To Forgive a Warlord

The wheels of justice are turning for Joseph Kony's top deputies. But could rehashing the worst days of the Lord’s Resistance Army at The Hague tear Uganda apart?


GULU, Uganda — In 1996, seven years after members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted Florence Ayot from her home in northern Uganda, her commanders told her that she was soon to be married. She was only 16 years old, and would have no say in the matter. Her new husband, a young man in his early 20s named Dominic Ongwen, was also a captive, and was just beginning his rise through the LRA hierarchy. He had already earned a reputation for brutality, and would eventually win a position in LRA founder Joseph Kony’s “Control Altar” — the group’s core leadership.

There was no ceremony; Ayot simply moved into Ongwen’s camp, as she recalls. He was often away, usually on the front lines, and his returns to camp inevitably cued the start of yet another arduous march to stay one step ahead of Ugandan troops. But as Ayot came to know him, Ongwen seemed a fundamentally “goodhearted” person, who fought only to avoid punishment from their commanders, she says. They had a child together and Ayot was pregnant with another when, in 2005, a firefight with Ugandan troops provided her cover to escape the LRA with her infant.

A few months later, after nearly two decades spent amassing a death toll in the tens of thousands, the LRA retreated from northern Uganda. Fragments of the group fled to the jungles of eastern Central African Republic (CAR), where, in early January 2015 near the town of Sam Ouandja, Ongwen surrendered to members of a local rebel group, who then turned him over to U.S. special forces.

As news of Ongwen’s capture reached Gulu, the northern Ugandan town where Ayot now lives, her neighbors crammed into her one-room hut to offer their congratulations. “We kept on praying to God that he can be brought home,” she said. She had not heard from her husband since her escape. Still, she admits that she allowed herself to wonder whether he might help pay their children’s school fees if he returned to Uganda and found work.

Though Ongwen is accused of overseeing the torture and murder of civilians and of enslaving the survivors of his raids, there was reason to think he might receive a pardon. Under Uganda’s 2000 Amnesty Act, thousands of former LRA combatants, including scores who willingly joined the insurgency, have qualified for a full pardon. Regional leaders credit the north’s nascent economic and social revival to this policy of near-blanket amnesty, and the spirit of reconciliation it has inculcated. The law has also allowed communities to sidestep the murky issue of culpability that arises when perpetrators like Ongwen double as victims. But, as human rights advocates are quick to point out, this spirit of reconciliation often comes at the cost of accountability.

But Ongwen isn’t coming home anytime soon. Rather than receiving amnesty, he was transferred to The Hague in mid-January. In 2003, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government, “having exhausted every other means of bringing an end to this terrible suffering,” referred the LRA to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Two years later, the court returned with charges against Kony, along with three other top leaders now rumored to be dead, and Ongwen. Those charges were read to him in an ICC pre-trial chamber on Jan. 26: three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes. An initial August date has been set to decide whether the court will pursue a full trial.

If it does, Ongwen will serve as the proxy through which Uganda must finally examine the nature of justice for the thousands of people forced to commit the same horrors they also suffered — but only after their communities and government failed to protect them from capture. Even amid the current calm, this is a process many in northern Uganda worry their region cannot withstand.

* * *

Nelson Onono-Onweng, the retired Anglican bishop of northern Uganda, is easily identifiable in a group photo hanging on his office wall. He’s the one smiling broadly in the corner, tucked alongside other church officials. Seated dead center is Dominic Ongwen, on his way to peace talks between LRA leaders and the Ugandan government in Juba (in what was then still southern Sudan) in 2006. Because Ongwen and his men were perennially short on food and could trust neither the Ugandan government nor international agencies, they asked Onono-Onweng to organize supplies for their journey; the picture was snapped shortly before the supply handoff. Though Kony would ultimately scuttle the peace deal, Onono-Onweng keeps it on his wall to remind himself that, even in war, cooperation is possible.

Fifteen years after the Amnesty Act was introduced, Onono-Onweng remains one of its most vocal champions. At the time of its passage, northern leaders read the act as a shift in government policy. Rather than seeking the total annihilation of the LRA, Uganda’s leadership appeared willing to embrace the perspective of their communities, where people viewed reconciliation as the quickest path to peace. Indeed, the bill’s very language acknowledges that the law stemmed from “the expressed desire of the people of Uganda to end armed hostilities, reconcile with those who have caused suffering and rebuild their communities.”

That dovetails with Onono-Onweng’s philosophy of forgiveness, which he arrived at after long discussions with his parishioners, many of whom were victims of the LRA. “None of them talked to me that they won’t forgive,” he said.

But the act was no panacea. Some of the LRA’s worst atrocities — including a single attack in early 2004 that left at least 330 people dead — would come after its passage, even as Museveni’s administration continued to vacillate between fighting with and talking to the LRA. But Onono-Onweng credits the policy — in combination with traditional justice mechanisms that emphasize reconciliation over punishment — with encouraging abductees-turned-soldiers to flee the group’s clutches, and with easing their reintegration into the community. This, he believes, has put the north on its current path toward recovery.

When the law expired in 2012, long after the LRA had left northern Uganda, Onono-Onweng pressed for its reinstatement, arguing that as long as members of the community were still impressed into the LRA, it was important to offer them a clear path to return. It was eventually renewed in 2013.

Traveling across the region, it’s easy to understand his confidence. The displacement camps where more than 1.8 million people sought refuge from the LRA during the course of the war have transformed into trading centers, or given way to fields teeming with maize and groundnuts. Potholed roads are being replaced with gleaming tarmac. And in towns like Gulu, the demand for new buildings is outpacing their construction.

It doesn’t take long, though, to encounter lingering bitterness among victims who come into regular contact with the very people who killed their families or destroyed their property. Or among former abductees who have never felt fully welcomed back.

Lilly Atong lives a few houses down from Florence Ayot, in a dense cluster of huts in the middle of Gulu inhabited by former LRA captives. The two became friends in the bush, and maintain an easy camaraderie owing to their similar backgrounds: Both were abducted at a young age, trained to fight, and forced to marry an LRA commander. Except Atong’s husband was Joseph Kony.

Ugandan soldiers ambushed Atong’s LRA contingent in 2005; she was captured and then released after being pardoned. Since moving back to northern Uganda, she is constantly reminded of her connection to the warlord. The most painful incident, she says, occurred shortly after her return. An old woman chased her son on his way home, screaming that if she had been forced to deliver Kony’s child, “I would have beaten him to pulp!” Since then Atong has tried to keep to herself, though she says amnesty has provided some relief. If people give her grief, she reminds them that the government forgave her and so should they.

Onono-Onweng said forgiveness is inevitably better than the alternative: endless agony over how to apportion blame for the horrors committed under nearly inconceivable circumstances. He calls it “looking at life in circles. You think, ‘I’m suffering because of what happened to me yesterday.’ That is dangerous.” This, for him, is the specter a trial raises, particularly in the case of Ongwen, where there are plenty of villains to go around.

* * *

On the windy winter afternoon of Jan. 26, Dominic Ongwen arrived at The Hague for his pre-trial hearing. Dressed in a suit and checked tie, he bore only the faintest resemblance to the young man in the few old photos of him still circulating: tightly cropped images showing a solemn, almost brooding, fighter sporting dreadlocks and wearing fatigues.

At the hearing, he told the court that he was kidnapped in 1988 at the age of 14 from “a small place called Coorom,” about an hour’s drive outside Gulu. By that point, the LRA had been active for a year, long enough for parents to begin cautioning children to never go anywhere alone. At the family home in Coorom, Ongwen’s uncle, John Odong, told Foreign Policy that his nephew was walking with a large group of children on their way home from school, when LRA fighters emerged from the bush. The students scattered, but Ongwen and two others were captured.

In 2008, the Gulu-based Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), which is facilitating transitional justice efforts in the north, compiled a dossier of testimonies from Ongwen’s fellow captives, as well as from some of the children he abducted and led into battle. If the ICC prosecutor decides to move ahead with Ongwen’s trial, she will almost certainly revisit many of the claims from JRP’s report.

The witness accounts in the report describe Ongwen as an eager participant in the LRA’s activities, “repeatedly demonstrating his natural ability as a fighter from a young age,” to the degree that Kony allegedly used him as “a role model for other abducted children.” After achieving a senior rank in the early 2000s, Ongwen led “attack after attack, massacring and abducting unknown numbers of persons,” according to the accounts JRP compiled. The 2005 ICC Ongwen indictment came for allegedly ordering a 2004 massacre at a displacement camp outside Gulu. At least 40 civilians were killed and six others kidnapped in the incident.

Odong, Ongwen’s uncle, has a hard time reconciling this account with his memories of the shy boy who hurried home from school to help his grandmother weed the garden. “If he was taught to do that, then they just taught him from there, because that’s not how he was,” Odong says. If anyone is to be tried, it should be the early members of the LRA, the ones who volunteered to fight and swelled their ranks with children they abducted and indoctrinated, Odong says. They are the ones who forced 14-year-old Ongwen to become a killer in order to save his own life, he says. Many of these former fighters are now walking free in Gulu town, recipients of an amnesty that his nephew has been denied.

* * *

As the sun started to descend over Gulu, Ayot, Ongwen’s wife and former fellow captive, started preparing a small dinner of maize meal and vegetables for her family. She had just learned that the Ugandan government had agreed to facilitate Ongwen’s handover to the ICC. President Museveni felt compelled to turn Ongwen over to the ICC because his crimes extended beyond Uganda’s borders and into other countries where the LRA was active, including South Sudan, the CAR, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, Henry Oryem Okello, explained at a press conference in mid-January.

