The Making of a Monster?
The Globe and Mail, by Stephanie Nolen and Erin Baines, October 25, 2008
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 family.
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).
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 killer.
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 soldiers.
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 vicious ways.
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 free them.
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 bush.
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 accordingly."
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 river.
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 forced "wives."
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 and 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 orders.
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 mercurial nature.
"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 moment."
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 war.
"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 do it.
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 child victims."
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 has changed.
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.