GULU, Uganda — From the time he was a tiny child, his parents coached
him: Use a fake name. Say you are from the west. Lie about your
If ever the rebels get you, they told him, make sure they don't know
where your family is – or none of us will ever be safe again.
The rebels did get him, when he was 10 years old. And when they
snatched him, walking home from school on a red dirt Ugandan road,
green grass high above his head on either side, he did as he had been
told: He lied and said his name was Dominic Ongwen.
And so it is by that name that he now stands indicted for seven counts
of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The ICC has issued warrants for Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph
Kony and other commanders - Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya
and Dominic Ongwen. All face 33 counts of war crimes and crimes
against humanity. ICC prosecutors in The Hague accuse the Lord's
Resistance Army commander and two top deputies of offences including
rape, murder and the abduction of thousands of children to serve as
fighters, porters and sex slaves.
Dominic Ongwen is a senior commander in the Lord's Resistance Army
(LRA), a guerrilla force that has terrorized the civilians of northern
Uganda for more than 20 years, waging its war against the Ugandan
government in the small farms and villages of the Acholi people. He is
known as the most courageous, loyal and brutal of the men who serve
Joseph Kony, the LRA's charismatic and ruthless founder.
Dozens of witnesses stand prepared to testify at the ICC that they saw
Mr. Ongwen rape, beat, torture and execute civilians, including
hundreds of abducted children. Many people are determined to see him
in the dock in The Hague. But for every witness against him, there is
one who could testify to the savage process of violence and
psychological intimidation through which he was turned from child to
Mr. Ongwen is the first person to be charged with the same war crimes
that were committed against him. But he is far from alone in his messy
status: There are fighters in conflicts across Africa who were born
into rebel movements or abducted when very young. The principle that
such children can't be prosecuted for what they do, even if no one
forces them to kill or loot, is enshrined in several international
agreements, including the one that created the ICC.
Yet no provision is made for those like Mr. Ongwen who grow up in the
image of their oppressors: As the law stands, if they carry out the
same crimes after their 18th birthdays that they did the day before,
they are no longer victims, but criminals.
What is justice for these fighters? How much can they be held
responsible for, having grown up in environments of extreme brutality?
These are particularly relevant questions for Canada, which has been a
champion of both international justice and the rights of child
soldiers. This country hosted the world's first multilateral
conference on war-affected children in Winnipeg in 2000.
Then-foreign-minister Lloyd Axworthy pushed aggressively for the
ratification of the United Nations Protocol on Children and Armed
Conflict and the creation of the ICC to punish those who use child
Now, eight years later, one of those very children stands indicted by
the court that was established to protect him.
Mr. Axworthy admits that he never saw it coming. International justice
was still a new idea in 2000 and the focus was entirely on setting up
the institutions to protect the children, he said. "Where do you draw
the line, when the victim becomes a perpetrator?"
The man now known as Dominic Ongwen was born the fourth of eight
children to two schoolteachers, Alexy Acayo and Ronald Owiya, in the
village of Awach Paibona Bolipii, in the summer of 1980.
When he was 6, war broke out in northern Uganda. Joseph Kony, a young
spirit medium, had gathered a few splintered rebel groups and to fight
the newly installed government of Yoweri Museveni, who in 1986 had
ousted the first president ever to hail from Uganda's north.
Two of Dominic's siblings, younger sister Lucy Akello and older
brother Norbert Kilama, recall him as shy. They say he liked to make
crafts and sell them to help to pay his school fees. When he was 10,
his parents transferred him to another school for a better edu-
cation – and it was while he was walking home from there one day that
the rebels seized him. He remembered to give a false name, knowing
that the LRA keeps records of abductees' names, clans and villages of
birth, and often retaliates against the clans of children who escape.
Mr. Ongwen has never given an account of his first days with the
rebels. But it is possible to reconstruct a picture, based on more
than 50 interviews that the Justice and Reconciliation Project, a
community-based initiative in the northern capital of Gulu, has
conducted with Mr. Ongwen's family and people who knew him in the LRA.
On the day of his abduction, according to others taken at the same
time, Mr. Ongwen was "too small" to hike and was carried on the backs
of older fighters for several days as they travelled to their main
military base. When he reached the camp, he was ordered, like other
children too young to fight, to join the "home" of a senior commander.
