By Oryem Nyeko*
On the morning of 30 April 2004. Nara Adong woke up to terrible news. The night before, Lord’s Resistance Army rebels had attacked her village and two of her sons, she found out, had been killed during a brutal massacre of civilians. I met her in early December of last year at an event to unveil a monument marking the massacre at Odek. She pulled me aside to point out the names of her sons, freshly engraved on a plaque with those of several others who died that day. The elder of the two, she told me, would have been in his late thirties today. She is now taking care of the two children he left behind.
Odek was one of several northern Ugandan communities that bore the brunt of the horrifying violence during the twenty years of fighting between the Ugandan government and the LRA. During the war, civilians were forced to live in internally displaced persons camps, set up by the government, ostensibly to protect them from rebel attacks. Still, attacks by the LRA on the camps were rampant. People living in the camps were also subjected to terrible living conditions, including alleged violations by government troops guarding the camps.
Odek’s case was particularly acute. The area is the ancestral home of LRA leader Joseph Kony and the place where his rebellion against the Yoweri Museveni’s government was conceived in the mid-1980s. In addition to the LRA attack, Odek suffered during the Ugandan government’s ‘Operation Fagia’, which was intended to “sweep clean” Odek of rebels (fagia means ‘sweep’ in Kiswahili). Several people were killed, assaulted and raped, and homes and property were looted and burned. Survivors believe that the reason for the attack was some sort of retaliation on the community for Kony’s rebellion.
Even though it has been years since the fighting stopped in northern Uganda, stigma towards Odek because of its association with Kony continues to be deep rooted.
The woman said that in the end she was not attended to by the doctor and never received the results of her scan.
The stigma towards people from the area is due to the fact that many people are not aware of what happened in Odek and is compounded by the fact that there has been little to no criminal accountability for the massacres. But the feeling is that the monument and the case of alleged LRA commander Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court will be a step forward in achieving the recognition the community so desperately needs.
The monument for the massacre itself has the potential to help link Odek to wider discussions on transitional justice in Uganda for the first time. The plan is to hold annual memorial prayers at the site of the monument in Odek, as a remembrance event for the people who died that day, in the same way that many other northern Ugandan communities that went through similar experiences do. These events, it is hoped, will also help survivors and their families to create awareness about their past and current experiences. Already, this has produced some results: during the unveiling of the monument, the speaker for the Gulu local government’s council promised to “ensure that Odek has special considerations in government programs”.
Many people in Odek feel that the monument and memorial prayers are only a first step. They say they want to use the monument to educate their children who were born after the war about the value of peace. “The monument reminds us and our children that war is bad, and it should never be repeated,” said Evelyn, a teacher at a local school, during the launch of the monument.
Meanwhile, last September alleged LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was accused by the ICC prosecutor of acting as an “operational commander” and leading the LRA brigade that attacked Odek in 2004. Fatou Bensouda says that Ongwen planned and provided instructions for the attack, “[relayed] orders to subordinates who participated in the attack” and liaised with his superiors before and after the attack, making him liable of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The ICC charges do not, however, reflect the complex conflict experiences of Odek, as they do not address the government-led violations. The ability of the ICC to deal with the justice question according to local norms and traditions – which involve elements of compensation, dialogue and reconciliation between perpetrators and victims – is also unlikely.
Still, people in Odek hope that the inevitable increased attention as a result of the Ongwen case and the memorial prayers will lead to other forms of redress for survivors including livelihoods programmes, counseling and scholarships for their school-going children. “I feel it should not only stop with prayers and building of monuments like this”, Evelyn said. “We should be counseled to help us heal from what happened to us.”
Fifteen years after the death of Nara Adong’s children, the justice and reconciliation process for Odek is finally seeing progress. With Ongwen’s case, there is the opportunity for accountability for the atrocities that took place in her community, and with the monument, acknowledgment of the death of loved ones. While it remains to be seen whether all of their desires will be met, the community is already beginning to forge an identity separate from Joseph Kony.
*Oryem Nyeko works with the Justice and Reconciliation Project in Gulu, Uganda.
Lead image: Monument to the victims of the Odek massacre is unveiled (Photo: Oryem Nyeko/Justice Hub)