From Kidnap Victim to Murderous Militant
The family of ICC-indicted LRA-Leader Ongwen pleads for mercy
The two brothers took the same route to school each day, an hour’s trek past fields and scattered huts. Dominic, the younger one, would talk about his drawings — he loved sketching angels, and sometimes the devil, in dazzling colors. One day, armed men appeared, blocking the boys’ path. Their parents had repeatedly warned them that henchmen for the rebel leader Joseph Kony were forcibly conscripting young Ugandan boys into the dreaded Lord’s Resistance Army.
Since 1987, the LRA has used terror to fight for a Christian theocracy, annihilating villages and recruiting their children as soldiers. It’s estimated that 100,000 people have been killed by the LRA, more than 60,000 abducted and 1.5 million forced to flee. Both brothers were kidnapped that day, and while the older one, Andi Odong, eventually escaped, Dominic Ongwen remained and would go on to become one of the group’s most important leaders. Now, he awaits trial in January before the International Criminal Court, charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Twenty-five years after their abductions, Odong, 42, sits under a tree on a plastic chair, his body lean from working in the fields, his T-shirt drenched in sweat. He takes refuge from the midday heat, drinking water from the well — all part of a simple routine shared with 20 family members who scratch out a living growing cassava and corn. In January, he heard that Ongwen had been arrested in the Central African Republic. The radio announcement repeated what many people had said about his brother: that the person he remembered as a peaceful, hardworking pupil was a mass murderer — that over a 10-year span, he had progressed from child soldier to brigadier of the murderous Christian militia, emerging as one of the highest-ranking commanders under Kony. Now 35, Ongwen is the first LRA militant to be handed over to The Hague. But considering that he is a victim of actions similar to those he is accused of perpetrating, his case presents a potential conflict for the court.
During their imprisonment, the brothers saw Kony, a former altar boy who formed the LRA in the late 1980s, only from a distance. Youths weren’t allowed near him, but the militia leader knew how to shape children into killing machines: Younger ones like Ongwen weren’t deployed for raids, but they were primed with weapons training. Tears were forbidden, so it was only at night that Odong could hear his brother’s barely audible sobbing. “Everything that has happened since then has happened against his will,” he says. After five months, the brothers were separated, and Odong managed to escape, but the image of his brother still haunts him. Ongwen, just 10, was the LRA’s preferred age for abductions — too weak to escape and young enough to brainwash. “We had to carry the food provisions,” Odong remembers. “When our energy ran out and we got too slow, they beat us.”
Ongwen’s family sees him as a victim, but those who suffered do not. Vincent Oyet, 42, was living in a refugee camp in Lukodi village in 2004 after escaping from Kony’s army. On May 19, he rode his bike to a nearby city to visit relatives; on his way home, passersby told him that more than 80 rebels had overthrown the camp and murdered indiscriminately. Eyewitnesses reported that Ongwen had coordinated the massacre.
Oyet stands in front of Lukodi School next to a memorial bearing the names of the many victims — including his stepmother, cousins and neighbors. “They were slaughtered like chickens,” he says. Today, Lukodi is one of several places where perpetrators live alongside their victims, part of an amnesty program to integrate 13,000 LRA fighters back into society. But a fresh start has not been extended to members of Kony’s inner circle, like Ongwen, some of whom remain on the run. “It would be different if Ongwen were to have brought kidnapped children with him out of the scrub,” Oyet says, noting that the militant had ample opportunity to escape. For Oyet, forgiveness is impossible.
But according to Odong, there “is no evidence that Dominic is really responsible for the Lukodi massacre,” and a few witnesses have identified another commander as ringleader. The brothers’ uncle, John Odonga, 62, sits next to Odong under the tree. He raised the orphaned older brother after his parents pursued the LRA to retrieve their sons, only to be murdered themselves. “We hope that people will accept that Dominic suffered inconceivably himself,” John says.
But Alex Whiting, a law professor at Harvard and the former prosecutions coordinator for the ICC, says it’s unlikely the court will show mercy based on Ongwen’s childhood experience. “The fact that he himself was a child soldier and victimized is not a legal defense,” he says, noting that being a victim “does not excuse you.” Whiting believes the evidence in LRA cases is strong and hopes Ongwen pleads guilty and helps authorities seize Kony — a move, he says, that could lead to a lighter sentence.
Victims want justice; Ongwen’s family wants compassion. His uncle takes comfort in imagining his nephew back in their home village of Coorom. They would share a prayer, he says, and then he would ask whether the accusations are true. “As his uncle, I need to know.”