By: Tom Maliti
A survivor of a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on the Pajule camp for internally displaced people (IDP) described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how he was beaten, hospital left for dead, and then crawled with festering wounds for nine days before he got help.
Witness P-249 told the court on Monday that LRA fighters beat him when he refused to continue walking because he had bruises on his shoulders, a wound on one of his feet that made him limp, and he had not eaten a regular meal for the four or so days since being abducted from Pajule.
The witness was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander, who has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Witness P-249 is giving his testimony under in-court protective measures that include his face being distorted in public broadcasts of the proceedings. Whenever his testimony may identify him, the court hearing was closed to the public to protect Witness P-249’s identity.
Several charges against Ongwen are for his alleged role in the attack on Pajule, in northern Uganda, in October 2003. He also faces charges for his alleged role in attacks on three other IDP camps, namely, Abok, Lukodi, and Odek. These camps no longer exist as the LRA ceased to be active in northern Uganda after 2006.
On Monday, Witness P-249 told the court the attack on Pajule occurred on October 10, 2003. He said he remembered the date because it was a day after they had celebrated Uganda’s Independence Day, which falls on October 9. The date of the attack on Pajule – October 10, 2003 – is one of the facts that has been agreed on by the prosecution and defense.
Witness P-249 said the day the LRA attacked Pajule, he was asleep with his wife as the attack took place sometime between five and six in the morning.
“Then I heard gunshots. People were making noise and alarming. I told my wife, ‘Could this be government soldiers firing?’” said the witness.
He said the LRA then came to his house and kicked the door. He said he told his wife not to open the door.
“They started firing into the house,” Witness P-249 said, adding that is when he asked his wife to open the door.
He said once the LRA seized him and his wife, they were separated. The witness said he was “bound around the waist using ropes, which are normally used to bind cattle.”
Witness P-249 said he and others were assembled in one place as the LRA looted shops and homes along the main road of Pajule. He said once the LRA had looted what they could, he and other abductees were made to carry the goods.
“Did you try to escape, Mr. Witness?” asked trial lawyer Adesola Adeboyejo.
“This thing with the LRA was that if you try to escape you would be killed,” replied the witness.
Adeboyejo asked him whether he saw any who tried to escape and was killed that day.
“Well, when we were leaving my homestead there was a boy who had tried to run. We were passing on the road, and we found he had been shot and his intestines were sticking out,” the witness answered.
Witness P-249 said he saw Ongwen in Pajule dressed in military fatigues and a cap, holding a stick and “a communication gadget.” He told the court that Ongwen would use the stick to show LRA fighters where they should go and what they should do.
“If he said go and loot that shop he would indicate it using the stick,” the witness said. He also said he heard Ongwen speak on his communication gadget.
“Yes, I saw him talking [using the gadget], but I could not understand what he was talking because he would use military jargon,” the witness said when Adeboyejo asked him whether he heard Ongwen use the gadget.
Witness P-249 said once they left Pajule they went to join other groups of LRA fighters at a pre-determined place. On the way, Witness P-249 said, “We were being man-handled. We were being kicked and beaten.” He said some of the LRA fighters were so young, “the young soldiers had guns, but the guns were dragging on the ground. That means they are a small person.”
He said at the pre-determined meeting place, the then deputy leader of the LRA, Vincent Otti, addressed them as well as Raska Lukwiya and Ongwen. The witness told the court they did not stay there for more than two hours and then the different groups went away in three different directions.
Witness P-249 said that Ongwen’s group was headed to Soroti, which is southeast of Pajule. He said they went to a place called Atut and stayed there for two days. After Atut, they went to Omot, the witness said. He told the court that all this time he carried looted goods and then at one point he carried an injured LRA fighter on a stretcher. The witness said he and another person carried the stretcher on their shoulders. He said when they got tired, other abductees were assigned to carry the stretcher.
“We were using rough sticks [for the stretcher] and every time you would move the stretcher it would cause bruises,” said the witness.
He said at some point he stepped on a tree stump and bits of it got stuck in one of his feet. After this he said he limped and was not able to carry heavy things, but he could not refuse to do so.
“I did not have the authority to stop walking on my own,” said the witness.
“Were you able to walk after you sustained [your injury]” asked Adeboyejo.
“I would walk with a limp. The sole of my foot could not step on the ground,” Witness P-249 replied.
He said it got to a point he just refused to continue walking. He told the court this happened as the group he was with reached a river, Agago, and started crossing it. He told the LRA fighters with him that he could not cross the river. The witness said a decision was then made to beat him with sticks on his legs until he could not move and was left for dead. He told the court he has scars on his shins to date from that beating.
Witness P-249 said he woke the next morning and was thirsty.
“I got some energy, I said ‘I cannot die from here.’ I decided to go back to the road and try to get a way back [home]. I got dew and I was licking the dew to quench my thirst. Whenever I would get tired I would lie near the roadside. I carried on like that for quite a while, moving around, just crawling about. It was not easy,” said the witness.
He said he reached a cassava plantation about nine days later, and it is the owner of that farm who took him to the military barracks in Adilang. He said the government soldiers then took him to the hospital in another town, Kitgum.
Witness P-249 was also questioned by Paolina Massidda, a lawyer for one of the groups of victims in the trial of Ongwen. Massidda is also the lawyer for Witness P-249 because he is a dual status witness. This means he is a prosecution witness and registered as a victim in this case.
Massidda asked him whether, while still with the LRA, he got any treatment for the injury on his foot.
“There was no treatment I got. I told you I was in the bush, where else could I have got treatment? The wounds had maggots. I was only saved when I got to Adilang barracks. In the bush, I was actually rotting,” replied the witness. He said when he was admitted at the hospital in Kitgum, he stayed there for one month. He said today the only thing that still gives him problems from time to time is his chest.
Massidda asked him whether he can walk.
“Yes, I can walk but not very well,” the witness answered.
“Are you able to carry heavy loads anymore?” asked Massidda.
“I cannot carry heavy loads. I cannot work hard. If I do anything hard, I will begin experiencing pain,” Witness P-249 replied.