I read in the news this week that Dominic Ongwen, a commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, was at a pre-trial court appearance in the Hague. He faces crimes against humanity, including murder and enslavement. That he is there at all is significant, since he is the first member of the LRA to face trial. However, his presence in a courtroom also raises some questions about how such a trial might go ahead.
Ongwen was abducted in the 1980s by the Lord’s Resistance Army, and became one of Africa’s many child-soldiers. These children are taken from villages from a young age, brainwashed and often introduced to drugs and violence. By the time they are adults, they have already spent many years witnessing and often perpetrating violent crime. So, at what point can they be held responsible for the kinds of acts they commit, when so many of them have also experienced the same abuse?
Before I had them, I didn’t realise how much influence I would have over my children. Even before that, I didn’t think about how much I have over people who are not invested in me as much as my children are. At work, I’d be known as the hippie who was always trying to convince my colleagues to turn off lights when they weren’t using them, or to recycle their soft drink cans, but I felt as if I didn’t have much impact. The others would often tease me about my views, albeit very good-naturedly. Then one day, one of the people with whom I worked came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Bec, I had some scrap paper from the invoices we printed off yesterday, and I was going to throw them straight in the bin, but then I thought of you, and I cut them up and made them into a notepad.’
Imagine that. I have power. I have influence. And as much as people don’t consider it, most of us have influence, even over teenagers. We think of child soldiers as children as young as eight or nine, but many times they’re in their early teens. Certainly older, but not yet adults. Not yet fully able to make their own decisions. Still looking to others to confirm the ‘right’ choices. I remember teaching high school students and marvelling at how my perception of teenagers changed. They’re often represented in the media (and our culture) as dismissive, surly, with an I-don’t-care-what-you-think attitude. But my experience was that those young people, even up to the age of sixteen or seventeen, were still very interested in what the adults in their lives thought. Of course, they were interested in challenging those beliefs, and wondering what it was they themselves might believe, but the influence that their parents and teachers had was significant.
Even as adults, we become like those around us. We alter our behaviour, more or less, so that we might fit in with social groups and our wider culture. Imagine the kind of culture where children are taught to kill. How quickly we might all lose our humanity, when surrounded by such a breakdown of the society we once knew.
What do we do, then, when we have a grown person, who has spent over half his life, all of those formative years, indoctrinated in violence, religious fervour and intimidation, and who is charged with such heinous crimes? Ongwen is about my age. I think about the ways in which our lives are so very different. When he was abducted, I was also going to primary school everyday, just like he was. What kind of life did the kidnapping cut short? He’s almost forty years of age. What potential did he lose?
And where does his responsibility begin, and where does it end? How about our own responsibility to the children who are kidnapped for such a purpose? This has been going on for years. Surely we can’t be surprised that so many of those who were removed from their families have grown up into effective mercenaries. We’ve had a long time to do something about this, and it is still going on.
Obviously to simply grant Ongwen amnesty is not an option, although his family is calling for this, based on the issues raised above. But this advocates a soft approach to genocide and it means we are arguing against the idea of free will. Can we be sure, that despite the indoctrination, he was not able to have compassion for others? Is someone ever so broken by years of torment that they are unanswerable for their actions? What happens to those of us who are looking for justice in these situations? Perhaps this is one of those cases, where we might have to reassess what exactly we want from such a trial. Certainly, any sentence he might receive seems pitiful compared to the kinds of atrocities in which he was allegedly involved. And some might argue that he has already been imprisoned for many years, having lost his childhood to the LRA.
Ongwen won’t reappear in court for several more months. Perhaps in the meantime, we can consider how we can reconcile his broken life with the criminal charges he faces, and our own complicity as an international community which allowed, and still allows, this to happen.