By Tom Maliti
A Ugandan army colonel told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the army’s aim during the conflict in northern Uganda was to break the morale of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) by targeting key leaders of the rebel group.
Colonel Joseph Balikuddembe told the court on Thursday that the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) did not study deeper how the LRA was organized as part of its counter-insurgency strategy.
Balikuddembe said on Thursday that he did not know some of the LRA commanders he met in 2006 were part of the LRA high command. He told the court he thought they were commanders with Dominic Ongwen, who at the time was commander of Sinia brigade.
Ongwen is on trial at the ICC for his alleged role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) that took place between 2003 and 2004. Ongwen is also on trial for his alleged role in sex crimes and conscripting and using child soldiers. In total, he has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Balikuddembe testified on Wednesday that between 2003 and 2006 he was posted to different parts of northern Uganda with the UPDF. He said during that period he served with the 301 Brigade; 55 Infantry Battalion; and the 601 Brigade in different positions, ending with his becoming brigade commander of the 601 Brigade.
Ongwen’s lawyers, Abigail Bridgman and Krispus Ayena Odongo, questioned Balikuddembe on Thursday about how the UPDF gathered and used intelligence on the LRA and details about the UPDF’s size and operations against the LRA. They also asked about how militia groups called Local Defence Units related with the UPDF and details about a 2006 meeting Balikuddembe had with Ongwen.
“From your work in northern Uganda fighting the LRA, would you say the LRA units fit within the definition of a military organization?” asked Bridgman.
“I cannot describe their kind of brigades,” replied Balikuddembe.
“Just from your work against the LRA, did you get to know the command structure and the way they organized their units?” asked Bridgman.
“First of all, for us in UPDF, we looked at the leadership of the LRA that would drive the insurgency. We did not look at their command structure,” said Balikuddembe.
He elaborated that some of the leaders they looked at were LRA leader Joseph Kony, Ongwen, and Okot Odhiambo. According to a witness who testified on September 15, Odiambo became commander of the Stockree brigade in 2004, one of the years Balikuddembe was questioned about.
Balikuddembe said the UPDF thought targeting such leaders, “would break the morale of the LRA.”
Later in the day when Bridgman asked Balikuddembe about his meeting with Ongwen at Lacekocot in 2006, she asked whether he knew the rank or role of two of the commanders who were with Ongwen.
Bridgman first asked him about Ajumani, who acted as interpreter between him and Ongwen during that meeting.
“Would you be surprised he was a chief (of the) protection unit for (LRA Leader) Joseph Kony around that period?” asked Bridgman.
“Ajumani?” asked Balikuddembe.
“Yes,” said Bridgman.
“I am not aware,” he replied.
A little later Bridgman asked him about Acaya Doctor, another of the commanders who was with Ongwen during that meeting.
“Now regarding Acaya Doctor, were you aware that he was the director of operations for the entire LRA?” asked Bridgman.
“I am not aware but I took them as part of Ongwen’s commanders,” replied Balikuddembe.
During Thursday’s hearing, Bridgman asked Balikuddembe about any role the UPDF had in cutting off the LRA’s food supply. All previous witnesses who have testified about LRA attacks, particularly on IDP camps, have said the LRA always took away food during those attacks.
“As part of your operations, duties, was it within the framework of your strategy to make sure that the LRA was deprived of food supplies?” asked Bridgman.
“My Lord, we could not deprive the LRA from getting food supplies. We knew that they were supported by Sudan and they were well supplied. Depriving the LRA of food supplies meant that we were punishing those that were abducted,” replied Balikuddembe.
Another line of questioning Bridgman followed was about the relationship between militias known as Local Defence Units (LDU) and the UPDF.
Balikuddembe said the LDUs were formed when IDP camp residents approached the UPDF and said they wanted to participate in the protection of the camps. He said each LDU operated only around the camp its members were drawn from. He said they did not operate across camps or outside the county or district they were based in.
Bridgman asked whether the LDUs had a structure different from the UPDF.
“I would (say) yes, but they were commanded by UPDF officers,” said Balikuddembe.
Later, Bridgman asked him for more details about the relationship between the LDUs and the UPDF.
“Who recruited them?” she asked.
“The UPDF,” replied Balikuddembe.
“Who trained them?” asked Bridgman.
“UPDF,” he answered.
“Who armed them?” asked Bridgman.
“UPDF,” Balikuddembe replied.
Subsequently, Bridgman asked about discipline in the LDUs and how it was enforced.
“If an LDU member misbehaved, were they taken to military courts?” asked Bridgman.
“Yes, they were bound by the military code of conduct,” replied Balikuddembe.
Several questions later, Bridgman asked, “Were you aware of incidents involving the LDUs where they opened fire on civilians?”
“My Lord, I am not aware of that,” replied Balikuddembe.
Some time later Bridgman asked whether he was aware of cases of, “people who had left the LDU being tortured and dying.”
“I would say that desertion in the forces worldwide do happen. I would say it is true others were court martialled. But the question of torture, I did not come across anybody who was arrested, tortured and even dying. I am not aware,” answered Balikuddembe.
After Bridgman finished questioning Balikuddembe, Odongo had some questions for him. A line of questioning Odongo pursued concerned the LRA attack on Pajule that Balikuddembe testified about on Wednesday.
Odongo confirmed from Balikuddembe that he had said the UPDF rescued some abductees about 10 days after the attack on Pajule, which took place on October 10, 2003.
“Mr. Balikuddembe, would it surprise you if I said that by the 20th of October, the LRA were way out of Pader (in northern Uganda). As a matter of fact, they were in Soroti (in Teso in eastern Uganda)?” asked Odongo.
“Your Honour, remember that groups of LRA remained in Pader and even other groups remained in Gulu (in northern Uganda). Not all the LRA went to Soroti,” replied Balikuddembe.
Odongo’s questions concluded Thursday’s hearing and Balikuddembe’s testimony. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said Witness P-233 would begin testifying on Friday.