By: Tom Maliti
A former member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) what he did during attacks on the Abok, Lukodi, and Odek camps for internally displaced people (IDP) 13 years ago.
Witness P-406, who testified between Monday and Wednesday this week, also described to the court how the LRA abducted him when he was 16 years old and his duties as an escort to a number of LRA commanders. He was the first witness to testify when the court resumed hearings on February 19 after a two-week break.
Witness P-406 is the 62nd prosecution witness to testify in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Ongwen has been charged for his alleged role in the attacks on Abok, Lukodi, and Odek, which took place between April and June 2004.
Ongwen has also been charged for his alleged role in an attack on another IDP camp in Pajule, sex crimes, and conscripting child soldiers. In total, Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
First to question Witness P-406 was Benjamin Gumpert, who is the lead prosecutor in Ongwen’s trial. Next was Caroline Walter, a lawyer representing one group of victims in this trial. Gumpert and Walter questioned Witness P-406 on Monday. Abigail Bridgman, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, cross-examined Witness P-406 on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Witness P-406 told the court that he was abducted in 2002 by a group led by Raska Lukwiya. He said sometime after his abduction he ended up in the LRA’s Sinia brigade.
The witness said he became an escort to someone identified in open court only as person number one. He said person number one was an intelligence officer in the Sinia brigade. Witness P-406 said when that person died in a battle in Awere, he then became an escort to someone identified in open court as person number two. The witness said person number two worked in what was called the operations room of the Sinia brigade.
Two of the people Witness P-406 was escort to were not identified by name in open court in order to protect his identity. This was one of the in-court protective measures Witness P-406 testified under. Another measure taken was that his face was distorted in public broadcasts of the hearing.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt also said Trial Chamber IX granted Witness P-406 assurances he would not be prosecuted at the ICC for any self-incriminating evidence he gave so long as he told the truth. Whenever Witness P-406 gave self-incriminating testimony between Monday and Wednesday that part of the hearing was closed to the public. On top of that, he had a legal advisor, Amos Waldman, present throughout his testimony to guide him.
In open court, Witness P-406 testified about what commanders said immediately before the attacks on the Abok, Lukodi, and Odek IDP camps and some of the things he observed during those attacks. Whenever he testified about his own actions during those attacks, such testimony was closed to the public.
Witness P-406 told the court that when he joined Sinia brigade, the commander of the brigade was Buk Abudema. He said sometime after October 2003, Buk Abudema informed the group that he had been named division commander and Dominic Ongwen would be the brigade commander of Sinia. Witness P-406 said these changes happened after Tabu Ley, who was division commander, was killed in the Teso region.
He said he was in the Teso region the day Tabu Ley died. He said on that day a Ugandan military helicopter flew overhead, and they were told Tabu Ley gave the order that they shot it down when it returned.
“We were told to take some okra and apply to the mouth of the gun so that everybody’s gun would fire,” the witness said.
He said when the helicopter flew overhead again, “Tabu Ley started firing at the helicopter. He tied something on the mouth of the gun and he started shooting at the helicopter.”
“We started shooting at the helicopter and then they [the helicopter] started attacking us. Tabu Ley left to go to the road between Lira and Soroti. He said he was going to attack a bus,” said Witness P-406. He said later that day is when he heard Tabu Ley had died.
On Monday, Gumpert asked Witness P-406 about the first time he heard the name Dominic Ongwen or Odomi, a name that Ongwen was commonly known by in the LRA. The witness estimated it was in September 2002 when he first heard Ongwen’s name after it was reported Ongwen had gone to attack a hospital at Morulem in Abim district. He said they heard that Ongwen then got shot somewhere in Pader district, and he and his commanders went to see Ongwen.
“We found that he was shot on the right-hand side of the thigh, so we left and we were told he went to the sick bay,” said the witness.
When Walter questioned Witness P-406, she asked him what his life was like before being abducted, whether he feared for his family when he was abducted, and his living conditions while in the LRA.
“When we had just been abducted there was water and food. It was plenty. But between 2003 and 2004 life became extremely hard,” he said.
Walter asked him whether he had clothes to wear during the time he was with the LRA.
“When we had just been abducted we did have clothing. Between 2003 and 2004 we were wearing tattered clothes. We did not have bed sheets at times to cover ourselves,” the witness said.
“The commanders did have a bed [to sleep on], but for us we just slept anywhere we could rest our heads,” he said.
Witness P-406 told the court that since escaping the LRA in 2004 he still has nightmares sometimes and “bad thoughts.” He said sometimes the community stigmatizes him because he was with the LRA, so he has learned that “if you go to a certain place, you have to be humble.” He said his family is also stigmatized sometimes.
“Yes, my father, if he is in any kind of argument, they will say, ‘Oh, you are behaving like your son,’” said Witness P-406.
When Bridgman questioned Witness P-406 she asked him about the terrain in Abok, Lukodi, and Odek, and whether they crossed rivers or streams or swamps to get to the camps. Bridgman also asked him whether he saw Ongwen participating in the attacks on Abok and Lukodi.
Witness P-406 said Ongwen did not join the fighters who attacked Abok. He said Ongwen was left behind “at his homestead.” The witness said he remembered seeing Ongwen as they walked to attack Lukodi, but he did not remember seeing him during the actual attack.
Bridgman also asked Witness P-406 about a commander called Robert Mugabe, who the witness said was killed during the attack on Odek. Bridgman put to him a proposition that Mugabe died in 2005 and not during the Odek attack, which occurred in 2004.
“To my knowledge he died [during the Odek attack],” said Witness P-406.
Bridgman then questioned him further on the attack on Abok. She asked him whether he knew a commander called Komakech. Witness P-406 said he knew him. She asked him whether Komakech took part in the attack on Abok. The witness said he did.
“Now, what would you say if I said that Komakech and person number two did not go to Abok and were in Atiak?” asked Bridgman.
“I stated that we went there with my commander [person number two]. If he was in Atiak, then perhaps. I do not know where Atiak is,” replied Witness P-406.
“Could it be that the attack that you were describing you think was in Abok, was as matter of fact in Atiak?” asked Bridgman.
“I do not know, but the place that I know is Abok. I do not know where Atiak is,” Witness P-406 answered.
Witness P-406 concluded testifying on Wednesday morning. Witness P-448 began testifying on Wednesday afternoon.
This article was first published on the International Justice Monitor website.