Dear judges, the formerly abducted children of Northern Uganda are all victims, and all of us; the parents, the communities, the government of Uganda, and the international community, have failed in our duties and right to protect them from forcible LRA abductions.
Our children were ruthlessly abducted between 1994 and 1999, and from 2002 to 2005. Another more than 100,000 innocent people were brutally killed or died during the same war in Northern Uganda.
These deaths of our people and abduction of our little children by the LRA lasted for ten years, while the whole world looked on or looked away! On its own record, the ICC has confirmed that more than 60,000 innocent children of Northern Uganda were taken into LRA captivity, among them Ongwen, who was abducted at an innocent 14 years, while on his way to school.
But Ongwen has been jailed to serve 25 years by the ICC in The Hague, The Netherlands, pending ruling on his appeal in December this year.
Why Ongwen, abductees are more sinned against
But Ongwen, like many other ill-fated children of Northern Uganda, was forced to lose his innocence and humanity. He was forced to kill other human beings, eat a dead body of a human being, drink human blood, and eat food while sitting on a dead body. No child can remain the same through such traumatic and dehumanising experience.
Consequently, Ongwen and all these hapless children lost opportunities for their potential growth and development in normal life. In a nutshell, all their future potential in life as normal children were crushed, ruined and lost completely.
These were the gruesome circumstances under which Ongwen, like all other formerly abducted children of Northern Uganda, were forcefully subjected and conditioned to become killing machines in the hands of the LRA as an organisation.
Despite all these facts, the ICC insists that Ongwen and his peers are out-and-out devils.
The judges on May 6, 2021, found Ongwen guilty of 61 crimes listed as war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Uganda between July 1, 2002, and December 2005.
The crimes included murder, rape, sexual enslavement, torture, and the use of innocent children as child-soldiers to kill their own kinsmen and women, even when Ongwen himself was a victim of abduction by the LRA, at only 14 years.
The judges also labelled Ongwen as the ‘tip of the spear of the LRA’. This means they see Ongwen as the most ruthless LRA commander who showed no pity as the LRA slaughtered innocent civilians in Northern Uganda.
The judges also ruled that Ongwen carried out cruel abduction of young children of Northern Uganda, who were below 15 years. They maintain that Ongwen as commander ordered his hostages to kill, cook, and eat dead bodies of human beings as a way of destroying their own humanity. But they disregard the context that these were the self-same cold-blooded rituals that Ongwen was forced into and conditioned for more than 20 years and lost his humanity from an innocent age of only 14 years.
Don’t punish Ongwen, abductees twice
From above, the ICC cannot cry out against the evils meted out to our young children and yet cry for the blood of another unfortunate child as Ongwen who has been maltreated similarly and conditioned to carry out the exact cold-blooded acts.
The ICC would need to answer whether a woman kidnapped and repeatedly abused sexually by her captors, can be taken to court of law by, either, her father or her husband, and accused of committing adultery with her captors.
Without a doubt, this case would be double affliction as is now the case with Ongwen in both the hands of the LRA and the ICC judges.
It must be noted that our cultural non-retributive but restorative justice system of mato oput and the Western criminal and punitive justice system of the courts, both require fair and just investigations, trials, and prosecutions for every case brought before them.
But the ICC has not been able to investigate the situation of Northern Uganda in its totality or treat it wholesomely and has failed in its search for real justice to be done to these unfortunate children of Northern Uganda, including Ongwen.
The ICC must be aware that all these unfortunate children; whether victim and later conditioned perpetrators or serial killers in the hands of the LRA organisation have lost both their humanity and opportunities for their future potential growth and development in life.
Their humanity was crushed by being forced to kill other human beings, eat human flesh, drink human blood, and sit on dead bodies while eating food!
Here, it is clear that ICC is ready and willing to punish all these unfortunate children twice in spite of all these facts and evidence concerning their own circumstances in LRA captivity.
In sum, the ICC is rubbing more salt into the raw wounds of all these formerly abducted children of Northern Uganda.
Ongwen, abductees not real tips of LRA spear
Our argument against the ICC trial and conviction of Ongwen is not to dismiss their claim that the war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by our children who were abducted by the originators of the LRA organization.
But our question is, who should be responsible and accountable for all these crimes in Northern Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo, and the Central African Republic (CAR)?
Is it our young children like Ongwen, who were abducted and forced to become victim of circumstances? Or is it the LRA as an organization and its core founders, who are the real ‘tips of the spear’ who by their own choice, forced and conditioned our abducted children into becoming killing machines?
Can the ICC without blinking say it has served justice for Ongwen as one of our formerly abducted children? Or would the ICC rather inflict injustice with impunity on Ongwen and other formerly abducted children in equal measure just as it would punish the core LRA founding leadership, who are the real ‘tips of the spear’ and masterminds of the LRA killing machines?
The depressing answer is that the ICC is not serving real justice, but serving double punishment to our children for being abducted by the originators of LRA who destroyed the future potentials of our abducted children.
The ICC makes no distinction between our formerly abducted children and their captors in the LRA as an organization. In this regard, the ICC judges have no honour neither morality nor the purity of the heart to administer real justice to our formerly abducted children like Ongwen. The ICC judges have failed to take into consideration the most unfortunate circumstances under which our children were dehumanised.
Don’t punish Ongwen, abductees twice
There is no way anyone can compare Ongwen and other formerly abducted children to normal children in any part of the world whose life, potential and development were not interrupted.
Ongwen and peers became the proverbial tree that had been conditioned and matured into a bending position for ages and cannot be straightened without breaking it.
Similarly, there would be no automatic reform for Ongwen and abductees without a rigorous and systematic treatment for withdrawal from the cold-blooded culture they had been forced to live for an entire lifetime in LRA captivity and control.
For this, it is incredible that ICC judges can fancy that the cold-hearted conditioning of Ongwen as an abducted little boy could be reversed under the LRA supremacy.
In sum, there is no rationale for holding, trying, and convicting Ongwen by the ICC in The Hague.
Ongwen, just like all other formerly abducted children of Northern Uganda, DR Congo, South Sudan, and CAR, cannot be held accountable for all the war crimes and crimes against humanity they had been forced to commit in their respective countries.
For this reason, I appeal to the ICC to consider bringing Ongwen back to Acholi sub-region to be subjected truth-telling where there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, but heartfelt remorse and acceptance of responsibility, guilt and reconciliation with the people of Northern Uganda, who have borne the brunt of the 20-year old bloody war.
This complete resolution of our situation of violence and deaths can achieve real justice and ultimately lead to sustainable peace and development for all in Northern Uganda, in particular, and in Uganda at large.
In conclusion, this Lwo traditional justice system of mato oput is age-old and tested, is non-retributive but restorative and will help the culprit, victims, and communities to genuinely reconcile, co-exist and own a common memory of this brutal war.
I believe if adopted by the international community, mato oput can become the best mechanism for durable conflict resolution in the whole world.
Bishop MB Ochola II is the retired Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Kitgum, the Province of the Church of Uganda, and champions the culture of peace, non-violence, forgiveness and reconciliation.