By Victor Ochen
It was shocking and difficult to be seated in the same room with a killer and hear calls for amnesty
While at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, I received many phone calls from Uganda, coming from people whose family members and relatives were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). One caller said: “I understand you saw Dominic Ongwen. Do you know how many of the children he abducted came back with him?” Another caller asked whether Ongwen had already said where the abducted children were?
These questions reminded me of the lasting pain of families of abducted people who remain missing and of how strongly they want their relatives back. But, if Ongwen, being the senior commander who is responsible for abductions of tens of thousands, can come back alone, what hope do we in fact have for the missing people? Should Kony be arrested tomorrow and the LRA defeated, will the tens of thousands of people be found? And what will happen if not? Considering the latest arrest and the reports of an ever weaker LRA, the Government and the international community should focus their attention on supporting the families of the missing people and prepare them for the option that even if the LRA is defeated, not all missing people might return. The attention and support needs to come now.
I was the only Ugandan and the only victim of LRA’s brutality who attended Ongwen’s initial appearance on Jan. 26 at the ICC. In the Court’s public gallery, where I was seated, I was only about five meters away from him. It was shocking and difficult to be seated in the same room with a killer. This is a man who for over 20 years commanded his subordinates to rape, abduct, and kill thousands and displace millions. His orders to commit the cruelest of actions were directed against an innocent and unarmed civilian population.
I saw him seated with a smooth face, wearing a suit in a modern courtroom, and wondered what the survivors of his barbarianism would be thinking about him: all those whose lips, noses, ears or hands were cut off; those whom he tortured by raping, hanging up from trees, or burning; and those children whom he forced to kill their own parents.
Like anybody else who lived and survived the worst of lives in the IDP camps, like any child born in northern Uganda whose education, home and future were destroyed, I am very happy today to see that Dominic Ongwen, one of the top commanders of the vicious LRA, who worked so hard to kill people like me, would find himself accused before the International Criminal Court for the crimes he committed against innocent and defenceless persons. I am glad that I am alive to see him face justice, yet, I am also sad, that so many of his victims did not live to see this day.
Many raise his status as a former child soldier. If it is true, it should be taken into account during his trial. However, the mere formal status of a former child soldier should not overshadow Ongwen’s acts as a senior commander in a group notorious for sexual enslavement, mutilations, and kidnappings. In his senior and trusted position within the LRA, Ongwen had the best opportunity to leave. Many other people, whom he abducted, managed to escape and come back home. Some among those who had managed to flee came back with testimonies about how brutal Ongwen was to other children who tried to escape, which shows him in the light of a perpetrator, not a victim.
Currently, the most important issue is that we have tens of thousands of youth and children who were abducted by the LRA under the command or responsibility of Ongwen. Those who have returned (tens of thousands haven’t!) to their communities form a large group of frustrated, angry, and hopeless young men and women.
What would happen to our society if Ongwen gets acquitted and these men learned that the status of having been a child soldier allows you to kill, abduct, rape, destroy and do all other atrocities at will with impunity?They will think: “I was a child soldier, if I do anything bad, I will walk free.”
We need to reconcile and rebuild our society, which has been brutalised and torn apart by the LRA for over 20 years. The war has created an environment of ethnic-divide and finger-pointing across the Greater North. Given these circumstances, the ongoing campaign for Ongwen to receive amnesty instead of facing justice can also be seen, especially by his victims, as a strategy to nurture a culture of impunity.
Above all, it is very important to realise that Ongwen, like any other LRA commander, has achieved enough prominence for all the wrong reasons. Attention now needs to be focused on those victims whose lives he destroyed and whose days are still defined by severe physical and emotional pain.
Victor Ochen is the Director, African Youth Initiative Network – AYINET