Once, there was a boy, and in many ways he was unremarkable. He attended school. He liked playing with his friends. His family was as poor as any in northern Uganda.
Then, when he was somewhere between nine and 14 (at that time, northern Ugandan families would rarely take note of their children's birth dates), he was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group controlled by the charismatic and brutal leader Joseph Kony.
The following decades would see Dominic Ongwen indoctrinated and trained as a soldier, rising through the ranks to become a senior commander.
Ongwen's story isn't a simple tale. It's also a lesson in who writes history and who faces consequences. It raises questions about inequality, punishment, the legacy of colonialism, the world's most viral video, and the role of the ICC
Decades later, that former child soldier has gone on trial for war crimes, his image – suited and passive in The Hague – held up as the most significant symbol of justice at the end of a lengthy war. He is the only LRA commander who was sent to the International Criminal Court, and a verdict on 70 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes is due in the coming months. His fate will be decided on January 12th, thousands of kilometres away from everything he had ever known.
Despite the terrible crimes he was tried for, for some in Uganda his story isn’t a simple tale. It’s also a lesson in who writes history and who faces consequences. It raises questions about inequality, punishment, the legacy of colonialism, the world’s most viral video, and the role of the ICC.
My reporting on this subject started almost three years ago, when I began to notice many northern Ugandans looking bemused as I asked them about the horrors of the LRA. “You know the real war wasn’t against the LRA,” one friend responded quietly one evening, to yet another question about Kony. “It was against the government.”
WHEN UGANDA WAS a British colony, in the classic way of colonisers, tribes were divided in order to better maintain control. While Uganda's south was developed, the northern Acholi tribe were given jobs as manual labourers, or placed in security positions and the military.
In 1985, more than two decades after independence, following the reigns of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, an Acholi military officer named Tito Lutwa Okello took over in a coup. The following year he was overthrown by Yoweri Museveni, who still holds the presidency. Museveni's forces were accused of carrying out revenge killings in the north during the aftermath, and many former military men – out of jobs with the government changes – continued to fight them.
Soon, this active rebel movement was effectively taken over by Kony and his LRA. In the following decades, tens of thousands of children would be abducted by LRA fighters, keen to swell their ranks. While the LRA continued to wage war in Uganda until the mid-2000s, killing, torturing and mutilating victims, the government forced civilians away from their land and into camps for displaced people. The unofficial policy was that anyone left at home could be considered a combatant.
By 2005, nearly two million people were living in 251 camps, spread across Uganda's north. Away from their land, it was hard for people to get enough to eat, and about 1,000 perished in the camps each week, often of diseases including Aids and malaria.
The exact numbers who died during the conflict are unclear; estimates vary between 100,000 and 500,000. The breakdown of how many were killed by each side is not known.
IN THE WEST, the story of northern Uganda's war came to many people's attention through Kony 2012, a video released on YouTube, in March 2012, by the charity Invisible Children. It quickly became the most viral video of all time.
The organisation’s founder, Jason Russell, beseeched viewers to make Kony “a household name”, as much as any celebrity, saying it was the only way he could be stopped.
Ten days later, Russell himself became infamous after he had a very public breakdown in San Diego, California. He was filmed walking naked on the street, making rude gestures, slapping the pavement and allegedly vandalising cars. His family said it was a result of “extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration”, related to his sudden success.
In a 2010 interview, the actor Angelina Jolie called Kony a 'bad' guy, saying if she 'was left alone in a room with' him she'd be 'tempted' to take him down. 'I hate him,' she said, smiling
Invisible Children was criticised as well. Kony 2012, which has been watched more than 102 million times, painted the conflict as one-dimensional, with no context about its political background. The video was also late. By the time it came out, the LRA had long moved out of northern Uganda and the group had been reduced in size to just a few hundred fighters.
While Invisible Children attracted more attention to the cause, there had been celebrity interest before that. In a 2010 interview, the actor Angelina Jolie called Kony a "bad" guy, saying if she "was left alone in a room with" him she'd be "tempted" to take him down. "I hate him," she said, smiling.
This was seemingly seized on by the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, an Argentinian lawyer named Luis Moreno Ocampo, who held his position from 2003 to 2012. Leaked emails show he tried to enlist Jolie's help in finding Kony, encouraging her to embed with American troops in the Central African Republic while asking if Brad Pitt, her husband at the time, could join her. In return, she reportedly suggested she could invite Kony to dinner, luring him to an arrest. (It didn't work out.)
The United States declared Kony a "specially designated global terrorist" in 2008, but its involvement ramped up after the Kony 2012 video. Between 2011 and 2017, the US spent almost $800 million, or about €685 million, on the hunt for Kony, before admitting defeat after Donald Trump became president.
US-made leaflets reading "Joseph Kony is dead", which were supposed to celebrate the warlord's capture, were burned.When asked about the decision to pull out, Maj Gen Joseph Harrington, the commander of United States Army Africa, told journalists: "Everyone will meet their maker at some point."
There was another legacy to the search. US forces had been working with the Ugandan army, whose soldiers were accused of the rape or sexual abuse of dozens of girls and women in the Central African Republic, many of whom ended up pregnant and abandoned.
CAMPAIGNS TO GET fighters to defect and come back home were much more effective than hunting down the LRA with military forces. In 2000, an amnesty was announced: LRA fighters could return without consequences. Radio stations broadcast messages and songs for the fighters, telling them their communities would welcome them. More than 12,900 fighters followed that call.
Instead of a legal trial, many went through what is called Mato Oput, a traditional justice process that involves confessing your crimes to those harmed, asking for forgiveness, paying compensation, and going through cleansing ceremonies, which include stepping on an egg barefoot.
Fighters were still returning home en masse three years later, in 2003, when the Ugandan government asked the International Criminal Court to get involved. It is a court of last resort with global jurisdiction and a mandate to investigate the world’s most serious crimes. It was set up under the 1998 Rome Statute, and five top LRA commanders, including Kony and Ongwen, were its first indictments. They are now the only two left alive.
Ongwen either surrendered or was captured 12 years later, in the Central African Republic. He was taken to The Hague in early 2015 to face 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including attacks against civilians, murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery, destruction of property and the conscription of children. The trial opened in December 2016, and closed in March this year after more than 231 hearings involving 130 witnesses and experts.
In his closing arguments, Ongwen’s lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, said Ongwen does not represent the LRA and should not be tried on the group’s behalf.
“Never before has the world witnessed a conflict so profoundly complex in nature as the one that forms the contextual basis as the case before you,” he said. “This ‘boy’ [Dominic Ongwen] was a victim, orphan, prisoner of the Lord’s Resistance Army, mentally disabled person who escaped the LRA and is now again victimised.”
Prosecution teams say that Ongwen's abduction as a child could be a mitigating factor but that he must be held responsible for everything he did after turning 18.
“We are not here to deny that Dominic Ongwen was a victim of abduction,” the prosecution lawyer Benjamin Gumpert said. “But the defence line that this should somehow make him immune is untenable… It’s a tragedy… No one disputes that. But then no one suggests they are relieved from criminal responsibility. It can’t be that such people have a lifetime pass to commit crimes just because crimes were committed against them some time in the past.”
OVER THE PAST SEVEN MONTHS, I have been meeting former LRA commanders in Gulu, a small city in northern Uganda. All were slim, surprisingly polite men, who walked with military-straight posture but had significant physical disabilities from their time in the bush.
I have seen scars from gunshot wounds, missing limbs, and the effects of medical conditions exacerbated by a lack of proper healthcare. Some have asked to remain anonymous, because they are still worried the government could come after them and their families. Two remain married to fellow abductees they were partnered with by higher-up LRA commanders – women who were kidnapped as young girls. They have children, some of whom are graduating school or university now.
Philip, a 45-year-old who wore a checked shirt and suit jacket, told me he had known Ongwen since before the LRA. Their families lived near each other, and they were abducted at roughly the same age. “When [Ongwen] was growing up he didn’t even like the issue of fighting or annoying anybody,” he said. “All of those things that happened we learned in the bush.”
Kidnapped children were taken a long way from home, with no idea of the way back. Sometimes, they were even forced to inflict violence on relatives before they left. Philip remembers the fear. “They ordered us to do anything, and you had to accept,” he said. “If you don’t follow, they kill you. To survive you have to follow the order.”
