Louis Lakor was seven years old when Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army killed his family and kidnapped him to use as a child soldier. On Thursday the International Criminal Court found the commander responsible, Dominic Ongwen, guilty of war crimes.
Lakor says Ongwen should be forgiven.
The verdict thrusts an uncomfortable spotlight on questions of culpability in a society still deeply traumatised by the militia, which rampaged through northern Uganda from 1987 to 2006. Families still grapple with the question: when does a terrified and traumatised child become responsible for the atrocities he commits to survive?
Lakor, forced to murder his three-year-old sister, is inclined to forgiveness, even though Ongwen was a grown man when he destroyed Lakor’s life.
“He (Ongwen) was abducted when he was a young boy, he did not join willingly. And they also killed his relatives when he was young,” Lakor told Reuters. “Dominic Ongwen should be forgiven, because like me also, I killed but I was forgiven.”
Lakor’s nightmare began in 2003, near the northern town of Gulu. LRA rebels killed his parents, raped one sister and killed her. Lakor and his two younger sisters were taken.
“They gave us heavy luggage to carry,” he said. “They had been killing weak people … one of my sisters, because she was only three years old, she could not move with luggage, I tried helping her but they stopped me from helping. They used me to kill her.”
Another sister became tired and “just sat down … one soldier came and just shot her,” he said. “That operation was commanded by Dominic Ongwen.”
Rejected by family
Led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA terrorised Ugandans as it battled the government of President Yoweri Museveni from bases in the north of the country and its neighbours. In recent years it has been largely wiped out.
Lakor stayed with the LRA for eight months before escaping. His story echoes those of the tens of thousands of other children who were kidnapped and forced to work as fighters and sex slaves.
Ongwen, who rose to become a top LRA commander, was convicted on Thursday of dozens of crimes, including widespread rape, sexual enslavement, child abductions, torture and murder, including killings of babies.
Lakor’s relatives rejected him when he returned and he lived on the streets for several years, he said.
“Those uncles of mine they refused me, they said I am very bad, I am a rebel I might kill them,” he said. Now 25, he eventually became a mechanic in Gulu.
He recalls Ongwen as “a quiet guy” who believed children who survived should be taught to kill.
“They would bring a prisoner and they would bring for example a panga (large knife) and say that you kill him. They would bring someone from your village and say ‘you chop her’,” he said.
“They believed that we were young and if they train us in those things, we would have that heart of fighting and killing. “He (Ongwen) told us we are doing these things because we have been trained to do them.”