Under this lapwony (teacher) and his "wives" (pubescent girls who have
been abducted), he would be indoctrinated in the rebels' complex and
Mr. Ongwen's lapwony, fatefully, was Vincent Otti, who would soon be
promoted to Mr. Kony's second-in-command, a commander of legendary
cruelty. In 1995, Mr. Otti personally oversaw the slaughter of more
than 300 people, including children, in his home village of Atiak.
Like all abducted children, Mr. Ongwen was ordered to forget his past
life. He was told that escape was impossible – his family would never
take him back and the government would kill him if he tried to return
home. Later, he was told that his family had been rounded up into an
internment camp and killed. He was told lies about his whereabouts and
forced into a harsh regimen of marches and physical labour that left
him exhausted and disoriented. There were constant beatings.
"When new people are brought, they have to make [them into]
'soldiers,'" a girl abducted at 17 explained about their first days in
the bush. "There was a boy right next to me. He was still young, maybe
10 years old – 250 [cane] strokes had been too much for him. He was
crying right next to me: 'I am going to die.' I had much sympathy for
him, but I couldn't help him. I was in so much pain myself.
"After some time, he was quiet. [The commander] came past and tried to
wake him, but in vain. He shouted: 'Get up!' [The boy's] eyes were
closed and his body had already gone stiff. He was only three metres
from me. At that moment … I started to fear for my own life."
The children were lectured for hours on the arcane rules of the
rebels. There were only certain times that they could eat certain
foods, such as pork, tamarind or honey. There were all manner of
taboos – cooking while menstruating, for example, was forbidden.
Children could have social or physical contact only with permission.
Punishments for violations, real or perceived, were harsh: Rebels
could be killed for losing a gun or bullets – or for something as
minor as dropping a piece of luggage on a march, or eating more than
their portion of food.
The price of disobedience was clear: They were forced to kill children
who attempted escape by beating them with a log or branch while the
others stood and watched. Sometimes, after such a killing, the young
trainees were forced to taste the dead child's blood.
Much of this was presented as "ritual," part of the spiritual arsenal
that Mr. Kony and his commanders also use to inculcate loyalty. When
Mr. Ongwen arrived at the rebel base, his body was smeared with cream
to "cleanse" him of the sins of his old life.
All new abductees are taught – and indeed much of the Acholi
population believes – that Mr. Kony has spiritual powers. They believe
that he can predict the future, read the minds of his fighters and
even take the form of different animals to spy on those who
contemplate escape. The children learn very quickly to cloak their
emotions, and never to give the impression they are sad and possibly
thinking of trying to run away. Above all, they learn never to cry.
The LRA also has a political ideology that appeals to some of the
abducted children. They are told of the grievances of the Acholi, who
oppose Mr. Museveni's government because they have been systematically
excluded from the progress seen in other parts of Uganda. The children
are told that the government and its international allies are
deliberately exterminating their people and the LRA is fighting to
Many ex-rebels say their senior commanders told them that the LRA
would soon overthrow the government, and then there would be jobs and
material rewards for those who were loyal. It is a heady message for
children who have come from poor villages or squalid refugee camps.
"The LRA is very skilled at this," says Michael Wessells, a professor
of psychology at Columbia University and an expert in child protection
who has worked extensively in northern Uganda. "Children do a number
of things when they are subjected to all this, but the most frequent
is a process of splitting or dissociation: They literally cut
themselves off from their past identity and construct a new identity
more appropriate to their new situation – and they do things that are
appropriate in that world, such as killing."
At 10 years old, he adds, a boy like Dominic Ongwen "is very
susceptible to this kind of transformation – much more so than someone
who was 16 and had their identity formation further along, and had
stronger skills of resistance."
Very soon, the military training began. In long, repetitive drills
held in clearings in the jungle, Mr. Ongwen was taught to use a gun
and to steal goods from trading centres or food from gardens or
storehouses. He showed remarkable ability and, within a year or two,
was put in charge of small raiding parties of younger children.
Jeannie Annan, a Yale University psychologist who heads the Survey for
War-Affected Youth, says it is not a surprise that Mr. Ongwen strove
to excel: It is easy, she says, for a child's captors to subvert his
normal desire to please (getting good grades, for example) into an
urge to do well at killing and abducting.