Disobeying would be like “hanging yourself... Nobody wants to hang himself,” he said, explaining that nobody was immune. He brought up the death of Vincent Otti, Kony’s second-in-command. Otti was indicted by the Hague court but murdered by Kony in 2007, reportedly because he supported peace.
Being a human, you always see the pain, but the problem is you will not have any authority or any right to stop what is happening. Because everything is an order
I asked Philip if he ever became used to the violence. His jaw twitched and he pointed one finger to emphasise his points while he spoke. “Being a human, you always see the pain, but the problem is you will not have any authority or any right to stop what is happening. Because everything from there is an order.”
Philip rose through the LRA’s ranks and became a major. He placed higher than Ongwen at the time he planned his escape from an LRA base in Sudan. He claims Ongwen asked to join him and they decided to leave “like brothers”. But when the time finally came, in 2001, Ongwen was injured and unable to walk long distances, so he was left behind.
After Philip defected from the LRA he was given amnesty, but he couldn’t find any work. In the end, he became a soldier with the Ugandan army, which still employs him. Again, he was following orders, this time fighting against the LRA and his former friends.
At that point, the rebels had moved further away, to impenetrable parts of the bush, making escape much less likely, Philip said.
I showed him photographs of Ongwen on trial in The Hague, wearing a suit, his hair short in contrast to the narrow dreadlocks he used to have, his face shaved. Philip beamed. He had never seen these images before. He admired how “smart” Ongwen looked.
“If Ongwen heard about me he would try his level best to see me, because we were very good friends,” he said. “He should be released or he should be forgiven.”
SAM, ANOTHER FORMER LRA COMMANDER, was right on time for our interview. He wore brown leather shoes, ironed office trousers, a light yellow shirt and a mask, and he waited quietly until I approached him.
We sat on a couch, him leaning in when he wanted to make sure I understood something. His story was carefully laid out, memories organised in his head with precision. He threw out names, years and locations, glossing over a decade at one point, but then honing in on movements, missions, individuals and their ranks. He wanted me to believe his friends in the bush weren’t guilty of everything they were accused of. They all wanted to defect, he said.
Sam was abducted as a child, along with 12 other family members. If any one of them had tried to get away, the others would have been ordered to beat that person to death (a punishment that corresponds with accounts from other LRA victims). Sam spent 17 years in the LRA – “half my life” – before he was apprehended by government forces in early 2005.
Once you're abducted, you must also abduct. That's the motto of Lord's Resistance Army. It's a relay. That's the way the LRA multiply their force
He said he personally commanded Ongwen between 1998 and 2001. Civilians had been killed by both sides, he admitted, and of course they had kidnapped children.
“Once you’re abducted, you must also abduct. That’s the motto of LRA. It’s a relay. That’s the way the LRA multiply their force.”
Then Sam listed off all the other commanders who were allowed to return home, like him, without charges. “We all got amnesty,” he confirmed.
The greatest target still at large is Kony. Despite the decades of searching, Sam doesn’t think Kony will ever be apprehended. Kony compared himself to Hitler, he recalled, in that “nobody is going to see him” after his death.
Sam still believes Kony had strong spiritual powers, which he used to predict and control events. We were sitting in a restaurant. After the interview ended, he ate chips and meat. We began speaking about coronavirus, and he paused to look up, readying himself to tell me something important. “Kony told us before that another war will come, like a silent war from China,” he said, eventually.
JOSEPH WAS THE MOST WARY of the former LRA commanders who spoke to me. Even now, he said, he can't speak freely, because everyone knows amnesty agreements are only a "piece of paper" that can be torn up easily. "They're hiding that they're going to take us to court, [but] we know they're still planning for that."
Joseph also spent 17 years in the bush, where there was no education, except military training, and he heard constant condemnation of the Ugandan government. “You have to follow what you’re being taught,” he told me, before adding: “If a cat bears a child, a cat is going to teach a child to be a cat.”
Joseph remembered his early years with the LRA as a constant longing for food and family. But their fear of the government’s army was real, too, and exacerbated every time any LRA fighters were killed.
