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Justice dilemma haunts Uganda

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Life on the Edge: The Dilemma of the White Ant

By Steve Bradshaw
Executive Producer, Life on the Edge

He seems kind of dreamy in the news footage, this charming-looking man - but Dominic Ongwen is also probably the youngest man to be charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

He is said to have commanded a unit of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), rebels who conducted a widespread campaign of terror across much of northern Uganda.

Joseph Kony

The list of charges against the LRA including child abduction, rape and murder.

Mr Ongwen was filmed in the bush while attending peace talks in Northern Uganda. Still a young man, he looks quite untroubled. Maybe that is because even some of his victims - out in the Northern Ugandan bush - believe the ICC should pack its bags and leave the man known as The White Ant alone.

Right now - if he is still alive, one can never be sure - Ongwen is still camped out in the bush. He is said to have commanded the LRA's Sinia Brigade, under the orders of rebel leader Joseph Kony, who has also been indicted by the ICC.

Like other LRA leaders, he won't give himself up, at least not until the ICC indictments have been dropped. The ICC reckons that it has no reason to drop charges and, so far, the latest ceasefire has held. But frankly, it's a stand-off.

Atrocities

It is claimed that the Sinia Brigade was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the conflict that has ravaged Northern Uganda and has led to most of the Acholi people living in protected camps.

Camp for displaced people on the border with Sudan (photo Robyn Hunter)
Many people from the Acholi region have been driven into camps
"I had my five-year-old with me when the female rebel commander ordered all of us with children to pick them up and smash them against the veranda poles," says Esther.

Seven children were killed like this among 56 who died in Esther's village. The atrocity was one of the worst in the conflict.

Accounting for war crimes in Africa is always going to involve tough choices, as Life on the Edge's account of General Butt Naked in Liberia showed. If everyone is pursued, peace may remain a mirage - but if no one is hunted down, the rule of law may never recover.

Dominic Ongwen's story gives a macabre twist to the dilemma. A twist because Mr Ongwen himself was by all accounts snatched by the LRA as a child. It is a credible story because most LRA "soldiers" were abducted.

Child soldiers

But of course that means Mr Ongwen is not just a perpetrator but a victim. Some square this dilemma by calling fighters like Mr Ongwen "veteran child soldiers". But the dilemma remains: is he truly responsible for what he has allegedly done, however horrific?

The director of our film, Caroline Pare, showed photos of Ongwen to a couple who have been reported to be his aunt and uncle (there is at least one other version of his family background). "He's grown older, he's changed," says Madalena, turning to John. "He's the spitting image of you now."

Everything he did was in the name of Kony, so he's innocent
Florence, Mr Ongwen's 'bush wife'
Then there is Florence, who has her own reasons for wanting Mr Ongwen pardoned. She was his "bush wife", and was given to him when she was an LRA commander herself.

Florence is now taking in washing for a living in the town of Gulu, while carefully holding onto an amnesty card, like many other former combatants who have already been effectively pardoned by the government.

Florence is obviously still proud of her own senior commander's role in the LRA - a sign perhaps of the welcome sense of identity and purpose (however malign) it can give young people like her “husband”.

"Dominic used to tell us he was abducted when he was very young," Florence says. "Everything he did was in the name of Kony, so he's innocent."

And further complicating this dilemma, Northern Uganda has a well-established method of resolving even the most violent dispute. Two ex-rebels we film confess, sacrifice a goat as compensation, and are allowed to go on their way.

"We know how to solve the problem of when someone kills someone," says Rwot Martin Otinga, deputy paramount chief of the Acholi. "So we tell the ICC: 'Why don't you leave everything to us?'"

By our reckoning, most people in Northern Uganda want the charges dropped, and the general amnesty extended to the four ICC suspects. Only a few - like Esther - believe they should still be held to account.

"As the ICC wants to finish this thing," Esther says, "then I accept - because at least they're willing to pursue it now Uganda is collaborating with them."

All she wants is justice - at least as most people across the world would see it.

This, then, is the dilemma of the White Ant: whether to track down and prosecute alleged war criminals - even if you don't have full local backing, and your suspects were brainwashed as kids.

What's happening in Northern Uganda will establish a precedent - let's hope it's not needed too often.

Life on the Edge is broadcast on BBC World News on Tuesdays at 1930 GMT. The films were made for the BBC by TVE.


Your comments:

Kony can be forgiven only if the innocent children still in captivity are released and he apologises to all the people - especially the parents of the children of Aboke girls and all other people who have suffered innocently
Sophia, Uganda

Dominic Ongwen needs to be caught and tried in a court of law OR better yet, taste the abuse he has inflicted on others - let the victims be his judge and jury. I feel the same about Joseph Kony. These are not men but cowards and hide behind their children soldiers.
Karen, NYC, USA

The ICC should leave us alone. We saw worst things: physical, economical and emotional. For the time being I would say let them back and allow peace to prevail. They can come back after sometime say three to five years after everybody has settled down and things have normalised. Sometimes we feel we were neglected and now that we have managed the hard way, the world bodies and the ICC want us to think they are concerned. Let them allow us to use the traditional justice.
Jwee Obali Wilfred, Gulu-Uganda

Those who want Ongwen punished may just be saying that parental guidance/counselling as well as conventional education are not necessary in a man's life. Children grow up only knowing what they are taught or experience. If a child like Ongwen grew up in a rebel camp where hatred for constituted authority is the order of the day and violence a daily experience, human life would be as valuable to him as the life of a fly. That young man, like Tarzan, needs sympathy, compassion and re-education in order for him to fit back into our normal society.
Chief Bisong Etahoben, Yaounde, Cameroon

I'm a Ugandan in Ethiopia. We had enough suffering with the LRA war. ICC's indictment is not for the good of Northern Uganda. To use Dr Martin Luther Junior's words: "You can't remove hate with hate, but love, you can't drive away darkness with darkness, but light." It seems the ICC prefers war and suffering in Northern Uganda to peace. Give peace a chance, indictment LRA commanders will not resurrect the dead , and neither will it reconstruct the physically challenged due to war. Finally, ICC should not apply the law selectively.
Batemba Julius, Awassa, Ethiopia

I am Afro Canadian. I am always puzzled by the action of the so-called international community such as ICC who pass decisions they cannot enforce and make the life of people worse than it is. I full-heartedly support bringing all dictators and tyrants like Joseph Kony to justice. This can only happen when ICC is capable of enforcing it rulings. As long as countries, that support ICC stop turning around and arming the likes of Joseph the actions of ICC are meaningless and counterproductive.

Asfaw Debia, Regina, Canada

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