A former captain of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that he confided in Dominic Ongwen nine years ago about his plans to escape the rebel group, hoping Ongwen would join him.
Witness P-209 told the court Ongwen listened to his proposal but told him that he feared the ICC arrest warrant issued against him. Witness P-209 said he did not fear Ongwen would reveal his plans because he knew at the time Ongwen was not on good terms with LRA leader Joseph Kony, just like himself. Both of them knew they could be killed at any time.
The witness testified in the trial of Ongwen between Tuesday, February 27, and Wednesday, February 28. Ongwen, a former LRA commander, has been charged for his alleged role in a long list of crimes allegedly committed between July 2002 and December 2005.
The crimes Ongwen has been charged with include attacks on four camps for internally displaced people (IDP), sex crimes, and conscripting child soldiers. In total, he is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Witness P-209 told the court that from the time he was abducted in 1994 he feared escaping the LRA because, among other things, he had seen at least one person killed when that person was caught after trying to escape. He said it was only in 2008 that he decided to escape because he concluded he could do so without risking the lives of his fellow villagers. Witness P-209 said he had witnessed that when someone escaped from the LRA, the village they were from was attacked as punishment for that person escaping.
He did not explain in open court why he thought that would not happen in 2008, but one explanation may be that that year the LRA was not in Uganda and most LRA members were camped in two areas, Ri-Kwangba and Owiny Ki-Bul, along the border of Sudan and Congo. This was a condition for peace talks at that time that the then autonomous government of Southern Sudan mediated.
Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, followed up on this issue of villages being collectively punished for the escape of an LRA member when he cross-examined Witness P-209 on February 28.
“You are abducted forcefully, if you are lucky and able to escape without being caught again then they would go to your area, the area where you were abducted from. Whether or not they find you is beside the point,” said Witness P-209, adding that the LRA killed whomever they found in the village.
“I decided that if it is just me personally then I would rather die in Kony’s hand but not sacrifice everybody else. And make sure that the people who are at home, people in the village, are safe,” the witness said.
Odongo asked him who it is who gave the order that when someone escaped their home village would be attacked. Witness P-209 said it was Kony who gave the order.
Prosecutor Kamran Choudhry was the first to ask Witness P-209 about his escape from the LRA when Choudhry questioned him on February 27. Choudhry asked him why he decided to leave the LRA and then asked him whether he shared his plan with anyone. The witness said he told Ongwen.
“What did you say to Dominic Ongwen when you shared your plans about escaping?” asked Choudhry.
“I told him that, ‘Sir, I think my time has come to go back home because I think that if I go back home now Kony will not be able to follow me up to where I will be’,” answered Witness P-209.
“Secondly, the propaganda and the lies that Kony was telling us that ‘When you come home you will be killed’, for me I realized that was a lie and for that matter I am going to leave,” Witness P-209 said he further told Ongwen.
A few questions later, Choudhry asked Witness P-209 what Ongwen’s response was to his escape plan.
“He told me only one thing, about the court case on him, the indictment,” replied Witness P-209.
“What did he say about the court case and indictment?” asked Choudhry.
“He told me that he feared about the court case,” answered the witness.
“What court case did he mean?” asked Choudhry.
“He was talking about the ICC,” the witness answered.
“And what did Dominic Ongwen say about the ICC court case?” asked Choudhry.
“He didn’t say much, but he just told me that he feared the court,” replied Witness P-209.
A little later Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt asked Witness P-209 whether he thought it was risky sharing his escape plan with Ongwen.
“I did not think of the risk for this reason. First of all, he and Kony were not on very good terms at this point. It [Witness P-209 sharing his escape plan] could actually lead to his death as well,” answered the witness.
He said he also knew that, “Dominic [Ongwen] himself was a victim of circumstances and was supposed to be killed. Even me, myself, I was already a target of Kony and for that matter I thought it was safe.”
Choudhry also questioned Witness P-209 about an LRA attack on Pajule IDP camp that took place in October 2003. This is one of the attacks Ongwen has been charged with.
Witness P-209 said he was a captain with Trinkle brigade at the time of the attack on Pajule. He said days before the attack his brigade commander, Charles Kapere, was called by Vincent Otti, who was the LRA deputy leader. The witness said Otti summoned Kapere and members of his brigade to a meeting. He said where they gathered was somewhere in the bush he could not identify, but he estimated it was about 10 kilometers away from Pajule.
The witness said when they arrived at the meeting place; Kapere joined Otti and other commanders for a meeting. Witness P-209 said the other commanders in the meeting were Raska Lukwiya; Opoka, the LRA director of operations; Buk Abudema; and Ongwen. He said Kapere said these were the commanders present at that meeting when he briefed officers of Trinkle brigade about 30 minutes after the meeting.
Witness P-209 said Kapere told them Otti said he had summoned the different units because they were going to attack Pajule. He said they were told the focus of their attack was going to be the Ugandan government soldiers based in Pajule.
“The first place is the barracks where there were government soldiers. And then we should go to the mission to take the radio equipment and then go to the center to collect food, soap, salt, and other items,” said Witness P-209, describing what they were told were the targets in the attack on Pajule.
He said they were told Bogi, who was the commander of the first battalion of Trinkle brigade, was to lead the group that would attack the barracks at Pajule. He said they were also told Ongwen would lead the group that would attack the center of Pajule. He said Opoka was the overall commander of the Pajule attack.
Choudhry asked Witness P-209 which unit Ongwen was attached to at the time of the Pajule attack. He said Ongwen was under Otti’s command at Control Altar, the LRA high command.
“Why was Dominic Ongwen with Vincent Otti in Control Altar at that time?” asked Choudhry.
“I do not know why he was there,” replied Witness P-209.
“What did you believe was the reason that Dominic Ongwen was with Vincent Otti in Control Altar at that time?” asked Choudhry.
“It is difficult to guess because there are two things in Control Altar. Sometimes you go there as prisoner. Sometimes you are transferred there. So, I do not know which was which,” answered the witness.
Witness P-209 said that after Kapere briefed them about the plan to attack Pajule, Kapere told them to gather fighters from their respective units and have them assemble at a central point. The witness said he did this, and then at about 10 that night those fighters left for Pajule. He said he, Kapere, Otti, and some other commanders did not go to Pajule. He said that at about six the following morning they heard gunshots and knew the attack was underway.
Odongo asked Witness P-209 about the meeting before the attack and Ongwen’s role in that meeting.
“In view of the number, the array of commanders, the ranks much higher than Dominic Ongwen at that time, would it still be your testimony that Ongwen could have had a say in the proceedings of whatever took place there?” asked Odongo.
“That’s correct. As I stated earlier we were not there. But it’s very difficult for me to explain or tell the court right now that Dominic was also part of the plan … but based on my knowledge the commanders starting from major upwards, all those commanders with Dominic would be present at that meeting. They would always be present,” answered the witness.
Odongo then asked Witness P-209 about what he said he was told by Kapere about who lead which group in the attack on Pajule.
“When you led your group to that assembly point did you see Dominic Ongwen being appointed to command one of the groups?” asked Odongo.
“I did not see that happen. But I said my brigade commander, who was also invited for the meeting, he came back and told us,” replied Witness P-209.
He concluded his testimony on February 28. Judge Schmitt said this also brought to an end this block of hearings. The next hearing block will begin on March 19. On that day, Witness P-446 is scheduled to testify, who is one of three mental health experts the prosecution will be calling.
This article was first published on the International Justice Monitor website.