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The complex story of a child soldier

An undated photo taken from the Interpol Web site on Jan. 7 shows senior Lord’s Resistance Army leader Dominic Ongwen. Uganda’s army confirmed that Ongwen is in the custody of U.S. Special Forces in Central African Republic. (Agence France-Presse/Interpol/Getty Images)

Looking at the weathered face of Dominic Ongwen this week brought mixed emotions. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander ended his 25 years of bush war in a prefab hut owned by U.S. military advisers in Central African Republic on Jan. 7. Someone photographed him, the first new photo of Ongwen in years, and the image quickly circulated online. Here was the enigmatic, infamously brutal man whose life story is known only through other people’s words.

That such narratives come primarily from former LRA combatants is not surprising.  Ongwen, 35, spent much of his childhood and his entire adult life in the LRA. What is publicly known of him has been shaped largely by the agendas of various researchers, investigators, academics, and writers, including myself. This is not different from how LRA and other rebel groups are framed in various ways based on personal interests and limited data, but it means that our portrait of Ongwen is inherently incomplete.

For the past seven years, I have collected stories about people inside the LRA. I have interviewed hundreds of former members – fighters, abductees, and abductees turned fighters (so-called “victims of the LRA”) – across Central African Republic, Uganda, Congo and South Sudan. I have tried to understand the most significant and most banal details of their stories, from what they have eaten to how they decided who to kill in order to grasp how the LRA and similar groups function. Throughout my research, stories about Ongwen have come up often. I will refrain from discussing the controversies and complexities of his current legal predicament and focus instead on the the story of the man as I know it, and what his defection might mean to the future of the LRA.

More so than Joseph Kony, the founder and leader of the LRA, Ongwen is sadly typical of the LRA rank and file. His example refutes the erroneous but morally and sometimes legally convenient definitions of LRA members as either helpless victims or violent perpetrators. Abducted as a child, indoctrinated and forced into committing unspeakable acts before he had even hit puberty, Ongwen is clearly a victim, but he is also a perpetrator. His surrender might be a joyous occasion for proponents of international justice, but it also is a devastating reminder of the tragedy of the LRA war, fought largely by children, who — by luck or wit — survived violence and the elements and ended up ensnared in the group through adulthood.

Like so many others over nearly three decades, Ongwen was abducted as a child in Northern Uganda as he walked to school in 1990. According to some accounts, he was unable to walk long distances as a frail 10-year-old and had to be carried to the LRA bases deep in the bush. He grew into a protégé of Kony’s deputy Vincent Otti, who served as a father figure to the young Ongwen. Ongwen in turn sought to please both men.

Kony and Otti taught Ongwen that he was fighting for the rights of his people, the Acholi of Northern Uganda. Ongwen probably was told many times that he was a “holy,” a soldier of Kony, who claimed divine guidance. Ongwen also learned that Kony absolved his fighters of any crimes committed as long as they obeyed his orders – which came directly from the Holy Spirit – so in the eyes of God, they would be blameless. As one former combatant recounted to me, Kony often said, “Soldiers have to follow orders even if it means killing,” and, “God judged soldiers differently from civilians.” By all accounts, Ongwen followed orders and often excelled as an LRA soldier.

As he rose in the ranks, Ongwen treated other LRA soldiers with the brutality he had experienced. I met Innocent in the summer of 2012 in Gulu. He spent 10 years in the LRA, abducted by a group led by Ongwen. “He said we needed to be beaten so that we can all become aligu, a real rebel,” Innocent said of Ongwen. “He said we had to have the weakness beaten out of us, so that we could become real aligu, just like him. He then ordered for us to be beaten severely and when one little boy cried in pain, he stomped on his head. After the beating was over, he was nice to us and gave us food.” It was an initiation process Ongwen himself might have endured as a young boy.

Speaking Ongwen’s name often changes the mood when interviewing former LRA members such as Innocent. Ongwen seemed equally feared, admired, loathed and respected by the many young men he fought with and the many young women he “wed.” He was known for cruelty but also for treating his group members better than most. He was, and remains, the only commander who consistently released his “wives” and children from the LRA clutches to return to civilian life. “He wants a better life for his children than he had. He wants them to go to school, not grow up in the bush,” one of his former “wives” told me in Yambio, South Sudan, in May 2013.

As an adult, he became known for independence, moodiness and erratic behavior often punctuated by bouts of heavy drinking. Ignoring Kony’s strict rules, Ongwen earned his wrath. Kony came close to executing Ongwen at least twice. He survived both times because of his bravery and success in battle but he grew alienated from the LRA leader and, according to some reports, often contemplated escaping.

Ongwen’s brutality against civilians earned him an indictment from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was the only one among the five LRA indictees to have been abducted as a child and forcibly conscripted into the LRA. The ICC has charged him, in part, with the same crimes that were initially perpetrated against him.

It remains unclear whether Ongwen will be tried in Uganda or at the ICC now that he has left the rebellion. Observers hope that he can, at a minimum, understand his legal rights and what will happen next. An open and fair trial might bring some closure for victims of LRA violence as well as shed light on the 28-year conflict. A trial could provide much-needed historical context to the inner workings of the LRA, a rebel movement founded on legitimate grievances that remain largely unaddressed.

Context and further explanation of the complexities of his case might help reverse the dehumanization to which Ongwen and others LRA members are subjected, often being described as monstrous or evil. A fair process might go a significant way in helping to explain how Ongwen came to be who he is.  Maybe, for the first time, his story could be told in his own words.

Crucially, a well-publicized case will re-focus attention on the plight of communities in southeastern CAR, northeastern DRC and southwestern South Sudan still living under the threat of the LRA. Despite more than $100 million the U.S. government has spent on the military effort against the LRA as part of a strategy signed by President Obama in 2011, only a tiny fraction of that sum has gone to providing much-needed humanitarian aid and reconstruction for battered communities.

As for the LRA, Ongwen’s surrender is yet another important step in its gradual and arduous decline. By mid-2013, about 500 LRA members remained, of which only 250 were armed fighters — 200 of Ugandan origin and 50 from CAR, DRC or South Sudan. By late 2014, the number of Ugandan fighters was down to about 160, according to Paul Ronan, director of Resolve and a key operator of the LRA Crisis Tracker, an online real-time data-collection system that documents LRA violence.

However, it is less clear whether Ongwen’s departure will have much impact on the command structure of the rebel group. Ongwen was an adept fighter but Kony never allowed him to become an influential leader. He promoted Ongwen to the rank of brigadier, but according to some defectors, Kony recently demoted him to private, a common strategy to maintain control. A demotion was clearly better than how Kony treated longtime deputy and fellow ICC indictee Otti, whom Kony had executed in 2007 allegedly for disloyalty. Notoriously paranoid and untrusting – traits that have clearly contributed to his longevity – Kony has centralized all influence in the LRA under him. Only recently, as his most loyal commanders perished or defected, he transferred some power to two of his sons. Both were born and raised in the bush war and could be the next generation of protagonists in the LRA tragedy.  The only thing clear from Ongwen’s surrender is that the LRA crisis is still not over.

Ledio Cakaj is an independent researcher who has written extensively on the LRA. He is finishing a book exploring the LRA’s 300-mile trek through Central Africa from 2008 to 2011.