“Whenever the government go to attack there’s no consideration that there’s a child.” He argued that they were treated like enemy combatants, despite being young victims. LRA fighters began to feel the injustices done to them were too much to bear.
There was bombing, and Joseph claims to even have been there when "white powder, pushed down by drums", was dropped into their camps. "When you breathe in you are not feeling well," he said. "But we survived because we were protected by God." (The Ugandan army has denied using chemical weapons against the LRA.)
When I was abducted by those who are rebelling against the government, is it my fault? Or it is the fault of the government that they haven't protected me?
Joseph believes that the world is biased, that those with strength get the most support, and that the International Criminal Court case is one-sided.
“When I was abducted by those who are rebelling against the government, is it my fault? Or it is the fault of the government that they haven’t protected me? Because they did not protect me, that’s why I was abducted. And I knew nothing about the government [at that] time.”
After Joseph was taken, he heard that three of his brothers were shot dead by the Ugandan army. His mother was injured but survived.
“You know when you’re in power you feel that nothing is going to come after you,” Joseph said. “Whatever you’re doing opposed to the government they call you a terrorist.”
Northern Uganda is still suffering, he said. “They defeated the rebellion but they did not fix the reason… It is only God who is going to judge. The last judge is God.”
AROUND GULU, WHICH is now peaceful but poor, Ugandans who watched screenings of the hearings in The Hague commented on how fat Ongwen had become. His life is a long way from what it was, they said, and he was certainly eating well.
Komakech Henry Kilama, a human-rights lawyer based there, travelled to the Netherlands shortly before the coronavirus lockdown. He said he spent time with Ongwen, who is feeling “optimistic”. Ongwen spoke of his plans to learn traditional healing, either inside prison or if he is freed from it.
Like everyone else, Kilama wonders what the outcome of the case will be, and what it means for peace and justice in this region. “A cow cannot give birth to a goat,” Kilama said, sitting in his office, surrounded by piles of books and case files. “International law is politics throughout. It’s formed by political organs.”
Kilama works in Africa's first domestic war crimes-court, the international-crimes division of the Ugandan high court, where he's representing victims in a case against another LRA commander, Thomas Kwoyelo. This defendant was stripped of amnesty, and his case has gone on since 2011, with many delays and adjournments. Because of his involvement in the case, Kilama had a police escort, a short man in a black beret and shiny boots who stood outside as we spoke.
He has heard rumours about Uganda prosecuting other LRA commanders next, despite the amnesty agreements, but “bygones by bygones,” he wonders. “They have to balance the politics. These people have been fighting all these years… They will escape and start another war. So is the government ready?” he asked. “Or [they] can let it go.”
THERE HAS BEEN pressure on the International Criminal Court to get convictions. Since its establishment, there have only been eight, along with four acquittals. A recent review of its work, carried out by independent experts and running to 348 pages, said "the lack of recent success in court was seen by some as a consequence of poor case selection".
“It’s worrying that the court has put on so many cases but has not been able to get a significant number over the line,” Dapo Akande, a professor of public international law at Oxford University, has said.
The Hague court is also under increasing attack from the United States. In June, President Trump authorised sanctions against the court's current chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as a result of its attempts to investigate US and Israeli conduct in Afghanistan and Palestine. Although the court has a mandate to target those "most responsible", the experts wrote that some interviewees "highlighted the issues regarding unequal investigations into all sides of the conflict", including in Uganda.
Along with that, there are concerns about how much the court costs. It has a budget of just under €150 million euro a year, and more than 900 staff. The ICC's 18 judges, who are elected for nine-year terms, earn about €170,000 a year tax free.
The experts’ report also said there are concerns about the court being “detached” from the countries it investigates.
An spokesperson for the International Criminal Court declined to be interviewed for this article, saying they will not comment while the Ongwen case is before judges.
HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY THE VICTORS, and these days the Ugandan government gets good headlines and a lot of international aid, largely for letting in refugees from neighbouring countries in crisis. Yet the numbers of refugees have been found to be inflated, and corruption scandals related to donor funding are ongoing.
A lot of reporting during the war included allegations that the Ugandan military was deliberately prolonging the LRA conflict, because of the amount of money it was generating. And, certainly, it seems like the International Criminal Court indictments hindered reconciliation. Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, who met Kony and Ongwen several times during peace talks between 2006 and 2008, said they were very close to having an agreement, but the Hague cases were the sticking point.
