Making a Murderer in Uganda

Kidnapped by rebels when he was 9, Dominic Ongwen grew up to command fighters who slaughtered, raped, and pillaged. Is he guilty of heinous crimes — or was he a hostage the whole time?

Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo: (FILES) This file picture taken 29 June 2006, five kilometers south of the town of Bunia, Ituri District, about 3,000km east of the capital KinshasaA young militia fighter waiting to hand over bullets at a United Nations disarmament point. Delegates from 20 African countries gather in Kinshasa from 12 to 14 June 2007 for a UN conference on the reintegration and disarmament of former combatants in the world's poorest and most violence-wracked region. AFP PHOTO/FILES/STUART PRICE (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo: (FILES) This file picture taken 29 June 2006, five kilometers south of the town of Bunia, Ituri District, about 3,000km east of the capital KinshasaA young militia fighter waiting to hand over bullets at a United Nations disarmament point. Delegates from 20 African countries gather in Kinshasa from 12 to 14 June 2007 for a UN conference on the reintegration and disarmament of former combatants in the world's poorest and most violence-wracked region. AFP PHOTO/FILES/STUART PRICE (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)

COOROM, Uganda — Ask Dominic Ongwen’s relatives what he was like as a boy, and they give the bland answers familiar to any crime reporter probing a suspect’s background. Bright. Kind. Never any trouble. “He loved hunting birds,” remembers Madeline Akot, an aunt. “He would make a hole in a papaya fruit and use it to draw the birds, then trap them inside. And then he’d give the birds to other children.”

Beyond memories of a sweet-tempered child, however, their stories quickly dry up: None of the family members sitting outside their straw-roofed huts in a beaten-earth compound in Coorom, a village in northern Uganda, have seen Ongwen since he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) while walking to school nearly three decades ago. (His mother, a teacher, was bludgeoned to death by the rebels.) Shown the printout of an international news article with a recent photograph of Ongwen, his sister Juliana holds it tenderly to her breast for a moment. She then asks to keep it.

The picture captures him standing, in what may well be the only suit and tie he has ever worn, in a witness box in The Hague. Dominic Ongwen, named after the white ants — a tasty local delicacy — that swarmed in the season he was born, became a child soldier after his abduction. And he grew up to become a notorious LRA commander, reporting to its founder, the visionary Joseph Kony.

Ongwen was flown to the Netherlands soon after surrendering to a militia in the Central African Republic in 2015. (“I did not want to die in the bush,” Ongwen said of his decision to give himself up, in a video recording produced by the Ugandan military.) On Jan. 21, he will appear in a courtroom at the brand-new headquarters of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hear whether he will stand trial on some 70 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and sexual- and gender-based crimes. The number of counts, expanded from an original seven and focusing on a spate of LRA attacks on internally displaced people (IDP) camps in 2003 and 2004, is the most ever levied at an individual by an international tribunal.

His family insists Ongwen is innocent. “I don’t believe he could have done any of those things,” Madeline says. She immediately adds, “If he did, it was only because he was made to.”

She has just identified a key issue in her nephew’s case: Raising many of the themes explored in the popular Netflix film Beasts of No Nation — which chronicles the life of a child abducted by a West African militia and forced to commit violence — it will be of keen interest to human rights campaigners, politicians, and lawyers in countries from Nigeria to Syria: anywhere, in fact, where rebel groups routinely capture kids and turn them into fresh-faced recruits.

For if Ongwen is a perpetrator, he is also a victim. Ongwen’s defense team says he was 9-and-a-half years old when the LRA snatched him, a fact that observers say raises concerns about brainwashing, Stockholm syndrome, and doing what’s necessary to survive. “You cannot claim that someone that age made lifestyle choices,” said Ugandan lawyer Barney Afako, an expert on transitional justice who previously participated in talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government. (They collapsed in 2008.)

Humiliated by South Africa’s refusal last June to arrest visiting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the subject of an ICC warrant; undermined by the collapse of its case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta; and routinely lambasted by African Union heads of state as a neocolonial creation, the ICC dearly needs a high-profile success story. Experts on Uganda, however, warn that the Ongwen prosecution risks exposing the clumsiness and limitations of the ICC when its system of adversarial justice is applied to the fragile task of national conciliation, including the matter of how to deal with former child combatants.

