Life on the Edge | Dilemma of the White Ant

In northern Uganda, Esther Acan’s husband and five year old child were killed by LRA rebels and then she was forced to kill her baby as well. She wants at least the rebel commander to be punished, but the rest of the village say revenge will not solve their problems, and it is better to forgive the perpetrators in order to gain peace. Esther has high level support – The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for rebel commander Dominic Ongwen. Traditional justice has always allowed murderers to return to the community having compensated, shown remorse and appeased the spirits, and many LRA rebels are now back in the community. Ongwen will have to go to The Hague, so he is not coming out of the wilderness. It leaves a dilemma for justice, but also for Esther. Despite wanting to testify and bring the perpetrators to account, she is scared. The war is not over, Ongwen and the others are still out there, and she fears terrible retribution if she is seen with the ICC.

Post-conflict countries like Uganda know they may have to make peace with some terrible people if they’re to progress. But how do you make peace with the devil if your friends in the West want to put him on trial?

Most people who believe in Western justice would want Dominic Ongwen – ‘The White Ant’ – brought to trial. But many in Uganda would prefer to rely on local rituals of forgiveness. Some believe the former child soldier should be helped not prosecuted. His victims, his family, his headman, his ‘bush wife’ and the International Criminal Court disagree whether it’s best to dispense punishment, or mercy’¦ it’s a dilemma which confounds morality, politics and justice.

Ongwen grew up with rebel soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as his new family. He was a star pupil – a lieutenant to their leader, Joseph Kony, and eventually brigade commander. And as such he is now wanted as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. An abducted child among the world’s most wanted? Can a former child soldier – schooled by killers – be held responsible for war crimes? And if local people don’t support the prosecutions, is the ICC wise to press ahead?

On 24th July 2002 rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army overran the village of Pajong. They came to kill. The rebel leaders who’d ordered them here included Dominic Ongwen – the “White Ant”.

Esther Achan recalls: ‘My two year-old was sitting on the veranda. The rebels started kicking him. They kicked him to death. I had my five year-old with me when the female rebel commander ordered all of us with children to pick them up and smash them against the veranda poles. We had to hit them until they were dead. All of us with children we had to kill them.’ She adds: ‘I am very bitter and angry. I want the people who did this to be arrested and brought before a court for the wrong they have done, for the terrible things they did to innocent children.

But there is hope that Esther’s dream will be fulfilled, because some do want justice. They are officials of the International Criminal Court, the ICC. Maria Mabinty Kamara of the ICC explains: ‘The ICC has a mandate, and the mandate is to prosecute those that are most responsible for serious commission of crimes of international concern. Crimes of genocide, of war crimes and crimes against humanity.’

Rice, sesame seed and oranges once flourished in the Acholi region. Now the fields are largely un-worked. Up to two million people have been driven from their homes. And almost all are forced to live on handouts. The war has been a huge obstacle to Uganda’s development. The hope was the International Criminal Court could help end the war by bringing rebel leaders to justice while their followers were forgiven.

Joseph Kony, founder of the LRA, and three of his commanders are now among the most wanted men in the world. The ICC indictments send a clear message: the world won’t tolerate the kind of crimes allegedly committed by men like Dominic Ongwen, with his Sinia Brigade reportedly responsible for the atrocities in Esther’s village.

But the people of north Uganda say they have their own way of resolving the conflict. The elders call on Ojokarlo ‘The Fearful One’ to appease the spirits of the dead. These traditional beliefs are utterly different from the punitive and exemplary justice practised elsewhere in the world. Here, there’s a deeply engrained belief that forgiveness and reconciliation are the best way forward. Rwot Otinga is the head of Dominic Ongwen’s clan: ‘Here in Acholi we have our way to finish when someone kill somebody.’

In the as yet unsigned peace treaty, traditional justice would be recognised in Ugandan law. LRA killers could be brought to account, pay for their actions and then be absolved. All except the four top commanders indicted by the ICC. They’d still face an international court. But Maria says: ‘This ‘traditional justice system’ we are talking about, it only started coming because the ICC is here and now people are saying let’s look for an escape route, let’s forget about the ICC and let’s do traditional justice.’

Florence Ayot, who calls herself Dominic Ongwen’s wife, was a rebel for 18 years. Like thousands of former rebels she’s benefited from an Amnesty Act, which she builds on the tradition of forgiveness. Florence says she was abducted when she was just nine. Tens of thousands of children have been taken as fighters, servants or sex slaves for the LRA commanders. At 13 Florence, like all abducted girls, was given to a commander as a so-called wife. But also became a senior rebel in her own right. She made it to head of all the LRA women, part of Joseph Kony’s inner circle, the so called ‘Control Altar.’ When her first commander was killed Florence was passed on to Dominic Ongwen.

Florence had two children with Ongwen – a daughter now five and a son now two. Fearing for the lives of her children she ran away from the LRA. Now she takes in washing to scrape a living for herself and Ongwen’s children. She says: ‘Dominic used to tell us he was abducted when he was very young. Everything he did was in the name of Kony, so he’s innocent. In my view the ICC warrants should be removed – as long as they’re there they are a stumbling block to peace.’

Florence could become a key witness if Dominic Ongwen ever comes to court. But she’s never been approached to give evidence despite having been so close to Dominic. Like the ICC, Esther Achan wants justice for her family. She’d be willing to give evidence in court, although the LRA have still not signed the peace and remain in the bush. ‘Maybe they’ll kill me but as the ICC want to finish this thing, then I accept, because at least they’re willing to pursue it now that Uganda has failed.’
Florence was possibly responsible for civilian killings. Yet she’s now living like most other young mothers, striving to bring up her children in the best way she can. In the Holy Rosary Primary School in Gulu, Dominic Ongwen’s little girl, aptly named Mercy, is learning English.

But Esther can’t afford to send her two children to school. Her 15-year-old boy has just had to drop out as Esther can’t make enough money for fees.

If Uganda can’t decide what to do with the likes of Dominic Ongwen, it may be left to his children’s generation to resolve the Dilemma of the White Ant.


For background on the situation in North Uganda, read Reuters AlertNet on Uganda violence (with map) – “one of the world’s most neglected crises”, and the BBC profile of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.

Also read Human Rights Watch on latest LRA atrocities, Amnesty International on the Uganda Government deal with LRA, and Uganda Watch on LRA chief Kony. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports on the efforts of the United Nations special envoy for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)-affected areas, Joachim Chissano, to reach a final peace agreement. See also the summary of the International Criminal Court on the Situation in Uganda, and Uganda page of the Global Policy Forum.

Read about the work of the UN Development Programme in Uganda, and the British Government’s programme of Humanitarian Assistance and Response to Conflict in Northern Uganda.

Three earlier Life programmes were made in Uganda: Aiming High (about Uganda’s economic success story), Paying the Price (about HIV/AIDS) and The Debt Police (about the Uganda Debt Network, an NGO working to ensure that aid reaches the poor).

Music in this programme was provided by Audio Network.

Visit the BBC website pages on this series.

TAGS: people & communities war & conflict

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