Ayot felt no anger at the news, only sadness. The government “wasted my time,” she says, failing to protect them from the LRA and robbing her of the chance at an education or a good career. Now, to earn enough money to feed her family, she fetches water for neighbors. It’s the government, she says, that should be held responsible.

Ayot believes that by giving her husband to the ICC, Museveni has betrayed them again. “The president is supposed to be like a father to Dominic Ongwen,” she said. “It’s not fair for a father to try his son.”

Even before wading into issues of culpability, Onono-Onweng says there is also the question of what impact Ongwen’s handover may have on future defections. In a videotaped interview with the Ugandan army, Ongwen says that whenever Kony grew worried his deputy was contemplating escape, he “told me that I would be prosecuted at the ICC.” Despite the fact that Kony is probably the only other ICC indictee still living, the restricted environment of an LRA camp allows for easy manipulation of the truth. And while analysts estimate that the number of children still held captive by the LRA has now shrunk to the hundreds, there are still thousands of families in northern Uganda hoping a son or daughter is among those who remain and might one day escape. They do not welcome any further deterrent.

Among northern Uganda’s political and religious leadership, these debates underscore the worry that the region’s fragile peace cannot withstand Ongwen’s trial. “There’s a precedent set,” Onono-Onweng says. “Once you change it, you cause more conflict.”

* * *

In Uganda, only one person, a midlevel commander named Thomas Kwoyelo, has ever faced trial in connection with the LRA’s atrocities. The Ugandan army captured him in the DRC in March 2009, and he was arraigned in 2011 in the then-brand-new International Crimes Division of Uganda’s High Court. But his case remains in limbo until the country’s Supreme Court decides whether he qualifies for amnesty.

Nicholas Opiyo, one of Uganda’s best-known human rights lawyers, represented Kwoyelo. He also supports the decision to send Ongwen to the ICC. Ongwen’s case, he says, is different from any of the thousands of amnesty recipients. “There’s never been as high a leader who has been captured or surrendered,” Opiyo says, and the scope of his involvement demands a reckoning beyond anything that can be achieved in traditional justice systems. On behalf of all of the LRA’s victims across four countries, “it was better he be taken to the ICC.”

But the ICC isn’t exactly viewed as apolitical, especially in East Africa, where it came in for a drubbing last year. In December, the court was forced to drop charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in connection with the violence that followed the country’s 2007 elections, for lack of evidence. Ironically, Ugandan President Museveni has been one of the court’s more vocal critics, publicly accusing it near the end of 2014 of becoming “a vessel for oppressing Africa,” then claiming, “I won’t work with them again,” according to Reuters. After the announcement that Ongwen would be delivered to the ICC, Oryem Okello of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified that Museveni had been speaking only of cases involving sitting heads of state.

Still, Opiyo says an ICC trial offers enough of a remove to critically explore the questions raised by Odong, Ayot, and countless others. What drove people to join Kony’s crusade? What responsibility does the government bear for failing to protect its own citizens? And, at the crux of this case, how much culpability can you assign a child who was forced to kill? Ongwen’s case offers insights that might be lost were he allowed to melt back into life in Coorom.

The trial could also ultimately help dissolve what Holly Dranginis, a policy analyst with the Enough Project, called the “false dichotomy” between justice and forgiveness that has been allowed to develop in northern Uganda. The Enough Project, which works to end crimes against humanity, has long focused on the LRA. “Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean someone shouldn’t be prosecuted or that we shouldn’t dig in and find evidence of what actually happened,” she said. And that rather than reawakening conflict, context and debate might help ease the region’s recovery.

Now that the process has begun, people across northern Uganda are hoping she is right, but there is no disguising the trepidation that Ongwen’s handover has raised. By denying him amnesty, they worry, the government might have destabilized the very foundation of the north’s recovery. Conversation after conversation with political and religious leaders, but also with regular people on the streets of Gulu, ended with the same expression: They should have let sleeping dogs lie.

Ongwen agrees. In his videotaped interview with the Ugandan army before he was handed over to the ICC, the former LRA leader is clear that he surrendered himself expecting to receive amnesty. “I have shown my true character by coming out,” he says. “I don’t want to die in the wilderness. If the call for amnesty is mere politicking, then I leave it in the hands of the authorities holding me.”

But after addressing his own accountability, he acknowledges he is resigned to whatever fate awaits him: “Each of us sin in words, deeds, and thoughts. Each of us sin in different ways. If I committed a crime through war, I am sorry. In my mind, I thought war was the best thing. Even up to now, I dream about war every night. But if they don’t want to forgive me, I leave it in their hands. I have become like a lice, which you remove from your hair or waist and kill without any resistance.”

MICHELE SIBOLINI/AFP/Getty Images; Photo illustration by FP

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