“The ICC … has to emerge out of this mess,” said Odong Jackson, who works for the Refugee Law Project at Uganda’s Makerere University. “But this case represents a massive gamble.”

* * *

Under British colonial authorities, northern ethnic groups, including the Acholi and Lango, dominated Uganda’s army. Post-independence leaders Milton Obote and Tito Okello relied on these forces in their turn, and the army became infamous for the atrocities it committed during Uganda’s 1980s civil war. When President Yoweri Museveni, who hailed from the country’s west, seized control in 1986, his forces wreaked brutal revenge, sending northern soldiers fleeing into the bush, where they swore to overthrow the government. Rebel groups formed, including Kony’s LRA, which eventually emerged as the most formidable — and ruthless.

Much has been made in the Western media of the LRA’s cultish idiosyncrasies. A charismatic former altar boy who claims to channel the spirit world and describes himself as a messenger of God, Kony promised to run Uganda according to the Ten Commandments; he told fighters if they drew a cross in oil on their chests, bullets could not harm them. Less was reported about the way the LRA tapped into the deep resentment already felt across the north toward a government seen as deliberately keeping the region isolated and poverty stricken.

Operating from bases in Sudan, the LRA razed northern villages; cut off the lips, noses, and ears of suspected traitors; and abducted tens of thousands of schoolchildren. Girls became LRA commanders’ sex slaves, while boys became fighters; those who tried to escape were killed. In response, the government committed its own form of brutality, corralling 90 percent of the region’s civilian population into displacement camps, where malaria and HIV/AIDS rates soared. In 2004, an appalled Jan Egeland, then-U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, described northern Uganda as “the biggest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.”

When Ongwen was abducted, the LRA was still in its infancy. According to the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), a NGO that a few years ago carried out an investigation into his career, he was initially forced to join the home of senior commander Vincent Otti, said to be the brains behind the LRA. This was common practice with very young abductees: Ongwen would have addressed Otti as lapwony, or “teacher.”

On the surface at least, Ongwen became a model rebel. The JRP describes rapid promotion through the LRA’s ranks, a tribute to his loyalty and bravery. “When we asked our respondents to describe Ongwen’s character, they used the following adjectives: ‘killer,’ ‘fearless,’ ‘devoted,’ ‘courageous,’ ‘a good fighter,’” the NGO’s report states. “Ongwen gained the reputation of being able to emerge from the bloodiest of battles with the majority of his fighters alive.” His public reputation grew, too. Ugandan newspapers used photographs of him taken in the bush, sporting military berets, dreadlocks, and sometimes winning smiles; smooth-skinned and slim of build, he cut a rakish, strikingly handsome figure.

Ongwen reached the rank of battalion commander in the LRA’s Sinia Brigade by 2002; in 2004, he took command of the brigade itself. The following year, the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest. It cited allegations that Ongwen was by then among “the key members of ‘Control Altar,’ the section representing the core LRA leadership responsible for devising and implementing LRA strategy, including standing orders to attack and brutalise civilian populations.” (His lawyers insist he was not ranked so high.)

This might not seem like a story of a young man stripped of free will. Ongwen’s defense team, however, intend to call psychologists and medical experts to explain the impact of the LRA’s indoctrination techniques: a potent mix of religious credo, superstition, and extreme physical intimidation particularly effective on an impressionable child. “When you’re abducted, there are certain rituals you go through as you go up the echelons,” said Krispus Ayena Odongo, who is leading the defense. “You are given a copy of the Bible and put in a metaphysical environment where you are told that God is always with you; Joseph Kony is present in all situations; and when he gives you an order, it comes straight from the Holy Spirit. You are not actually a commander; your commander is the Holy Spirit.” The JRP report also describes beatings with canes and sticks, exhausting forced marches, hard labor, and deliberate disorientation. Abductees are told to forget their past lives completely.

Ayena says Ongwen “was held against his will” for the duration of his time with the LRA. Although it’s not clear exactly why Ongwen chose to jump ship when he did, by 2015 it must have been obvious to fighters that the movement, which had been pushed out of Uganda and relegated to roaming the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, was on its last legs. Otti, the LRA’s second in command, was killed, reportedly on Kony’s orders, in 2007 for suspected insubordination, and according to his lawyers, Ongwen believed he might meet the same fate. The defense also contends that there was unhappiness in the LRA over plans Kony was hatching to link up with the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram — a move at odds with everything the devoutly Christian LRA represents. Ongwen, acting as spokesman for his fellow commanders, is reported to have verbally challenged Kony on the issue, putting himself in harm’s way.