Mr. Ongwen was also quick, as the youngest abductees often are, to
show his loyalty to Mr. Kony. "For a 10-year-old, it's very easy for a
military figure to become a father figure," Prof. Wessells says. "The
bond between a young boy and an adult male figure – this kind of
surrogate family – is much stronger than just having a commander."
When Mr. Ongwen was 14, the LRA moved into southern Sudan, where Mr.
Kony had been offered support by the Sudanese government, which saw
the LRA as a useful proxy force against its own rebel groups as well
as the hostile government of Uganda. For a time, Mr. Ongwen and the
other rebels lived in relative safety on expansive compounds where
they built schools and hospitals.
The teenager was put in charge of field operations, going on military
training missions to Khartoum and receiving transfers of arms and
supplies from shadowy donors and other rebel groups. He also honed his
ability to deliver Mr. Kony's signature messages of cruelty – the LRA
would sometimes line roads with the severed heads of their enemies,
and two of his former soldiers say Mr. Ongwen ordered people to be
boiled alive in large cooking pots.
But he was best known for leading abduction raids, just like the one
that captured him. He would take small bands of rebels into Uganda,
drive children from their homes or fields at gunpoint and march them
back over the border to the camps in Sudan. None ever escaped on his
watch. Mr. Kony took note and publicly called Mr. Ongwen a "role
model" among the child soldiers.
At about 18, he was promoted to his first command position, the rank
of major, and rewarded with "wives" of his own (he eventually had
five). Soon, he was also a father.
Around this time, he apparently made contact with his family near
Gulu. Former comrades-in-arms say he sent messages and sometimes put
on civilian clothes and sneaked into their village to visit, even
though one of his brothers was working for army intelligence. Another
brother says Mr. Ongwen sometimes called on a satellite phone from the
Yet he either never tried or was never able to escape in the confusion
of battle, as thousands of other young rebels have done. As a skilled
fighter, he was under heavy "protection" – actually guards and spies
to keep watch on him – and his wives and children were kept close to
Mr. Kony as an additional deterrent.
Filder Ajok, who spent 14 years in the bush as the wife of a commander
who was an Ongwen confidant, recalls that "he felt very bad because
the rebels threatened to kill him if he escapes." They also told him
his family home would be burnt down.
Another of his former soldiers says Mr. Ongwen believed that radio
messages from escapees urging others to come home were faked, and the
former rebels were killed when they left the bush.
Mr. Ongwen also may have felt too implicated ever to return to
civilian life. "Kony used to promote those who do a lot of bad things
because he knows that they will never go back home," says a former
child soldier who spent five years with the rebels.
Mr. Ongwen himself spoke openly about this, according to Ms. Ajok:
"Wherever he goes, people know he is a killer, so he has to act
In 2002, the war took a deadly turn. Uganda launched what it called
Operation Iron Fist, crossing into South Sudan to flush the rebels out
of their strongholds. In retaliation, the LRA invaded northern and
eastern Uganda. It abducted 8,400 new "recruits" from June, 2002, to
May, 2003, forcing them to carry supplies between Sudan and Uganda and
training them for battle.
The Ugandan government forced 1.7 million people into
displaced-persons camps – allegedly to protect them, but actually to
ensure that no civilians supported the rebels. The LRA was undeterred:
Children were abducted by the hundreds – in one case, 40 children
drowned when they were tied together and forced to cross a fast-moving
Mr. Ongwen allegedly led most of these raids. He continued to rise in
the ranks. Each step up brought greater security, including essentials
such as access to food and shelter as well as information, escorts for
protection, ting ting (prepubescent girls) for domestic service and
In late 2003, President Museveni asked the International Criminal
Court to consider indicting the LRA leaders – ostensibly as a way of
forcing the rebels into peace talks, although his critics say he knew
indictments would prolong the war, which helps sustain Uganda's large
nd profitable military-industrial complex.
After investigations, the ICC issued indictments against five LRA
commanders in July, 2005. Mr. Ongwen was charged with three counts of
crimes against humanity and four of war crimes, including "widespread
murder, enslavement, pillaging and attacks on civilian populations."
