About the author(s):
Do we know Dominic Ongwen? His life has been explored forensically by scores of international lawyers, investigators, and analysts, and 179 witnesses have testified in his trial over the course of 234 hearings (see here). Yet, we have very rarely heard Ongwen speak. He gave a radio interview with a community radio station in the Central African Republic in January 2015 – immediately prior to being handed over the ICC – where he denounced Joseph Kony and celebrated his short-lived freedom: “I am a free man despite the ICC case against me.” Once the trial began in 2016, Ongwen’s voice has been almost entirely absent, and when he does speak, it is usually unwelcome within the regimented framework of court procedure. Ongwen’s unsworn statement in the sentencing hearing yesterday (April 15, 2021) presented the opportunity for Ongwen to address the court and public directly, and to tell his story. In this post I will consider Ongwen’s unsworn statement: his words and his silences.
Dominic Ongwen stands in court, removes his mask and speaks for almost two hours – far beyond the 45 minutes allocated by the Defence. Ongwen is calm, confident, and still convinced of his own innocence. On the first day of his trial, December 6, 2016, Ongwen proclaimed “I’m not the LRA” – a sentiment that he held onto still at the end of his trial (see here, pp. 17-18). Ongwen sees the LRA as something that was done to him, rather than by him.
He begins his statement by proclaiming that he had not understood much of the proceedings against him (“I only understood 40-60%”) because “I was not feeling well… From the onset I did not consider myself a human because what I was going through, the people in the [ICC] Detention Centre know what I was going through at that time…”* He refers at many points in his statement to his current struggles with mental illness and the positive improvements he has seen through his treatment program within the Detention Centre (he specifically cites Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR – a common therapeutic intervention for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Ongwen recounts his early days in the LRA in horrific detail; after his first attempt to escape, he was forced to kill several people. The individuals were tied to a tree, and he participated unwillingly in their disembowelment, finally being forced to eat beans mixed with the blood of the victims. “I will go to the grave with that image in my mind,” he says. Later in his statement, Ongwen reiterates that he is still haunted by this incident (and others) saying: “My suffering has made me drunk…most times I am unconscious, I have lost sleep…I cannot distinguish between day and night because I am awake throughout.” He continues, “I get hallucinations, I hear gunshots, I see dead bodies, I see soldiers I killed, I see soldiers I slaughtered, I believe this image will not go anywhere until my death.”
The Defence maintains, of course, that Ongwen had mental illnesses both at the time of the commission of the crimes, and today. While the Chamber rejected this assertion in the judgment, it may still be available as a mitigating factor in sentencing. The Chamber’s mental health expert, Joop T. de Jong, found that Ongwen was fit to stand trial, even while he agreed that Ongwen suffered from mental illness today.
Ongwen speaks at length about his induction into the LRA. He affirms his belief in Kony’s spiritual powers. For example, he recounts being given a “stone bomb;” he prayed over the stone, and “when I went to the battlefield” the stone “went off like a bomb.” This practice of using stone bombs was inherited from Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement. Ongwen, called the ignition of his ‘stone bomb’ “the first miracle that I saw in the LRA.” He directly invokes the spirits as a cause for his perpetration (as the Defence does in relation to duress), saying “If I could defy the spirits…I would have stopped all these things, but because I did not have the capacity, I did not have the strength, all these things happened.”
Ongwen also attributes this lack of agency to the coercive power exercised by the LRA over its members and expresses his appreciation of his newfound freedom (even though he is imprisoned): “when I was in the LRA, that was the real prison. At least I am happy I’m here. One hundred times more free, if I compare my life in the LRA. There is no jail in the world that is tougher than the LRA.” He looked up to and feared Joseph Kony as a boy, remembering “I grew up…knowing there was no one more powerful in this world,” and recalling that Kony once carried him across a river. Yet, he also argues that “whatever Kony has done, is now being blamed on me.” He also claims he disagreed with Kony over an order to kill a group of captives (government intermediaries), including his future lawyer – Krispus Ayena Odongo.
The most problematic portion of Ongwen’s statement, from a Defence perspective, was his discussion of his “wives.” He claims, “I am not the one responsible for marrying these women” and argues that his “wives” either chose him, that he saved them from potentially worse fates (more abusive commanders), or that Kony assigned the wives to him, without his consent. He cites the fact of the wives’ survival as evidence of his relative kindness “If I did not take care of them, why are they waiting for me now?” This is a misleading framing of the current situation with the wives, some of whom have maintained relationships with him for various reasons, and others who have denounced the marriages in court and cut ties. He also maintains (against the wives’ testimony, other prosecution evidence, and the Chamber’s conclusions) that “I did not subject them to forced sex.” He does eventually express limited remorse for the forced marriages and other crimes, saying “when I returned, I apologized…for what had happened in northern Uganda…I asked for forgiveness for people I was ordered to kill, for people who were forced to be my wife…but I cannot ask for forgiveness for each of things brought against me…”
Ongwen’s expressions of remorse in his statement are tepid. He says, for example, “I am remorseful…they [victims of war] really suffered” but “there is nothing else we can do…the people who have been killed, can never come back, the things that have been destroyed, can never come back. Including my own family…” It is clear that Ongwen primarily situates himself as a victim. He shifts to the passive voice when describing acts of violence (“people who have been killed” rather than “people that I killed”) to further distance himself from his role in the violence. This is quite typical of perpetrators of atrocities, indeed of anyone accused of committing acts seen as morally wrongful (a tendency I describe in my book Perpetrating Genocide). While it does not say anything about Ongwen’s culpability, it does demonstrate a desire to separate self from act.