A plea of “not guilty” was never in any doubt, Ayena says. “[Ongwen] wonders why after being in detention for over 20 years … he found a way to free himself, handed himself in to the authorities, and how do they repay him? They indict him.”

* * *

There are many Hagues: the international city, with its World Forum convention center, Europol headquarters, and Peace Palace; the historic Hague, with its chestnut trees, ponderous royal buildings, and tinkling tramways; and the commercial Hague, with its glass-fronted high-rises, scaffolding, and cranes. The ICC’s new headquarters, officially opened in December, lies in none of these.

A six-tower, three-courtroom complex, it is set amid rolling dunes and wiry conifers on the edge of the North Sea, a site picked because of its proximity to the prisoners’ detention center. The Danish architectural firm that was paid more than $200 million for the project makes much on its website of the fact that the towers are lined with cultivated “parterre gardens” planted with species from each of the ICC member states. The people who work there, however, aren’t all enamored. The complex isn’t serviced by a tram line, and the new computer system has experienced teething trouble. Describing the colored paneling that covers the building’s exterior, one regular visitor grumbled that it “look[s] like a motel chain in the American Midwest.”

Still, the fact that a new headquarters was commissioned at all seems something of an achievement, given the major question marks that have hung over the institution since it opened in 2002. The United States, China, and Russia were always wary of a scenario in which their soldiers might wind up in the ICC dock for taking part in military operations abroad; none of them has ever ratified the Rome Statute that established the court. But for the human rights community, the creation of an international tribunal of last resort was a historic and necessary descendant of Nuremberg. There would be an end to the impunity that fueled cycles of national violence. Suspects believed to have committed the worst crimes imaginable would no longer avert justice by slipping across borders. Warlords and generals might think twice before ordering atrocities that could one day lead to an appearance in The Hague.

The high hopes have fizzled. In 13 years, the ICC has produced only two convictions — both against Congolese citizens — a disappointing score for an institution costing some $140 million a year and employing more than 700 staff. “They say you can’t put a price on justice but $500 million per warlord conviction seems high by any standard,” David Davenport, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, quipped in a 2014 Forbes column. Many African leaders, including those of ICC member states, have also criticized the court for only indicting black African defendants. Kenya’s 2013 election, in which Kenyatta and former government minister William Ruto — both indicted by the ICC for their alleged roles in the violence that followed the previous polls in 2007 — ran, pitted national pride against a court seen as a racist expression of Western imperialism. Pride won: Kenyatta was elected president, while Ruto became his deputy. Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Museveni (who originally invited the ICC into Uganda) have also been vocal in their criticisms of the court.

Beneath the froth of the accusations of racism, however, run more profound philosophical disagreements over how post-conflict societies heal. Peace deals, argue analysts such as Ugandan professor Mahmood Mamdani, are by their very nature political arrangements in which players discreetly turn a blind eye to past crimes in return for a seat at the negotiating table — the formula applied in Northern Ireland. A court intervening in such circumstances can deliver at best “victor’s justice,” punishing the losing side while tactfully ignoring atrocities committed by the winners. “I’m not persuaded you can treat political violence the same way you treat criminal violence,” Mamdani said. “In criminal violence, you have perpetrators and victims. With political violence, you have perpetrators, victims, and huge constituencies.”

With the ICC’s star badly tarnished, it’s no surprise that nongovernmental organizations, including big names like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, no longer automatically call for its involvement in situations the court was designed to address. When civil war re-erupted in the new state of South Sudan in 2013, wary human rights workers I interviewed suggested that “hybrid courts” — ad hoc arrangements involving a mix of domestic judges and international legal experts — would be a more sensible option. The office of the current chief prosecutor, Gambian Fatou Bensouda, is cautiously examining the Israel-Palestine conflict and Russian actions in South Ossetia and Ukraine, but it has stopped short of announcing new prosecutions. “The last few years have turned on complex cases brought by Bensouda’s predecessor [Argentine Luis Moreno-Ocampo]. Until she brings new cases of her own, it’s difficult to determine where the court might be heading,” said Richard Gaskins, a U.S. law professor who is the academic director for Brandeis University’s program in The Hague.