He learned of the charges over shortwave radio – the rebel leaders are
devoted listeners of the BBC Africa service. Filled with alarm about
his future, he began to contact civilians and local leaders to ask
about the possibility of returning from the bush.
One night, he sent troops to round up 30 civilians and bring them to a
meeting point outside Gulu. He quizzed them on the public's perception
of him and what they believed would happen to him if he returned. He
asked about his parents and family, as he often did when in the area.
He asked about former LRA commanders who had taken government amnesty
packages and were now said to be living comfortably in Gulu.
He also asked whether they thought the government would hand him over
to the foreign court. They told him of a recent radio program in which
a senior local official had said there was no way Mr. Ongwen could
escape the ICC. After the discussion, he let the group go.
Meanwhile, running out of havens, the LRA called a ceasefire and
withdrew into a remote area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
with hundreds of fighters, reportedly to assess it as a new base.
Isolated and now internationally hunted, the LRA agreed in 2006 to
enter into formal peace talks with Mr. Museveni's government. But that
left large battalions of rebels cut off from the main group, roaming
northern Uganda. Mr. Ongwen was one of the commanders left behind.
United Nations officials who sighted the stray LRA detachments
described small, bedraggled groups, wandering, hungry and waiting for
Those who knew Mr. Ongwen in this period – his darkest with the rebels
since he was first abducted – said he swung back and forth about
wanting to escape. They described him as quick to anger, with a
"It was not an easy task for one to try to assess Dominic's character
because he changes his mind and mood like the way a chameleon does to
its skin colour," says a young man who was with the LRA from 1999 to
2004. "Dominic changes from good to bad and from bad to good at any
Loneliness may also have been pulling at him: At the height of the
war, thousands of LRA wives and children were injured or killed. Mr.
Ongwen, like many commanders, released some of his family to safety,
while others were separated from him.
One wife says he frequently contacted her in 2006, sometimes sneaking
at night into the displaced-persons camp where she lived with their
children, shedding his military fatigues to blend in with the local
population. She says he expressed a desire to return home.
After learning that one of their children had died, she recalls, "he
said it was useless for him to stay in the bush when his children were
suffering [and] he could not bring anything home." She approached
local officials, who organized a meeting with the army and former LRA
commanders to plan his surrender.
Mr. Ongwen washed, shaved and changed into civilian clothing. But
before they could leave for the meeting, he suddenly began to beat his
wife, asking if she had forgotten about the ICC indictments and his
fate if he gave himself up. He put his fatigues back on and left for
the bush, she says. She has not seen him since.
In September, 2006, Mr. Ongwen met with Ugandan army commanders and
some religious leaders in a remote area of the north, in an
appointment apparently arranged by a civilian LRA collaborator. He and
his men were promised safe passage to a neutral area in Sudan – but
instead, some time late in 2007, he crossed the border into Congo to
rejoin Mr. Kony.
Although the peace talks have come close to reaching a settlement,
they have repeatedly broken down over the ICC indictments. So while
the fighting has slowed, the war in northern Uganda goes on. People
linger in displaced-persons camps, not yet convinced they can go home.
Mr. Ongwen reportedly has been promoted to third (the ICC says) or
fourth (Ugandans say) in the LRA command. In part, he advanced simply
because he outlived many of his superiors. His former indoctrinator,
Vincent Otti, who was also wanted by the ICC and had been a driving
force in the peace talks, was executed in October, 2007, after Mr.
Kony suspected him of disloyalty.
At one point in 2005, it was widely reported that Mr. Ongwen had been
killed himself. The Ugandan army went to his family for DNA samples to
try to match the body they had. It proved not to be his.
The LRA continues to snatch children from Sudan, the nearby Central
African Republic and Congo as well as Uganda. The rebels need young
recruits to groom for their next high command, and are again training
them by forcing them to kill other children. This week, Mr. Kony and
his men dumped 100 bodies into a river in Congo, intent on terrorizing
local people into cooperation.
Cycles of violence
How, in 11 years, did Dominic Ongwen turn from a boy too small to walk
to the rebels' camp into one of their fiercest, most senior fighters?
It is precisely because they are malleable and amenable to
indoctrination that children are recruited by armed groups. Hauled
into violent conflict before their own moral compass has developed,
they become unable to discern right from wrong.
