Snatched and inducted into a life of extreme violence while still a child, Dominic Ongwen now finds himself in another place not of his own choosing – the dock of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Author Ledio Cakaj looks back at Ongwen’s life.
The former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighter is the first former child soldier to face charges at the ICC.
Nicknamed the “White Ant”, he became one of the outlawed rebel group’s most ruthless commanders before clashing with its leader Joseph Kony.
He has been charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including attacks against civilians, torture, sexual and gender-based crimes and conscription and use of child soldiers – some of them the very crimes he was a victim of all those years ago.
Mr Ongwen’s lawyers have argued that he should be regarded as a child soldier and thus found not guilty. They argue that throughout his time in the LRA he was under duress, even after he turned 18, the age of criminal responsibility at the ICC.
The LRA’s secretive nature and the conflict’s long duration – nearly three decades – make the facts of Mr Ongwen’s life hard to verify.
There is little doubt LRA rebels abducted Mr Ongwen near his family’s home in northern Uganda. It is less clear when exactly when that happened – probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s – or how old he was – somewhere nine and 14 years old.
Once in the LRA, Mr Ongwen’s life and choices become even harder to establish.
In his early days with the rebels, he is believed to have been assigned to the households of top commanders including LRA founder and leader Kony.
As a “youngus” (young one) or “kadogo” (small), he would have helped prepare food and carry commanders’ belongings.
If the experiences of other former LRA members are any guide, Mr Ongwen would have been forced to participate in the killing or beating of other abductees who might have attempted to escape – a common strategy to discourage people from leaving the ranks.
Human rights groups have documented this as a tactic used to brainwash child fighters for years.
Kony distributed the kadogo, who often ended up as bodyguards to the same commanders they served as young children.
Female abductees, known as “ting ting”, were young prepubescent girls who cared for commanders’ children and helped their so-called wives.
Upon reaching puberty, the ting ting became “lamegu”, or wives to commanders, and were almost exclusively distributed on Kony’s orders.
Punishment and escape
For the young fighters, close proximity to Kony often meant military rank.
Rank came with command responsibilities as well as personal bodyguards and wives, sought-after privileges that increased the chance of survival in the punishing environments LRA groups lived in.
Over the years, former LRA members have referred to Mr Ongwen as major, colonel, brigadier and most recently as a simple private, indicating that at some point he had ultimately been shunned by Kony, who uses rank and other methods to exercise almost complete control over his fighters.
Okot George “Odek”, a former combatant who escaped after Mr Ongwen, claimed that Kony ordered a severe beating for Mr Ongwen at the end of 2014 for insubordination.
In bad shape and with the help of another fighter Mr Ongwen escaped from Kony’s camp in Sudan’s Southern Darfur region, making it to neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR).
He was caught by CAR rebels and handed over to American Special Forces in CAR – part of an African Union (AU) mission to deal with the LRA.
Should he be on trial?
In northern Uganda, reactions to Mr Ongwen’s pending trial have been mixed. Some, including people formerly in the LRA, say he is also a victim.
Florence Ayot, one of Mr Ongwen’s former wives told the BBC in 2008: “Dominic used to tell us he was abducted when he was very young. Everything he did was in the name of Kony, so he’s innocent.”
Others say he should be held responsible for his actions.
“Ongwen being the rebel commander must have participated in the planning meetings to attack and abduct people… therefore he must be held responsible for all the atrocities committed including murder and loss of property,” a local official told the Daily Monitor in January.
Various people have also pointed to the lack of accountability for crimes against civilians carried out by fighters of the National Resistance Army (NRA) – the rebel group led by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who stormed to power in 1986.
“In Uganda, while many condemn the LRA and the crimes committed, missing is the role of government which many in the north would have wanted to see interrogated – and investigated,” wrote journalist Rosebell Kagumire.
The LRA and other short-lived predecessor rebellions in northern Uganda arose in part as a response to NRA atrocities, documented by local NGOs such as the Justice and Reconciliation Project.
Above all, many hope that the ICC will award reparations to the victims of the conflict.
Disbursing any funds would be a long and complicated process but for the victims it may be “the only sign of a successful trial”, Lino Owor Ogora from the NGO Foundation For Justice and Development Initiatives says.
Ledio Cakaj wrote When the Walking Defeats You, One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard