A retired Ugandan army officer told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that former rebel commander Dominic Ongwen is a victim of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Giving his testimony, Pollar Awich that Ongwen is a victim of LRA atrocities based on his knowledge of child soldiers, including the fact he once was a child soldier.
The defense commissioned Awich to write a report on the impact being a child soldier, which was presented in court. On Thursday, trial lawyer Beti Hohler, while cross-examining Awich, questioned what his report was founded on. Hohler also questioned some of the conclusions he testified about.
Ongwen has been charged for his alleged role as a former LRA commander in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between July 2002 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he has been charged with.
On Tuesday, Beth Lyons, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Awich to comment on excerpts of the transcript of the opening day of the trial when Ongwen spoke before he took a plea on the charges against him.
On that day, December 6, 2016, Ongwen said he understood the charges, but he did not understand why he was being charged. Ongwen went on to tell the court that the charges were against the LRA, and the LRA is Joseph Kony “and not me.” Ongwen also told the court it is the LRA that committed atrocities, including against him.
“My view about the statement from Ongwen is that I agree with it. It is correct. In a sense that, as I said earlier, the children who were forced to be part of LRA were, first of all, young.
“They are not acting out of their own volition. And even subsequently when they became [older], they were just acting, they were being used. They were not acting out of their consciousness. They [the LRA] could have used anybody. It is just circumstantial that Ongwen was in the theatre. I agree with that statement that indeed Ongwen himself is a victim,” said Awich.
Lyons asked him whether he had further observations to make on Ongwen’s statement on the opening day of the trial.
“Just to emphasize that the mental work performed by the LRA on the abductees is strong, not like the political education we had [in the National Resistance Army]. Also, to add that the duration the children took with the LRA is long and therefore had more effect. The violence they experienced is grave, longer than us in the NRA [National Resistance Army], and therefore the situation of the children up to adulthood is grave and has more impact on them than it did on us in the NRA,” said Awich.
When the hearing began on Tuesday, Awich told the court the National Resistance Army (NRA) abducted him when he was 13 years old from Nakaseke Hospital where his parents worked. The NRA, which was led by Yoweri Museveni, fought the government until it seized power in 1986.
To illustrate the impact of being a child soldier for someone who was in the LRA, Awich gave the example of a person who had left the LRA who, when he would hear a lorry passing nearby, he told tell people, “they should go and ambush that vehicle because it is carrying food, something good.”
Early on in his testimony on Tuesday, Awich told the court the impact of being a child soldier stayed with a person long into adulthood, and each individual adjusted to life differently after their time as a child soldier ended.
Awich narrated to the court his own experience and that of other NRA child soldiers. He said after the NRA took power in 1986, they were sent back to school and in his case he remained in the army after school. He said he retired in 2014 with the rank of major. Awich said several of the former NRA child soldiers he went to school with and remained friends with “fell off the way” in the years after they completed their schooling.
“One friend who was my roommate all of a sudden ran mad and died. Another one locked himself in a room … we could smell petrol. Another sent his escorts to buy something in a shop. By the time the escort came back he had shot himself,” said Awich. He said the one who shot himself was an engineer.
“Given these set of facts which you lived, what would you conclude from the conduct that you described?” asked Lyons.
“I think what I would conclude is related to what I said is the impact. What I can conclude is that being a child soldier impacts on the mind of the child soldier. It makes your mind be in a situation of not a normal person, a right-thinking person.
“Of course, as I said it
reacts differently on others. For me, I thought I had overcome them. But who knows? Maybe it [time] will reveal that impact is on me. While anybody is child soldiering, the impact is so grave that it makes you be in a mental situation that it is difficult to have command over yourself,” replied Awich.
Lyons asked him to elaborate on what he meant by the difficulty of having “command over yourself.”
“Total captivity of both the mind and the body. Even on attaining the age of 18 such a person is not in command of her will or actions,” said Awich. A little later, the witness explained further what he meant.
“What I mean here is that as a child soldier, and both in the situation that I experienced and in my interface with other child soldiers, is that the process that you go through whether it is, in our case [NRA], political education or other methods, a child soldier is just what I would call a biological person. His thinking is what I would call the corporate person, which is the organization that is having command over him,” said Awich.
Lyons asked Awich many questions to clarify or elaborate issues he wrote about in a report he prepared for the defense on child soldiers. The report is based on his own experience and his work in the field. Awich serves as chairman of the Uganda chapter of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN). He also served on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child between 2005 and 2009.
On Tuesday, Awich told the court that his conclusions on the impact of being a child soldier was also based on his interaction with former LRA child soldiers. He said he met and spoke with some of these LRA child soldiers when he served in the 5th Division of the Ugandan army, which was based in Gulu, the main town of northern Uganda. He said when the Ugandan army captured former LRA child soldiers, they held them for up to 72 hours before handing them over to rehabilitation centers managed by non-governmental organizations.
On Tuesday, Lyons asked the court to accept Awich’s report to be entered into evidence under Rule 68(3) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence. The court accepted this after the steps required under the rule were followed. This included Awich accepting in court that his report be given as evidence in the trial.
When Hohler cross-examined Awich on Thursday she asked about his conclusions on the impact being a child soldier had on someone later in their life.
“Just so we are clear you are not a psychologist?” asked Hohler.
“I am not,” replied Awich.
“You are not a psychiatrist, correct?” asked Hohler.
“I am not,” answered Awich.
Hohler also asked Awich about the time he served in the 5th Division. Awich said he was assigned to the 5th Division in 1992, and he was with the division only during that year.
“So, your testimony about the LRA and experiences of the child soldiers is primarily based on the conversations from 1992, correct?” asked Hohler.
“No. More than that,” replied Awich. He said he also had other conversations during his work with the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
“Did you keep any records of those conversations in 1992?” asked Hohler.
“Records in recorded form? No,” replied Awich, adding he kept notes of his conversations.
“Did you consult those notes before you wrote your report or before you came to testify in court?” asked Hohler.
“No,” answered Awich. He said his report was based on his own experience “interwoven” with the conversations he had in the past with former child soldiers.
Hohler asked Awich whether he was an expert on the LRA. He said he was not, but he knew the LRA. She asked him whether he had done any scientific research on the LRA.
“Apart from the interface with children I have never done an academic research on the LRA,” said Awich.