WARNING: Some details in this article may cause upset.
On February 4th, 2021, former child soldier Dominic Ongwen of Uganda was convicted of 61 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. At the time the warrant for his arrest was issued in 2005 it was alleged he was the commander of the Sinia Brigade of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This long and arduous case detailed some of the most heinous crimes imaginable.
However, Ongwen was only a child when he was the victim of a grave crime himself. Walking to school in 1987 or 1988, he was abducted by members of the LRA. It is believed he was in his very early teenage years, or possibly younger when this occurred. Shortly after his abduction, Ongwen and three other abductees tried to escape but were recaptured. As a warning to others and punishment for his waywardness, Ongwen was forced to skin alive one of the other escapees. This act of savagery initiated Ongwen into the LRA and was the introductory action that led to his spiral into one of the most ruthless individuals on earth, committing crimes that would include ordering the boys and men under his command to ‘kill, cook and eat’ civilians.
Ongwen, also known as ‘The White Ant’, rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a brigade commander in his late 20s. He was considered skilled during his raids of the countryside, destroying villages and abducting more children ripe for indoctrination and arms training. He was considered adept in battle, commanding his troops in such a way that led to few casualties among his men when the battles concluded. Ongwen cemented his position high in the ranks of the LRA because of his innate abilities.
A reading of court records from the ICC details grotesque crimes including, amongst them, the forced marriage, rape, or both of girls and women, forced pregnancy, sexual enslavement and torture. For example, the testimony of witness P-226 at the trial describes a girl of seven years old being abducted by Ongwen’s unit. She was forced to perform domestic duties for Ongwen and at the age of ten she was raped by him for the first time. Some time later, she became one of his so-called ‘wives’ and was raped repeatedly until her eventual escape in 2003. Witness P-226 testified that shortly before her escape, Ongwen forced her to beat to death a Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldier whom he had captured during a raid in Northern Uganda.
The true extent of Ongwen’s crimes will never be fully known. But it does lead one to wonder, was he no more than a victim himself, abducted as a child, forced to commit abominable crimes for fear that these same crimes would be committed against him? There is no doubt that reading Ongwen’s back story challenges the often oversimplified perceptions people have of a war criminal.
As a child when he was abducted, Ongwen witnessed a monstrous act, was forced to take part in others, and suffered terribly during his early years in the LRA, under constant threat of punishment. As with other members of the LRA he, still young, was subjected to indoctrination and training. This could be perceived at a fundamental level as his survival instinct came to the fore – kill or be killed.
Court records show that some of the psychiatric expert witnesses at his trial believed he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Dissociative Identity Disorder, and Multiple Personality Disorder amongst others. Ongwen himself claimed he was the victim of atrocities and pleaded innocent to all 70 charges laid before him at the ICC. Relatives and friends in his home in Uganda believed that, in fact, it was their President, Yoweri Museveni, who was to blame, given his responsibility for all citizens under his care, most notably children.
As Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda put it in her opening statement at Ongwen’s trial ‘The reality is that cruel men can do kind things and kind men can be cruel. A hundred percent consistency is a rare thing’. This is true for all of us, all the time. Just because someone had a hard or brutal upbringing does not and should not absolve someone of their crimes. Cases along these lines where the perpetrator was a victim themselves are seen in lower and higher courts nationally, as well as internationally. The victim who then victimised is not a new phenomenon and will appear again. However, it should never be used as justification for crimes, especially, as in this case, of the gravest nature.
Last February 4th, Dominic Ongwen was found guilty of 61 of 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, all committed within less than a 4-year timeframe. The verdict may be appealed by Ongwen’s defence team up to May 21st 2021. It remains to be seen whether Ongwen will mount a challenge. Whilst we wait, the verdict in the original case must give some level of comfort to the countless victims of Ongwen’s and the LRA’s crimes. At another level, it can be seen as cold comfort to the countless other victims of the LRA and Dominic Ongwen, as much more needs to be done within the communities of Northern Ugandan and its environs who suffered the most at their hands.
Marie Blessing Gilbert is currently studying full-time for a Master's degree in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College, London with an interest in the terrorism threat in Ireland and East Africa.