By Susan Kendi
Lord’s Resistance Army boss Joseph Kony rarely used radio communication, preferring to use one of the signalers instead, but sometimes he did speak personally.
An overview witness testifying for the prosecution in the Dominic Ongwen trial at the International Criminal Court revealed how Kony and other LRA commanders communicated in a report on the logs of intercepted radio chatter.
Ongwen, a former LRA commander, is on trial for 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court after he surrendered to American Special Forces in the Central African Republic in October 2015. His boss, Kony, is still at large despite the issuance of an ICC warrant of arrest in 2005.
Testifying under a protected identity, with video and sound distortion, the witness known as P0403 described the type of orders that came from Kony as concerning the general nature of the war and increasing the tempo of excursions. The witness, who works in the analysis section of the Office of the Prosecutor, examined logbooks documenting LRA communication intercepted by the Ugandan government forces.
Phones were used to coordinate operations, coordinate meetings, communicate about the transfer of weapons and ammunition, decree punishment and mete out discipline and for logistics.
LRA commanders were required to report within a week after an attack about the number of civilians killed or abducted, the type of destruction caused and the enemy soldiers killed. Commanders also detailed the target hit – whether it was a camp for the internally displaced, a vehicle or a military camp. In the witness report, he described on how the Ugandan Government intercepted the process of the LRA communication.
LRA forces mainly used long-range radio communications in primarily Acholi language but with a bit of Kiswahili and English thrown in a few times.
“I recall Mr Ongwen, Vincent Otti, Charles and Okot Odhiambo’s names as recording some attacks,” said the witness.
Ongwen did not communicate much on the radio and was specifically instructed by Kony to state his position and report on any attack conducted. Sometimes Kony harangued Ongwen about not coming on air, insisting that irrespective of the Ugandan armed forces’ pressure he should still come on the radio. Ongwen would sometimes talk using a signaler.
The LRA, the witness said, communicated four times a day on radio, every day of the week: early morning, late morning at around 11am, early afternoon (1 pm or so) and later in the day at around 4.30 pm to 6 pm. Kony determined the timing of LRA communications.
Commanders that didn’t have radios communicated through shortwave radio (walkie-talkies) and satellite phones. Kony, Otti and the LRA Director of Signals determined the frequency of the radio. The LRA changed the radio frequency from time to time, especially if operations didn’t go as well as they liked, since they thought that maybe the Ugandan Government was overhearing their conversations.
The LRA obtained the radios by attacking URP Barracks, UN offices and religious missions. The radios were powered using a vehicle, car or motorcycle batteries and solar panels.
LRA reportedly used a code, known as Tonfas, to conceal their messages and only people with a radio within the LRA commanders’ ranks and the Ugandan government interceptors who “broke” the codes could hear them. Besides the Tonfas system, widely known proverbs, jargons and metaphors among the LRA were used. For example, a mountain referred to a church; mentioning a ram was instruction for a group to retreat; waya (Acholi) to refer to civilians and atabo (Acholi for a two by two dance) referred to aeroplanes.
Code signs were used to mask the voice and identity of the commanders in case the Ugandan government was listening. LRA had up to 30 radios and roughly a dozen individuals had radio at a time, depending on how active one was, and the type and frequency of operations.
The Internal Security Organization intercepted communication out of Gulu Barracks, attempted to decode them and recorded the material on cassette tapes. Interceptors included various commanders who communicated and their locations. Ugandan police also LRA communication. He explained to the court on the naming and organization of intercept evidence and logbooks.
The witness read through a report on LRA communications about the Pajule attack based on the ISO logbooks that report on contact between Otti and Kony about plans to attack the area. “Kony felt so happy about Otti’s plans regarding Pajule attack,” the witness added.