Symposium on Dominic Ongwen Case: The Beginning of Hope for Some and Questions for Others

Symposium on Dominic Ongwen Case: The Beginning of Hope for Some and Questions for Others

[Stella Lanam is the Founder and Director of War Victims and Children Networking (WVCN), a community-based, membership organisation open to female victims of the LRA war in Northern Uganda.]


My name is Stella Lanam and I am a war survivor and former forced wife of Dominic Ongwen. I was one of the victims who applied to participate in the case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) over 6 years ago, and I am very pleased that the court has finally ordered reparations in the case. In November 2021, my organisation War Victims and Children Networking (WVCN) together with Foundations for Justice and Development Initiatives made submissions to the ICC judges concerning reparations in the Ongwen case. The decision has taken some time to be handed down but we sincerely appreciate the reparations award because it is the first time that we and all the victims of Ongwen will get justice for what we suffered. It has not been easy for us. We have waited for many years and many of us are still living with the physical and mental wounds from the war. 

In this post, together with some members of WVCN, Oyella Florence, Alaroker Lily and Akello Florence, I would like to share my thoughts about the reparations decision and what it will mean for us as victims/survivors and our community. Sharing our thoughts is very important to us. Some of us feel invisible as if no one sees us or understands the pain that we go through. In fact, we formed WVCN because for a number of years, we told our stories to nongovernmental organisations and researchers who made promises of support, which were not honoured (para. 8). We are pleased that through this platform and through the ICC, we have a chance to share our experience and perspectives.

Individual and Community Reparations 

WVCN has done a lot to support and improve the lives of former female LRA abductees and children born in captivity, particularly to combat stigma and rejection. The organisation includes over 986 women with over 1,000 children born in captivity. I spent close to 10 years in captivity and therefore have a deep personal understanding, based on my own experience, and the experience of the women in the network, of what is needed to repair the harm experienced by the victims.

The amount that the judges ordered as individual reparations, when converted to Ugandan currency, will be over 3 million shillings. This may sound like a lot but it is not. For those who are struggling with medical injuries and lack land and housing, or who have children and other family members who depend on them, it will not be able to do very much. I would ask the judges to add something to the amount. 

Furthermore, giving everyone the same amount for individual reparations despite what they went through may seem to be fair but when you look closely, it is not. For example, a girl may have been abducted and she lived in the bush for 9 years and then returned from captivity with her children. Another girl has spent those 9 years in an Internal Displacement Camp (IDP) camp. Both of them are victims but the one in the IDP camp may have had a chance to go to school so she has a chance at a better life than the other one who didn’t. Giving both of them the same amount doesn’t take into account the specific challenges faced by the one who was abducted. The court is trying to treat them both equally but they are not!

In addition, one of the biggest concerns is that the individual reparations may cause tension between people in the same community and between different communities. Now, everyone wants to be a victim of Ongwen or will claim to be in an attempt to get something. Since the ICC decision was handed down, I have been to communities in Amuru district, Gulu, Kitgum and Pader to speak to victims there. The community members were very confused by the decision, particularly the fact that only Ongwen’s victims were entitled to reparations. We are doing our best to sensitise them including through radio programmes, but this is not enough.

In relation to community reparations, it is difficult to say what form they should take. On the one hand, community reparations sounds good because it will benefit more people, but some of the people who will benefit did not really suffer during the war, so to put them on the same level as the victims who were in captivity is not really correct. The other question is, if they build something for the community, who will it be handed over to when the Trust Fund leaves? Will the government maintain it? It might be better to do something like set up a system with health cards which all victims receive so that they do not have to pay these high costs to go to the hospital.

The Trust Fund

We know that the Trust Fund will need to speak with the survivors and develop a plan. We are concerned that this will take at least six months and then it could be up to two years or more before reparations are paid out. There are victims who are still suffering from bullet wounds. They were being helped under the Trust Fund’s assistance programme and we do not know if this will continue. Some of them are seriously injured and won’t survive before the reparations are paid out, so it would be good if the Trust Fund could continue to rehabilitate the victims, especially those with injuries.

We also think that it is important for the Trust Fund to try to reach as many of us as possible. When they hear from different victims, it allows them to better understand how to put together a programme that works well for all of us. But some of us live far away or have injuries, so the Trust Fund has to work out how we can be included in the meetings. WVCN uses radio programmes a lot as part of our community sensitisation programme. This is also something which the Trust Fund can use. Our organisation and other grassroots organisations like ours, can also play a valuable role in identifying victims who have suffered during the war, particularly the former female abductees and the children born in captivity. 

Building our Future

When I remember my time in captivity, it was difficult then to be hopeful. Yet by working, laughing and crying together, and with support of different national and international groups, we have held onto hope and tried to build a life for ourselves. 

In February 2023, I had the privilege of meeting the President of our country, the Honourable Yoweri Museveni. I shared a letter with him on behalf of myself and the many women victims that suffered as a result of the Northern Uganda insurgency. I asked the President to intervene in the long-standing matter of the government’s failure to pass the Transitional Justice Policy into law. We don’t know much about legal matters, but we understand that without a law on transitional justice, many of the government agencies will not have the power to give us reparations. I also asked the President to put in place interim reparations through a special economic empowerment programme which will help to deal with some of the challenges that women survivors and their children are facing. The interim reparations which the ICC judges have ordered will not solve this issue and it is for the government to do.

I strongly urged the President to press the government to establish a Trust Fund for LRA Survivors and Victims to be included in the government’s annual budget for each financial year. This Fund will be for the benefit of individual victims as well as groups of victims to manage certain immediate needs such as food, health and shelter, as well as groups of victims who share common needs.

My requests have not changed. I call upon the Honourable President and the government of Uganda to move on behalf of the war victims of this country.

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