Another academic, who asked not to be named, was blunter: “Where does the ICC go from here? At the moment, it’s in limbo, dead in the water. It’s not clear it can survive more than 10 or 15 years.”

So Ongwen is appearing before an embattled institution — and his case won’t untangle matters. Quite the opposite: Ongwen poses a new dilemma that taps directly into the anxieties and criticisms embedded in perceptions of the court. The prosecution of a onetime child soldier will leave people “quite confused,” says Afako, the Ugandan expert on transitional justice. “They will think, ‘This is surely not what the ICC was created for.’”

He notes, too, “The case has implications elsewhere. What happens if one of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria returns as a vicious commander? The same situation is likely to occur with al-Shabab. And are we going to prosecute the girls who run off to Syria?”

Thomas Obhof, a New York-licensed attorney based in Uganda and member of Ongwen’s defense team, marvels at the fact that Ongwen’s charge sheet now dwarfs those compiled against the world’s most infamous warlords and dictators. “He’s facing more charges than Slobodan Milosevic, and he’s no Slobodan Milosevic,” Obhof declares. “I find it amazing and insulting — an affront to the law — that they can do this to someone who was stolen away as a 9-and-a-half-year-old child.”

* * *

Court prosecutors and Ongwen’s defense team aren’t the only ones weighing the merits of the case. In northern Uganda, the long conflict between the LRA and the government touches every family. Last March, I visited Gulu to talk to people about Ongwen’s arrest; it was dry season, and the wind whipped red soil into a giant cloud of tongue-drying dust. Residents spoke of depression and suicides among both former fighters and their traumatized victims, illegitimate children fathered by rebel fighters and abandoned by their mothers, and bitter legal disputes over plots abandoned by farmers when the Ugandan army cantoned much of the civilian population. Yet there was little agreement on what form justice for Ongwen and those like him should take. Opinions, it seemed, were dictated by personal experience.

Those calling for clemency often cited the true story of John Ssebunya, a toddler who fled his home after witnessing his mother’s murder at his father’s hands. He was raised by a troupe of vervet monkeys before being coaxed from trees near Bombo, north of Kampala, in 1991 when he was 5 years old. Covered in hair, riddled with worms, and walking on his hands and knees, Ssebunya was gradually taught to walk and talk. “If you’re raised by monkeys, you behave like a monkey,” was a refrain I heard more than once. Ssebunya was rehabilitated, not caged — and the same approach should be applied to Ongwen.

For many, that would involve truth-telling and cleansing rituals traditionally used in the north to bring warring clans together. Simultaneously spiritual, therapeutic, and pragmatic, these lie at the other extreme of the winner-takes-all system offered by Western courts. In one ritual, mato oput (“to drink the bitter root”), the perpetrator of a wrong apologizes for what he did and makes reparations to the victims. The two sides drink a potion of herbs symbolizing blood spilled and the bitterness of conflict. In another rite, gomo tong (“bending of spears”), spears are twisted to symbolize the end of hostilities. “There’s acknowledgement of what you did — only then is forgiveness on offer — and finally a kind of compensation is made, usually cattle,” explained Philip Okin Ojara, then-head of the Acholi Cultural Institution, a council of traditional chiefs and elders. He insisted that “anything short of amnesty” would be a travesty of justice for Ongwen.

Other people said they hadn’t forgotten the human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan army as it fought the LRA: the torture and shooting of civilians suspected of rebel affiliation, and the rape and sexual abuse of girls in IDP camps. There have always been suspicions some of the atrocities attributed to the rebel group were in fact “dirty tricks” staged by the army to discredit the LRA. “We have victims in the community who are survivors not of the LRA but of the [army]. People expect the ICC to bring both parties to the table,” said Jackson of the Refugee Law Project. “Traditional justice holds all parties accountable. The reason it is being avoided is that compensation lies at its heart, and the government doesn’t want to pay.”

ICC officials have said they stand ready to prosecute Ugandan army officers if given the necessary evidence. But Museveni’s cooperation with the court — already qualified — likely would not survive such a development: About to run for a fifth term in office, Museveni knows the support of the armed forces is the keystone of his regime. “If the ICC sticks to this straitjacket,” of only prosecuting members of the LRA, commented Jackson, “all they are offering will be cosmetic justice, a display. It will fail absolutely.”