Former LRA fighters describe how, not long after their abduction, they
stopped thinking about home and went into "auto pilot" – some describe
"going outside of their bodies" when forced to kill.
Yet any trauma Mr. Ongwen endured ceased to be relevant when he turned
18. Today, the ICC deems him one of those "most responsible" for the
"Our mandate is to go after those most responsible for the most
serious crimes," says Beatrice Le Fraper Du Hellen, who is the court's
Director of Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Co-operation. Mr.
Ongwen's rank in the LRA, she says, "gave him a very high
responsibility for very serious crimes … too much of a responsibility
to exclude him from liability."
His status as a former abducted child himself could certainly form
part of his defence at trial, she says. But the ICC cannot use it as a
reason to look the other way.
People in Uganda, according to repeated surveys, agree almost
unanimously that Mr. Ongwen and other LRA leaders must pay for their
actions. But few feel that international justice is the right way to
Some of the approximately one million Acholi people in Uganda believe
that the best, quickest route to peace is amnesty for the rebel
leaders. But while government amnesty has lured many fighters and even
some commanders out of the bush, it has also engendered great anger
among victims who see their persecutors living well on resettlement
packages or army jobs.
Some favour traditional Acholi justice mechanisms, which combine
cleansing ceremonies with atonement, community service and
forgiveness. Others favour a criminal process, but one held in Uganda,
where they can attend and everyone involved will be intimately
acquainted with the context.
There is more at stake in this than just one rebel's fate. "It hurts
the credibility of the ICC if they take such a simplistic view of
human behaviour," Prof. Wessells says. "Of course [Mr. Ongwen's]
actions are contemptible and should be condemned – but this hard-line,
retributive justice sets things back enormously."
In the West as well, as Yale's Prof. Annan points out, debate goes on
about how to factor cycles of trauma and violence into the pursuit of
justice. "For nearly every single criminal – if you look at their
background – every one would have abuse in background. Certainly this
is almost universally true of sexual offenders – they were themselves
The Canadian system takes these kinds of facts into account for
aboriginal offenders, who are increasingly diverted from the criminal
system to transitional justice initiatives and healing circles.
Many advocates also raise such questions about another well-known
child soldier, Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who is being held by the
United States at Guantanamo Bay even though he was taken by his father
to fight with al-Qaeda when he was only 11.
A bitter choice
International justice is intended to contribute to sustainable peace
after mass atrocities by punishing wrongdoers and preventing victims
from seeking vengeance.
Lloyd Axworthy, who is currently president of the University of
Winnipeg, noted that Mr. Kony is among those pushing for the use of
traditional justice mechanisms in the hope of avoiding international
prosecution – which poses the risk that LRA leaders won't, in fact,
face any real censure. "Then that whole effort of accountability and
impunity takes a huge step backwards."
But Mr. Ongwen's wives, family and former comrades all say that the
ICC indictment is the primary reason that he remains in the bush,
abducting more children.
In response to the standoff in the peace talks and pleas from
traditional Acholi leaders, the Canadian government has recently taken
a controversial stand, asking the UN Security Council to seek a stay
of the ICC indictments in order to facilitate peace negotiations.
Critics, including Mr. Axworthy, decried the move, saying it would
contribute to impunity.
Yet this bitter choice, between promoting peace and the appearance of
injustice, might well have been averted. At the 2000 conference in
Winnipeg, Mr. Axworthy's government committed to take the lead in
negotiating the release of children held by the LRA. After the attacks
of Sept. 11, 2001, however, the LRA was placed on the U.S. terrorist
list and Canada abandoned its initiative to rescue the children.
"Canada dropped the ball," says Kathy van der Grift of the Canadian
Coalition on the Rights of Children. "And had Canada not dropped it,
something would have happened to change [Dominic Ongwen's] life
pattern much earlier."
Meanwhile in Gulu, Mr. Ongwen's father died in 2005, shortly after
hearing his son was named as a war criminal. His mother still waits
for him to come home. She does not know how much more than his name
Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent. Erin
Baines is an assistant professor at the Liu Institute for Global
Issues at the University of British Columbia and the research director
of the Gulu-based Justice and Reconciliation Project.