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Dominic Ongwen and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Victim, perpetrator, or both?

Dominic Ongwen wearing a suit, standing against a blank white wall.
Dominic Ongwen, a senior commander in the Lord's Resistance Army, enters the court room of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, 6 December, 2016. (Peter Dejong/REUTERS)

Dominic Ongwen could face decades behind bars after his conviction today at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes – committed arguably by a victim of extreme child abuse.

Ongwen was aged about 10 when he was abducted, around 1993, by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, rising to become a commander in the Ugandan armed group, notorious for its abuses against civilians.

Specific attacks on civilians and displaced people’s camps formed the core of the legal case against Ongwen, which began in December 2016. Ongwen faced charges including “murder and attempted murder; torture; sexual slavery; rape; enslavement; forced marriage as an inhumane act; persecution; and other inhumane acts”.

From 1987, the LRA rebellion against the Kampala government uprooted millions in northern Uganda as it rapidly degenerated into massacres and abuses of civilians, traumatising many families as children were abducted to be sex slaves or child soldiers. Even when they were released or ran away, returning to normal life proved difficult, especially for girls and women.

Ongwen faced 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes at the ICC. He was found guilty of 61. Before reaching the custody of the ICC in 2015, only a few photos and video clips exist of Ongwen, who grew up under the command of Kony – the messianic and elusive LRA leader from northern Uganda.

Lord's Resistance Army - Uganda peace talks

The LRA and the Ugandan government holding peace talks in the LRA base on the Congo-Sudan border.

Charged at the age of 32, Ongwen became the youngest person ever to be indicted at the ICC. The case rests on events after he reached the age of 18 but nevertheless raises questions of criminal responsibility and child rights. Can a child grabbed by abusers at the age of 10 and who grew up in bush encampments be legally responsible? This IRIN footage (also above) first captured Ongwen (with walkie talkie) at abortive peace talks in 2007.

A short documentary film, Picking Up The Pieces, released later in 2007 and recently retrieved from the archives of IRIN, the predecessor of The New Humanitarian, includes unique interviews with Ongwen’s aunt and with Florence Ayot, a woman forced to be his “wife”. Ayot was abducted when she was only nine, and “married” off – raped – at 13. When her first “husband” was killed, she was given to a second LRA commander – but later managed to escape. She said Ongwen was the father of her two children.

The LRA, which started with a Christian extremist ideology and a purported aim to rule under the Biblical Ten Commandments, was also fuelled by identity politics in northern Uganda. As well as its bloody raids on civilian villages, sexual abuse, and abduction of children, it became known for its ability to evade capture and defeat.

Peace talks held in a remote location in Ri-Kwangba in South Sudan in 2007 came after the ICC charged five leaders of the LRA in July 2005, some of whom are now dead.

However, the 2007 talks failed, and Kony and a small but ruthless core of the LRA went back into the bush. They have been pursued over the years across several countries with little success – by UN peacekeepers and US special forces as well as by Ugandan and South Sudanese troops.

The LRA is still not defeated and its leader, Kony, remains at large.


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