A leader of the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that survivors of a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on the camp 13 years ago are not happy because they do not know who killed their relatives and friends.
Douglas Obwor told the court this was important in the Lango culture of the former residents of Abok IDP camp. Obwor also described Abok as being vulnerable to attack because the Ugandan army failed to act on reports of LRA fighters near it, and the commander responsible for protecting the camp fled in the hours before the June 2004 LRA attack.
Obwor was testifying in the trial of a former LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen, who has been charged with 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on Abok. Ongwen has also been charged for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps, namely, Lukodi, Pajule, and Odek. In total he faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On November 15, Obwor described the different types of burials the Lango conducted for people who had died under different circumstances. He said if someone died from natural causes that person’s clan made arrangements for their burial. He said, however, if someone was killed then their killer had to admit to the killing and pay for the burial plus a form of reparation.
Obwor gave these descriptions in response to questions from Francisco Cox, a lawyer representing one group of victims in the trial of Ongwen. Obwor told the court that he was secretary to the committee camp residents had formed and elected. He said he was later elected to be the committee leader in December 2003.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt continued this line of questioning about burials and asked Obwor how the people who were killed in the attack on Abok in June 2004 were buried.
“The people who died on that day did not receive any proper burial rites. They were buried like dogs. People did not have means to bury them. But last year the Archbishop came into the area and conducted a service, but people are still not happy because we need to know who did the killing … They need to verify who did the killing,” replied Obwor.
Earlier, Obwor had told the court that the morning after the attack on Abok he went around the camp, counting the dead and recording their names. In total he counted 28 dead, 25 of them from gunshot wounds and three from burns.
“Why is it so important for people in the community to know the truth of what happened during the attack?” asked Cox, following up on Judge Schmitt’s question.
“I said that it is important because that means we can sit down discuss with the person because in the Lango culture, if there is not reconciliation between the two parties, the other person is cursed; and if a person is cursed nothing good will happen in your life,” answered Obwor.
Before answering questions from Cox, Obwor was questioned by prosecutor Pubudu Sachithanandan. One line of questioning Sachithanandan pursued was about a part of Obwor’s statement to prosecution investigators, in which Obwor spoke of the army commander in charge of Abok, Mugabe, fleeing. Sachithanandan asked him to describe how Mugabe fled.
Obwor told the court camp residents heard rumors of an impending attack on the camp. He said, “We were told that they [the LRA] were coming from the direction in the northern part of the camp. As secretary [of the camp] I went and reported to the OC [officer in charge].”
He said when he went to the barracks he was told Mugabe had fled. Obwor said he asked why Mugabe had fled and, “One of the soldiers said, ‘You know this person is a coward he could have fled and went to Ngai [a town some distance away from Abok]’.”
Obwor said he reported the rumors of an LRA attack during the day, before the LRA attacked Abok that night at about 8:45.
Later in the day on November 15, Charles Taku, a lawyer representing Ongwen, followed up on the issue of Mugabe fleeing.
“Can you tell the court whether he [Mugabe] was apprehended and court martialed?” asked Taku.
“Immediately after the attack in Abok IDP camp Mugabe was arraigned before the court martial in Gulu. He was prosecuted and tried. Our LC 1 [local council one chairman] of the area was called to the court martial. I do not know how it ended, but there was a trial against him,” replied Obwor.
Another line of questioning Taku followed was how the Uganda People’s Defense Forces unit posted at Abok responded to LRA movements near the camp. Taku asked Obwor about this because Taku said Obwor had said in his statement that camp residents reported seeing LRA fighters near the camp a number of times over a period of several months.
“Why did they [government soldiers] not take any preventative action to increase security around the camp?” asked Taku.
“We asked them. When you ask them, they will tell us that the LRA are elusive, they are in the jungle and forests, and when people are hiding in jungles and forest it is difficult to locate them. They were trying to provide security to people in the villages,” answered Obwor.
At the start of the hearing on November 15, Sachithanandan asked Obwor to confirm the document in front of him was his statement. Obwor confirmed it was and also said he told the truth as best as possible to prosecution investigators. Sachithanandan then asked him whether he objected to his statement being used as evidence in the trial of Ongwen. Obwor said he did not object.
Sachithanandan took Obwor through this procedure to satisfy the requirements of Rule 68(3) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence. Trial Chamber IX allowed Obwor, whose witness number is P-306, to testify under this rule in a December 5, 2016 decision. Under this provision of Rule 68, a witness has to be present in court, not object to his or her statement being used as evidence, and be available for questioning by lawyers and judges. Obwor testified via video link from an undisclosed location.
Obwor concluded his testimony on November 15. Next to testify was Robson Oper.
A transcript of Obwor’s testimony is available here.