Dominic Ongwen, a leader with the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army, was recently detained in the Central African Republic and handed over to the authority of the International Criminal Court. He will stand trial in The Hague for several counts of crimes against humanity– the first member of the LRA to do so. As the trial gets underway, here are 12 things you didn’t know about Dominic Ongwen.
Source: NYTimes.com, News.Yahoo.com, AllAfrica.com, BBC.com, LRACrisisTracker.com, Monitor.co.ug
Ongwen was born in Gulu, Northern Uganda, in 1975, but was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army at the age of 14 as he was walking to school. He was taken to the bush and indoctrinated as an LRA fighter. He rose through the group’s ranks.
Ongwen’s last name translates to “born at the time of the white ant,” and many people refer to him as the White Ant, not just because of the translation. The name also refers to his abilities on the battlefield. The Enough Project, a group that works to raise awareness about the Lord’s Resistance Army crimes, said, “(He) earned the reputation of being able to emerge from the bloodiest of battles with few casualties among his fighters.”
In early January 2015, Ongwen was detained by American special forces in the Central African Republic. It is unclear whether he surrendered or was captured by a Seleka rebel group and handed over. U.S. forces turned Ongwen over to CAR authorities, who handed him over to the ICC and he was flown to The Hague.
After being abducted at the age of 10, Ongwen was promoted to general at the age of 18. He reached the rank of brigadier by his late 20s. Former Lord’s Resistance Army members said that he had won the confidence of Joseph Kony, leader of the guerrilla group.
Ongwen is considered a member of the “Control Altar” of the LRA, directing military strategy for one of the group’s four brigades. Of the five LRA members that the ICC has put out warrants for, Ongwen ranks the lowest. The other indicted commanders have since died, except for leader Joseph Kony.
In 2007, Ongwen opposed the execution of another LRA chief, Vincent Otti, leading to a falling out with LRA leader, Joseph Kony. When Ongwen was first abducted by the LRA as a child, he was placed in the “household” of Otti, a senior commander at the time. Most commanders would have been executed to purge Otti’s supporters. Kony supposedly spared Ongwen for his usefulness to the group – in particular, his willingness and abilities in leading troops on dangerous missions. There are other reports that suggest that Kony demoted Ongwen at several different points for insubordination, most notably for failing to follow orders to join other LRA forces in the Central African Republic. Ongwen was later promoted back to senior leadership.
Ongwen is charged with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes, including murder, enslavement, pillaging, and intentionally attacking a civilian population. The International Criminal Court first issued the warrant for his arrest in 2005, relating to an attack on a camp for internally displaced people in Uganda in 2004. At the time of his indictment, Ongwen was the youngest person to be indicted by the ICC.
Ongwen’s first hearing with the ICC was to confirm his identity and ensure he understood the charges against him. He was not required to enter a plea of guilt or innocence at that time.
On Oct. 10, 2005, Ongwen was thought to have been killed in combat with the Uganda People’s Defense Force, and his death was confirmed by former LRA commanders. In July 2006, genetic fingerprinting proved that the dead combatant was not in fact Ongwen, and that he was still at large.
Florence Ayot was assigned as Ongwen’s bush wife in 1996, seven years after she was abducted at age 9. She fled the LRA in late 2004 after her first child with a different LRA husband was killed in an attack by government forces. Florence received amnesty in April 2005, and says Ongwen should receive the same. “If the 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 is a victim,” Ayot said.
Despite Ongwen’s own history as a former abductee-turned-child soldier, he was brutal to other abducted children. Children who escaped from LRA forces reported his cruelty. Victor Ochen, director of the African Youth Initiative Network, said, “Ongwen’s time for amnesty is long gone. (Former prisoners) came back with testimonies…about how brutal Ongwen was to other children who tried to escape…I am happy that, finally, justice is being done.”
Despite the crimes Ongwen has committed, his family said he should receive amnesty, as many other former LRA fighters who were abducted as children did. His brother, Charles, said, “If he was never abducted, he would probably be doing something else. It feels bad to hear that my brother committed all those crimes while being in captivity of the LRA. But I also know that he never did them willingly.” However, because Ongwen is now being held by the ICC, he is no longer eligible for amnesty by the Ugandan government.