Other skeptics point to the fact that some senior LRA figures have been allowed, over the years, to take up a government amnesty offer and reintegrate into civilian life. The disparity is not lost on Ongwen’s family. His sister, Juliana, recited the names of men given amnesty, counting them on her fingers. “He should never have been taken to trial in The Hague,” she said. “He should have been forgiven, too.”

But not all those I spoke to were disposed to think in relative terms about past atrocities. One of my last interviews in Gulu was with former youth leader and DJ John Lachambel, who used to work at a local FM radio station that called on LRA fighters to come in from the cold. He said he once met Ongwen in the bush and tried without success to persuade him to surrender. Lachambel snorted at the idea of amnesty for the former commander. “[Ongwen] got his rank because of the level of the atrocities he committed,” he said. “He was sent out on raids because he was sure to do it correctly. It made him big-headed. And people now want him forgiven? Please, no. Let everyone carry their own cross.”

Those sympathetic to Ongwen, Lachambel added, should visit the scenes of the LRA’s worst atrocities and see how they feel afterward. So I drove to Lukodi, a village 11 miles north of Gulu. What happened there is so well known in the region, no one was surprised when the ICC cited it as the basis of the first charges lodged against Ongwen: murder, attempted murder, torture, enslavement, and pillage.

* * *

A crowded IDP camp once occupied a field in Lukodi. Now the area is just a flat expanse of scrub, with palm trees lining the edges and a simple memorial stone at its center. The trees’ fronds flapped relentlessly as a local farmer told me his story, sipping on a Coke at a small convenience store whose owner sat at a Singer sewing machine, making up girls’ school uniforms from a length of bright pink acrylic.

The farmer, a skinny, middle-aged man with a high forehead and stained teeth, told me that in 1995 he had been kidnapped along with two siblings by a unit of LRA fighters led by Ongwen. He was put with a group of some 1,000 abductees controlled by the young commander and forced to fight for five years.

“When Ongwen had just abducted people, he would immediately kill two or three, either by shooting them or getting other abductees to beat them to death, to create fear,” said the man, whose is not being named in order to protect his privacy. “The first time I saw Ongwen kill, it was a couple of boys who had tried to escape. When I’d been there a month, he killed a 16-year-old girl, beating her with a stick until she died.” He dismissed the idea that Ongwen was under any constraint from Kony or other LRA leaders: “By the time he became a commander, he had the power to do as he pleased. He moved around from village to village; he could have left whenever he liked, but he didn’t, because he fell in love with the killing and abducting.”

The man finally managed to escape one day when he and seven other members of his squad were sent to find food. They set off determined to find the army and surrendered to the first detachment they ran across, he told me. He spent some time being cared for by World Vision, an international NGO, and then returned to Lukodi. He moved into the village’s IDP settlement, which he described as “just like a prison camp,” roughly 1,500 huts crammed together. In theory, a detachment of soldiers guarded the civilians; in practice, he said, the IDPs served as a human shield for an underpaid, demoralized army unit.

Inadvertently, the man had put himself in harm’s way again — for the LRA regarded Lukodi as a collaborators’ village that refused to supply the rebel movement with recruits and reported its activities to the authorities. On May 19, 2004, as the sun was setting, the LRA’s Sinia and Gilva brigades attacked the camp from three directions; the man recalled fighters ululating, whistling, and shooting straight at the IDPs.

According to the ICC, around 45 people, including at least 12 children, died in the raid. Prosecutors say Ongwen planned the operation, selecting the LRA fighters who took part and issuing orders.

The farmer’s younger self, his reactions attuned by years spent in the bush, escaped: “I ran immediately, because I knew how bad the LRA could be.” But a brother was bayoneted to death.

After the man told me his story, we walked to the memorial in the field and read the names of the victims. When I mentioned that many of the people I’d spoken to in Gulu didn’t support an ICC prosecution of Ongwen, the farmer shrugged.

“So long as the trial is free and fair, let him suffer it,” he said. “Let him see what he did.”


Correction, Jan. 21, 2016: Uhuru Kenyatta was elected president in Kenya’s 2013 election; an earlier version of this article said he was re-elected.

 Twitter: @michelawrong

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