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Thousands of Victims of Uganda's Brutal Conflict Are Watching This Trial Very Closely

ICC prosecutors are pursuing Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of Uganda’s Lord's Resistance Army, on 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and torture.
Photo by Michael Kooren/EPA

The first commander of Uganda's feared Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to be captured and face prosecution appeared at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague today, where prosecutors are seeking to put him on trial for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, torture, forced marriage, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

The confirmation of charges hearing for Dominic Ongwen, a one-time child soldier who rose to become a senior LRA commander, is expected to last five days and will include testimony from victims' representatives before judges rule on whether prosecutors have enough evidence for the case to go to trial.


According to Joseph Manoba, a Ugandan lawyer representing more than 1,000 victims in the case, Ongwen's appearance at the ICC marks an important milestone in the search for justice for victims of Uganda's conflict who still suffer the scars of atrocities committed over a decade ago.

"My clients are very excited about his appearance," Manoba told VICE News. "There are people all over northern Uganda watching this trial very closely."

Today's session saw prosecution lawyer Ben Grumpert give details of the harrowing brutality Ongwen is alleged to be responsible for, including the murder of babies held by nursing mothers his men had kidnapped, the forcing of minors to engage in torture and murder as part of their transition into hardened child combatants, and at least one instance of ordering cannibalism.

When asked by Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser if he wanted the charges read out in court, Ongwen reportedly replied in his Acholi language that it would be a waste of time. "You may speak five words and only two are true," he said, according to Associated Press.

Related: 'I Don't Understand What I Did': We Spoke to a Lord's Resistance Army Escapee Who Wants Remaining Fighters to Return Home Too

The LRA first emerged in the mid-1980s under the leadership of Joseph Kony as part of a wider rebellion against repression from the government of Yoweri Museveni, who had taken control of the country in 1986 after a five-year-long civil war.


With the Acholi people, who dominate swathes of northern Uganda, accounting for a significant proportion of the security personnel of the previous government, they became the target of post-war reprisals. Amid murders, looting, and property destruction at the hands of government forces, a resistance movement sprang up.

After the early figurehead of the resistance, Alice Lakwena, fled to Kenya in 1988, Kony stepped into the breach. Cultivating a mystical and spiritual image, Kony evoked a devotion among his followers that has seen many label the LRA a cult.

Among its many atrocities, the LRA is famous for having kidnapped tens of thousands of children for forced military recruitment or sex slavery.

In 2003 and 2004, the LRA was responsible for massacring and kidnapping hundreds of internally displaced people housed in camps in northern Uganda — events from which the charges against Ongwen stem.

Now 40 years old, Ongwen is thought to have been recruited at around the age of 10. Having risen through the ranks of the LRA, Ongwen was the least senior of five commanders the ICC sought the arrest and trial of in 2005.

With three of those five now proven or presumed dead, only Kony remains at large. Since leaving Uganda around a decade ago, Kony has continued to lead the LRA, which has moved between South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, committing atrocities along the way.


While Ongwen had remained with the LRA after it left Uganda, in January 2015 he handed himself over to US authorities having fallen out of favor with Kony over accusations Ongwen was providing information to the Sudan People's Liberation Army — a long time enemy of the LRA.

But while Ongwen's capture and appearance at the ICC has been widely welcomed, to many observers his history as a child soldier and the fact other commanders responsible for atrocities have escaped indictment embodies some of the deep injustices seen in Uganda's journey to overcome its war-torn past.

"Whether Ongwen should have been indicted by the ICC in the first place, relative to other LRA commanders who joined the rebellion voluntarily but received amnesty, continues to be debated by many in Uganda and internationally," Lisa Dougan, CEO of Invisible Children, an NGO campaigning for justice in Uganda, told VICE News.

That amnesty is also enjoyed by members of government security forces known to have engaged in atrocities. In many cases, according to Manoba, people were victimized by both sides in the conflict.

Related: Ugandan Forces Confirm Lord's Resistance Army Commander Has Surrendered

"People would be kidnapped by the LRA, escape, and then be picked up by the [government forces] who either wanted to track down the LRA or thought these people were collaborators" he said. "So there are victims who have suffered a double effect of victimization."

According to Liz Evenson, Senior Counsel in the International Justice Division at Human Rights Watch, while Ongwen's appearance is a welcome "next step" for many Ugandan victims seeking justice, the ICC's decision not to indict people responsible for government-perpetrated crimes has left other victims feeling alienated from the process.

"This is something we also have seen in other ICC situations where it looks as if the prosecution is pursuing a one-sided strategy. There may be very good reasons for that," Evenson told VICE News. "But that is something that is still not well understood, not well explained by the ICC prosecutor's office and it has had an impact on perceptions of the ICC in northern Uganda."

Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn