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Child victim, soldier, war criminal: unpacking Dominic Ongwen’s journey

A man dressed in a suit and tie, against a plain background
Dominic Ongwen enters the court room of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, on December 6, 2016. Photo by Peter Dejong/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Dominic Ongwen, a former Ugandan child soldier, has been convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Three judges found him guilty of 61 of 70 charges. These ranged from the war crime of the forced conscription of child soldiers to the crime against humanity of forced pregnancy.

The presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, read aloud the names of dozens of his victims in a stark reminder of the human consequences of Ongwen’s acts. Ongwen was impassive as the verdict was read out, only really paying attention when Judge Schmitt’s dry recital turned to charges relating to his former “wives”.

The story of Ongwen troubles stereotypes of the pathological war criminal – relentless men indifferent to human suffering or, more typically, who actively seek it out. This image is already a gross oversimplification that fails to account for the diverse backgrounds and motives of perpetrators of international crimes. There is a burgeoning literature, including my book Perpetrating Genocide, that repudiates these misguided perspectives.

Yet Ongwen’s story is particularly troubling. In this piece, I draw from research I have conducted for my forthcoming book on him to be published by Rutgers University Press. The ongoing research project has included (anonymised) interviews with approximately 90 individuals in northern Uganda in 2009 and 2018. Almost all had personal and direct knowledge of Ongwen.

They include family members, former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters, people working on his trial, and victims. The former LRA members encompass individuals involved in his abduction, individuals he abducted, senior commanders who were his superior officers at various points in his LRA “career”, his “wives” and his subordinates within the LRA. I draw from my interviews to offer an impression of Ongwen’s life before his trial.

Early years

Ongwen had a typical Acholi childhood. He was born in 1975 in Coorom – a tiny village around 40km southwest of the regional centre of Gulu, the largest city in the northern region of Uganda.

His early childhood passed peacefully. But his life was thrown into disarray one morning in 1987 when he and several of his classmates were abducted on their way to school.

Ongwen suffered terribly during his first days in the LRA. As they did to other abductees, the LRA fighters bound his hands, forced him to carry heavy loads, and constantly threatened him.

His survival instinct and dutiful nature (mentioned by numerous interview subjects encompassing all stages of his life) contributed to his survival. But it also led to his eventual identification by the Prosecutor as someone who “played such an important role” in LRA atrocities.

From abduction to battlefield

Like all LRA “recruits”, Ongwen underwent extensive training and an indoctrination process. He gained notice from Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the LRA, an adept tactician and spirit medium. Ongwen was close to Kony, but according to Kony’s former chief of security:

Kony was like a chameleon – he would change at any time to a different colour.

Ongwen’s prowess on the battlefield was renowned within the LRA. He was a courageous fighter and seen by many of his colleagues as a fair and adept commander.

But these insider perspectives must be treated with caution. This is not to say that they are untrue, only that they are often still shaped by the values of the LRA. Many who were formerly with the LRA are quick to deny that Ongwen was ever involved in “atrocities” or “killing civilians”. But it quickly becomes apparent that the LRA operated as its own moral universe.

This is apparent, for example, when examining the prevalence and nature of sexual violence within the group. The LRA expressly prohibited rape, and individuals who carried out rapes could be punished quite severely. Yet, forced marriages were not considered to be rape by the group, despite the lack of consent from the “wives”.

Accounts of the LRA are replete with appalling stories from these so-called “bush wives”.

And in Ongwen’s case testimony in the trial detailed his personal role in the rape of underage women.

Interview subjects who denied Ongwen’s role in atrocities would sometimes give accounts of his actions that would undoubtedly be seen by others as crimes and even atrocities. Yet, these same former fighters saw themselves in Ongwen. He was an abductee, a model fighter and an effective commander, and to attribute guilt to him meant accepting their own culpability for acts committed under highly coercive and brutal circumstances.

There are prodigious accounts within the trial and the scholarly literature on the LRA of the harsh consequences of disobeying orders or attempting escape. This atmosphere of fear and surveillance was intensified by the spiritual beliefs of the group. These included the idea that Kony had the power to read their minds and that wrongful acts within the LRA framework could result in immediate “karmic” punishment.

The LRA abductees did not just “go through the motions” of adhering to the LRA worldview – these were deeply held beliefs, which many still maintain to varying degrees.

Difficult to balance

There is a broader issue of Ongwen’s trajectory within the LRA and whether he was a victim who survived a brutal and coercive system or a model LRA fighter with an aptitude for cruelty.

In my view, this is a false dichotomy. If I have learned anything from years of studying and speaking with perpetrators of mass atrocities it is simply that – as International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in her opening statement:

cruel men can do kind things and kind men can be cruel.

This is scarcely a contradiction – our actions are all shaped by many considerations and motivations.

This multidimensionality of human character reaches extremes in the context of mass atrocities, yet it should be familiar to us all.

Going beyond the narrow bounds of criminal culpability, where does this leave us?

I spoke to a man who was abducted by Ongwen when he was 14 years old, who went on to abduct other children – “even my hands are not clean”.

I asked him how he reconciled his positive feelings for Ongwen (who he said was “like a father figure”) with the fact that Ongwen took him from his home as a child. He laughed and said, “it is very difficult to balance all that!”

The court verdict will undoubtedly provide some comfort to his victims. But it also demonstrates the limits of international criminal justice in accounting for the complex circumstances of Ongwen’s life.

This article is a revised version of a piece first published in Justice in Conflict.

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