as an escort to one of the radio operators in the brigade known as Otto Signaller. He said he remained with Otto until he escaped from the LRA in 2004.
Witness P-314 said that his main tasks were to carry the solar panels that powered the radio that Otto operated. He said he also carried batteries for the radio and Otto’s chair.
The witness is testifying under in-court protective measures that include his face being distorted from any public broadcasts of the hearing. Where his testimony may identify him, the hearing will go into private session so that his identity may not be revealed in public. This happened a few times on Monday and Tuesday.
On Monday, the witness said he received training about a month or two after his abduction. He said he was trained with other boys who were about his age, 14 or 15 years old. He said they were taught to address their seniors as “lapwony,” which is Acholi for teacher. He said they were also taught how to march, clean a gun, assemble it, and fire it.
Witness P-314 told the court he was given an AK 47 about six months after he was abducted.
“We were given the guns, and we were told that this is our mother, our father. Our life depended on the gun. So, if we lose it that it is the end of us,” he said.
Attack on Odek
On Tuesday, Witness P-314 described to the court how the LRA ambushed government soldiers in their attack on Odek. He said he was part of a group of about 30 LRA fighters led by a man called Opiyo who were deployed to attack the military barracks in Odek as another group went to the IDP camp to loot food.
The witness said they walked to the barracks led by an LRA scout called Owiny, who the witness said was about 18 or 19 years old. He said before the attack, Owiny had been sent ahead to locate the barracks and report back to where the LRA units selected for the attack were based.
Witness P-314 said that when they got close to Odek, Opiyo ordered them to form a straight line on either side of him. He said they walked in this formation towards the barracks, sometimes rolling on the ground. When they got close to the barracks, Witness P-314 said, they started shooting their guns. He said the soldiers were caught off-guard, and ran away. He said the gunfight lasted five to 10 minutes before they were ordered to retreat. Before they retreated, the witness said he entered a house and found a pouch with gun magazines on the ground, and he took it.
The other group of LRA fighters that went to the IDP camp “found there were many soldiers, so they didn’t loot a lot of food. They had to retreat,” said Witness P-314.
He said that group still managed to loot salt, beans, flour, cooking oil, and soap from the IDP camp. He said that group also abducted between 20 and 30 people from the camp -- girls, boys, men, and women.
The witness said a Ugandan military helicopter gunship followed them as they retreated, and they had to hide as they fled from Odek to evade the helicopter.
Later, Megan Hirst, a lawyer representing one of the group of victims in the trial of Ongwen, asked Witness P-314 about the ammunition he was issued for his gun. He said for the attack on Odek he was issued with eight bullets. Hirst asked him whether he had had any target practice. He said he had never had target practice.
“If you shot your gun they [government soldiers] would know your position,” the witness told the court to explain why the LRA did not have target practice sessions for its fighters.
“Did you feel well prepared to defend yourself?” asked Hirst.
“I was not ready to protect myself because I had never fired a gun. I had never shot someone,” replied Witness P-314.
Life in the LRA
Before Hirst questioned Witness P-314, Paolina Massidda of the OPCV asked the witness about his life in the LRA and after. Massidda asked him how his life changed when the LRA abducted him.
“When I was abducted, well, my life was completely shattered. Everything was done on order. You do not do anything of your volition. I had never gone through such an experience,” said the witness.
He then told the court about the day he forgot he was not at home and started whistling as he was doing his tasks.
“They beat me and asked me why I was whistling. I didn’t know I was not supposed to do that,” Witness P-314 said.
Massidda asked him whether he sustained any injuries while with the LRA. Witness P-314 said he was injured one day when government soldiers attacked the position they had camped at.
“There was a bomb explosion in front of me, and the splinters hit my leg. I fell down, got up, and collected my things,” he said. Witness P-314 told the court he did not immediately realize he had been injured until he felt a liquid in one of his boots.
“I poured the blood down [on the ground]. My colleagues saw that I was pouring the blood down,” and they took the things he was carrying, the witness said.
Witness P-314 said the treatment he received for the injury was fellow fighters boiling water and cleaning the wound and applying shea butter on it. He said this went on for two months until his wound healed. He said after he escaped he did not receive any further medical attention either from the Ugandan military, who were the first to receive him, or World Vision, with whom he stayed for two to three months before returning to his family.
He said now when he looks at the scars, “it reminds me of my dark past. Sometimes the side of the leg gets numb. Sometimes it starts aching when it gets cold. That happens rarely.”
Witness P-314 will continue testifying on Wednesday when Ongwen’s lawyer will continue cross-examining him.
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, to the Central African Republic to Egypt and Ethiopia, 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, Rwanda and Niger 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). 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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