Dominic Ongwen: a Tyrant or Victim of Circumstances?

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Some weeks ago, the world breathed some air of relief, after hearing that one of the most notorious ICC wanted war -crime suspects, Dominic Ongwen had surrendered and was handed over to the US forces in the Central African Republic.

As a child soldier-turned-commander in the feared Lord’s Resistance Army, active in the north of Uganda (although it is now believed to operate in small, mobile groups across Central Africa and South Sudan), Dominic Ongwen rose rapidly from the ranks to become the second in command – below the ruthless leader, Joseph Kony. The Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been waging an infamous war for more than 30 years, against the government of Uganda, has been accused of unimaginable inhuman atrocities such as murder, abduction, child-sex slavery, mutilation (cutting off lips, nose, fingers, ears, eye.. you name them), child labour, child soldier. Now in the ICC custody, Dominic Ongwen faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. With more than 60,000 children kidnapped and 100,000 people allegedly killed, forcing at one point, nearly 95 percent of the Acholi population in three districts of northern Uganda to be mercilessly displaced around 2006, LRA is a heartless terrorist group, which inflicted has traumatized its people for years. It is believed that due to the RA`s inglorious murderous acts, as of 2006, as many as 1.7 million victims, mostly from northern Uganda were living in more than 200 internally displaced person (IDP) camps in northern Uganda. These slums-camps which recorded the highest mortality rates in the world (about 1,000 death weekly by the official account). It is therefore no coincidence that Dominic Ongwen`s ICC case, has attracted the world`s attention.

Looking at the calm, composed Dominic Ongwen, who dressed responsibly in a suit, while appearing before the International Criminal Court (ICC) last week for an initial confirmation of the accused identity as well as to inform him of the charges against him, one could have mistaken him for a banker. Definitely, the question most people might be asking is how come such a seemingly quiet man committed such alleged mean atrocities with impunity?

That brings us to the sad story of Dominic Ongwen`s involvement in the LRA`s terror campaign.

“I was abducted in 1988 and I was taken to the bush when I was 14 years old until now. Prior to my arrival at court, I was a soldier in the LRA,” Ongwen, who gave his current age as 40, told the court in Acholi, a language of northern Uganda.

Even though Dominic Ongwen is wanted for the past decade, with a US offered $5 million (4.3 million-euro) bounty on his head, people who are close to him have a different account ““ and indeed, impression of him. From his younger brother Charles Ojar, who last saw his elder brother Dominic Ongwen, when he was abducted at a tender age, to Florence Ayot (35), the appointed bush wife of Dominic Ongwen, who pleaded for amnesty for her husband, the picture being painted of the Dominic Ongwen is different and indeed opposite from what the world knows of him. However, no one denies the level of terror LRA has brought upon many innocent people.

From the record available, Dominic Ongwen was only ten years old in 1989, when he was abducted by LRA while on his way back from school. Like other abducted children, Dominic was not only aggressively uprooted from school, he was forcefully indoctrinated and trained to commit heinous crimes. Dominic`s aunt Madalena Akot narrated the sad story of his abduction by the LRA, which has terrorized the entire community:

“On the day they abducted Dominic Ongwen, his mother was crying about the sad news that he was kidnapped. She refused to run away on hearing of the LRA`s advances, saying she was ready to face the rebels. The villagers all ran to safety and when they returned, they found the lifeless body of Dominic’s mother. His father was later found dead too, hacked by a hoe.“

Like other abducted children, Dominic`s life would be drastically changed in the bush. Soon, the 10 year old school boy would be brainwashed and dogmatically brainwashed in the terror act. Dominic Ongwen rose to the ranks of a commander and earned other things that go with the rank ““ brutality, atrocities, appointed abducted bush wives, etc. But for his appointed bush wife Florence Ayot, abducted at the ripe age of 9 and appointed Dominic Ongwen`s wife at the innocent age of 16, Dominic is a less evil than he is painted to be:

“We never quarrelled and he never abused me. Not one single day. He even took care of my first child that wasn’t his. I don’t know what he did exactly at the front line, but he has a good character. If he were bad-hearted, Kony himself would have killed him.”

According to both Dominic`s wife Florence and other village members, even though Dominic is accused of war crimes, he probably would not have committed any atrocities if he were not abducted at the age of 10, brainwashed, indoctrinated and “forcefully made to commit those crimes he is accused of.“ Worse still, they argue, both Dominic Ongwen`s education and life have been completely annihilated due to the abduction. But that is not all, according to them:

“If the (Ugandan) government was willing enough, they should have not decided to send Dominic to the ICC, because it was the government who failed to protect him as a child. He was abducted and he is a victim.” Dominic Ongwen`s wife Florence argues.
This brings one to a very provocative debate: Just like other abducted members of LRA who got amnesty from the government, should Dominic Ongwen merit amnesty as well, having in mind that he was not only abducted, he probably was forced to commit the crimes he is accused of?

“If he was never abducted, he would probably be doing something else. My brother committed all those crimes while being in captivity of the LRA. But I also know that he never did them willingly.” Charles Ojar defends is accused brother Dominic.

As an abducted boy, should Dominic Ongwen be exonerated of any crime he may have committed as LRA commander? Is Joseph Kony responsible for the crimes committed by his subordinates? As a soldier, is Dominic Ongwen the architect of his actions or not? Could Ongwen have committed the accused crimes if he were fully protected by the government and prevented from being abducted? These and many other questions the ICC will be deliberating upon in the months to come.

Whether Dominic Ongwen is convicted, acquitted or given an amnesty, the brutal signs of the LRA`s atrocities can never be ignored. Never should we allow those barbaric acts to happen again!