Dominic Ongwen was abducted by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) as a 10 year-old. He successfully adapted to his life as a rebel. Quickly rose through the ranks of the LRA and is now one of the five LRA leaders who have been indicted by the ICC. He is charged with child soldiering.
Dominic Ongwen was born in 1980 in the Gulu District in Uganda. Uganda had lived under British colonial rule until it gained its independence in 1962 and Milton Obote was installed as the country’s first prime minister. In 1971 Idi Amin successfully overthrew Oboto’s regime with a military coup d’état. During his eight year brutal reign Amin became one of the most infamous heads of state and was responsible for the death of 300.000 people. In 1979 Tanzanian forces together with Ugandans who had fled the country ousted Amin and reinstated Obote. In the years 1981-1986 a civil war raged through the country. The National Resistance Army led by Museveni fought against Obote’s governmental troops. In 1986 Museveni won and was installed as head of state. His regime committed many human rights violations particularly in the North amongst the supporters of Obote. Dominic Ongwen was thus born in a troubled and conflict-ridden country.
The LRA was founded in 1987 by Alice Lakwena, an alleged niece of Joseph Kony. It is an armed group carrying out an insurgency against the Ugandan government and army. Its aim is to rule over Uganda on the basis of its own interpretation of the Ten Commandments. In its struggle however the LRA has committed numerous atrocities. It has been accused of attacking civilians, murder, abduction, sexual enslavement and mutilation. It is particularly infamous for abducting civilians for the purpose of forced recruitment into the ranks of the LRA. Amongst those forcefully abducted and recruited were an estimated 30.000-60.000 children. Ongwen was one of them. In 1990 at the age of ten and on his way to school Ongwen was abducted by the LRA. Rumours say that he was so tiny and small that he had to be carried by the other soldiers. Once within the LRA Ongwen was looked after by Vincent Otti, who at the time was a senior commander but has risen to the position of second in command of the LRA and is currently – like Ongwen and Kony – one of the five LRA-suspects indicted by the ICC. Like many other abducted children Ongwen was spiritually and politically indoctrinated and taught to forget about his old life. The LRA was his new family, his future. He was forced to watch how those who tried to escape were punished and killed. Young abductees like Ongwen were trained and made ready to mutilate and kill the enemy. Ongwen who stayed with the LRA and thus grew up in the bush turned out to be good at it and became a very loyal soldier and as a consequence thereof rose through the ranks of the LRA swiftly. He was given important duties when aged 14 and Kony saw him as a role model for other abducted children. According to Erin Baines who interviewed people in Uganda who knew Ongwen, he was ‘keen in character and eager to please the high command, repeatedly demonstrating his natural ability as a fighter.’ She also notes that many others described him as cruel. Baines notes that Ongwen was most of all a loyal killer who outlived his superiors and for these reasons quickly rose through the ranks of the LRA. He was responsible for successful and murderous attacks and raids but his main role was the abduction of children. In abducting children he was ruthless but rumours however state that he also sometimes released people who had been abducted.
Although child soldiering is a war crime many states and rebel forces still use the abduction and forceful recruitment of children as a means to fill their ranks. It is estimated that there are 200.000-300.000 child soldiers worldwide amongst whom between 20-30% girls. Girls who have been abducted are often held as sexual slaves and bush wives while boys are trained to become soldiers. It is however a misunderstanding that all child soldiers are forcefully abducted. Many join the armed forces voluntarily. The rebels provide them with food, shelter, money and a weapon. Some have seen their families killed and wanted to seek revenge, others look for protection and some just enjoy becoming a rebel. The motives of children to join the rebel forces can be very diverse. Once within the force many are made to go through a kind of military training and indoctrination process and they were socialized into violence and it is difficult to escape. After their training, they join the units and as such many child soldiers have committed war crimes themselves. The small boys units in Sierra Leone were particularly infamous for the atrocities they committed but so have many other child soldiers. In literature child soldiers are often portrayed as victims but many of them are perpetrators at the same time. Ongwen is maybe the prototypical example thereof. At ten when abducted he was without doubt a victim. But he has committed many crimes and now – aged 34 – he is one of the leaders of the LRA subjecting children to the same violation he himself was a victim of.
The international community has struggled on how to address the issue of child soldiers. The Special Court in Sierra Leone has jurisdiction over child soldiers of 15 years or older but the prosecutor David Crane immediately declared that he would not prosecute child soldiers. So far the Special Panels of Dili in East Timor is the only international criminal court or tribunal which has indicted and prosecuted a child soldier. It was a 14-year old boy, who was granted anonymity but was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to 1 year imprisonment.
The ICC only has jurisdiction over people older than 18 and thus cannot prosecute child soldiers.
After the referral to the ICC by President Museveni of the DRC five leaders of the LRA were indicted by the ICC on 8 July 2005 and in June 2006 all of them were placed on Interpol’s wanted list. They were Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. The charges against Lukwiya were dropped after his alleged death in 2006 was confirmed. Rumours state that Otti too has been killed but his death has not been confirmed and next to the other three leaders he is officially still listed as being at large. Compared to the four others Ongwen is the youngest and lowest ranking. In October 2005 Ongwen was reported killed but in July 2006 it turned out that the body was not that of Ongwen so he is presumably still alive. Ongwen is indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity including child soldiering. Despite the you-tube hit Kony 2012 which received over 100 million views within six days after its release, the LRA-leaders still have not been captured yet. The LRA is on the run and Kony is believed to be hiding on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. It is not known whether Ongwen is there too. It will however be interesting to see how the ICC will deal with his case when he is captured and tried.
- Baines, E.K. (2009). Complex political perpetrators: reflections on Dominic Ongwen, Journal of Modern African Studies 47(2), 163-191.
- Drumbl, M. (2012). Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Politics, Oxford University Press.
- Oloya, O. (2013). Child to soldier – stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, University of Toronto Press.
- Singer, P.W. Children at war, University of California Press.
- Vermeij, L. (2014). The bullets sound like music to my ears – socialization of child soldiers within African Rebel groups, Ph-Thesis Wageningen University.
- Wessels, M. (2006). Child soldiers – from violence to protection, Harvard University Press.