“In this war there were just two parties, and for sure none of the two parties could be completely innocent,” he told me, during an interview in his residence, comparing the court to “another army”. “Why exonerate one group and go only for the other?” he asked.
During the peace talks, LRA commanders – including Ongwen – wanted assurances that they could leave the bush without being prosecuted. As an intermediary, Odama said, he couldn’t guarantee that. A full decade later, recent escapees still said that Kony continued to use the threat of International Criminal Court prosecutions to prevent fighters at all levels from giving up arms.
Museveni, who is now 76, used child soldiers to take control of the country in the 1980s, and his forces were accused of human rights abuses too.
"It's relatively easy… for the ICC to prosecute rebels or those who are in the opposition, because the state will then co-operate with the ICC, but for those who had power within the state, that's a different proposition entirely," Maina Kiai, a Kenyan lawyer and human-rights activist, said last year, while discussing the court's limitations.
Museveni has been in power for 34 years. He’s managed to hold on to control yet lives a life far removed from those of most Ugandans. In the north, there is a prevalent belief that the region is kept underdeveloped as a punishment for rebelling.
One of the sites visited by International Criminal Court judges is Lukodi, where Ongwen is accused of ordering a massacre in a displaced-persons camp. Two and a half years ago, five months before the ICC judges’ visit, I visited Lukodi too. I found a small town, full of fed-up people who refused to speak about the case without being paid.
They asked why they weren’t receiving funding to improve their living standards or set up profit-making businesses – maybe even a museum to remember the massacre. Perhaps they could get paid to do guided tours, they suggested. They wanted to take back control of their own story and any benefits that could come with it.
In Gulu, electricity – for those lucky enough to have it installed – regularly turns off for days, stymying business and preventing investment. Full-time waitresses can earn as little as 30,000 Ugandan shillings a month – less than €7 – and a sex worker told me she will sleep with someone for just 2,000 shillings, or 45c, out of desperation to feed her children. Hundreds of street children scavenge or steal to eat.
Local victims' associations say tens of thousands of victims of the conflict are still hoping for compensation, including women and girls who were abducted and became pregnant in the bush
On one street, a man in torn clothes sleeps in a pile of rubbish at night and shouts at passersby during the day. “I know Kony, he abused me,” he yelled at me at dusk, one evening in July. “I know Obama,” he added, somewhat more dubiously.
Another local, who goes by the name Old Man Satan, told me he turned away from God during the war, deciding the only way to get through life would be by worshipping the devil. “I don’t know what kind of god would send war and say he is our father,” he explained.
Local victims’ associations say tens of thousands of victims of the conflict are still hoping for compensation, including women and girls who were abducted and became pregnant in the bush. Aid has largely dried up. When South Sudanese refugees started arriving from across the border, after that country’s civil war began in 2013, many NGOs left Gulu and moved to the refugee camps instead.
It is hard for grown-up child soldiers to garner sympathy, particularly those who turn into adults with problematic behaviours and fractured personal lives.
ALONG WITH THE Ongwen verdict, Ugandan elections are scheduled to happen in the next few months. During one of his many hours-long, rambling coronavirus-related national addresses, Museveni vowed to crush protesters. He threatened that opposition politicians who carried out food distributions for people in need would be charged with "attempted murder", and instructed Ugandans to only eat 250 grams of maize flour a day during lockdown and not consume food "wastefully", despite the fact that many had nothing.
This month, after popstar and presidential candidate Bobi Wine was arrested and accused of violating coronavirus restrictions, police opened fire on protesters. At least 45 people were killed.
Uganda is still one of the most impoverished countries in the world, with a gross per capita income of about €683 and a life expectancy of 63 years. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated that. Rules and restrictions were brought in without any consideration for people’s lives, and we will never know how many people died as a result of police brutality or slow starvation, or because they couldn’t access emergency medical care during a nationwide travel ban introduced with an hour’s notice.
Among most people in northern Uganda, if there’s any reaction to the Ongwen verdict, it will likely be one of quiet frustration.
Some names have been changed