Ongwen addresses his own survival in the harsh conditions within the LRA through a narrative of (divine) suffering: “what [suffering] happened to me did not even happen to Jesus Christ…I went through a lot…carrying extraordinary loads, walking long distances…hunger, thirst…climbing very high mountains, clearing very thick bush, beatings, internal imprisonment…” He also claims that he was spared execution for his escape attempts because he was deemed to be one of “Silindi’s soldiers,” meaning that he was under the perceived protection of Sili Silindi – one of Kony’s most prominent and enduring spirits. He says he was shot eleven times while in the LRA and that “these eleven bullets would have killed an elephant.” He manifests a kind of survivor’s guilt in saying that he asked himself (during his time in the LRA): “How come I’m still alive…what’s the meaning of this? How am I special? …. when I went to battle, I went with the intention of being killed. Most of the battles I went to, I went with anger, I went with resentment. I was unlucky to not get killed…” He once again casts his survival in spiritual terms, recounting, “I was attacked by six lions and I survived. I talked to the lions and the lions did not harm me.”
When Ongwen fled from the LRA in December 2014, he expected to be given amnesty (despite the ICC warrant of arrest) but instead “…the world snatched me with a rope around my neck…was it good for me to come out, or would I be better off staying the bush?” He feels singled out unfairly, “I should not be held as a scapegoat,” particularly given that other senior commanders, and the people who abducted him, are not in court. He asks “when did these international rules come into effect?…People who protect other people, why did they not protect me too?” This is a fair question, which highlights the role of moral luck in Ongwen’s arrival at the ICC.
Ongwen fails to fully engage with his own personal responsibility for the choices he made in adulthood. It’s overly simplistic to say that moral agency as an adult is separable from extreme abuses suffered in childhood, yet Ongwen’s denial is hard to sustain. In his statement, he argues that “I am not responsible for killing” (even while he mentions “slaughtering soldiers”), while affirming “there are other people who did worse things than I did.” This latter claim is, in fact, always true in mass atrocities; as a theoretical exercise we can say that, if clear hierarchies of moral responsibility can be established, there is always someone who did worse things than you (unless you are the mythical single individual at the apex of a pyramid of relative evils).
But can we, in the end, empathize with what Ongwen is telling us about his ultimately tragic life? And what of the tragedies he has inflicted? Empathetic identification is ultimately the goal of such statements, beyond offering offenders an opportunity to give their perspective. Ongwen tells us that “all these things exhausted me” and that he wants to “be a better human being.” He seeks to deny the assumptions people make about him and tells us “the way my parents were killed was brutal” and that “I feel as though God has forgotten me. I should have been born on a different planet. This planet is full of bad things…” He describes himself as “like a dead person,” yet he says both he and the victims are “all human persons.” The use of this phrase “a human person” (dano adana) has a particular resonance in Acholi (as Opiyo Oloya notes in his book Child to Soldier) – it serves to emphasize humanity as a value of human belonging. Ongwen’s use of this phrase is likely a response not just to the cultural alienation experienced by many former LRA, like himself, but a broader alienation from the human community as one condemned for crimes against humanity.
Ongwen’s unsworn statement is a struggle to reconnect; he tells us implausibly that “you might see me on TV some day advocating for human rights.” Yet, this attempt at reconnection is burdened by a failure to fully understand the wrongfulness of his acts. This disconnect is cultivated by the LRA among its fighters, by creating communities which break down social ties and endorse atrocious violence. Among former LRA, there often seems to be a struggle to fully shed the LRA worldview, even years after leaving the group (see here). Indeed, the preservation of this worldview serves to explain acts committed in the LRA context, which are otherwise incomprehensible. Ongwen asks us, and perhaps himself, “what is Ongwen? Is he human or not human?” As we make sense of Ongwen’s acts, perhaps we should offer not only condemnation, but a path towards belonging again.
* All quotes from Ongwen’s unsworn statement are the author’s transcription from the recording of the statement (the court’s transcript has not yet been publicly released), see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaybHDhE4Cc&ab_channel=IntlCriminalCourt.