, Gulu, Uganda, Dec 14 – Lily Atong’s anxious eyes fix on the sky where a helicopter gunship circles over her thatched hut, so low she must shout to be heard.
“When I see gunships like this it brings back the fear of being in the bush,” Atong says.
Abducted as a young girl and forced to become a wife to Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) chief Joseph Kony, Atong bore the self-proclaimed mystic five children. Her relationship with him proved pivotal to the survival of both her and her older brother, Dominic Ongwen.
Here in northern Uganda, the war with the LRA is long past and today the helicopter is on a training flight.
But the sight and sound transport Atong back to the days when Ugandan aircraft would strafe men, women and children alike as the military sought to defeat the rebels, and she would scramble for her life.
While Atong lives a quiet life in Gulu, Uganda, selling beadwork for a living, her brother is in jail at The Hague, charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
– Making of a killer –
Ongwen was about 10 when he was abducted the year before Atong. She recalls a boy who liked singing and telling jokes, who was sometimes bossy but thoughtful and kind.
“In primary school he was a bright child and teachers loved him,” says Atong.
The LRA’s ranks were stuffed with abductees, boys forced to fight and girls made wives. The youngsters were brutalised, and became savage themselves.
Sitting outside a neat motorcycle garage in Gulu, mechanic Kenneth Kaunda nervously fiddles with oily engine parts as he recalls his time “in the bush” with the LRA.
He was 13 when an older boy appeared out of the forest and grabbed him by the wrist in the family agricultural plot, dragging him away.
After that, “life was very harsh,” says the 32-year-old.
Newly abducted children were ferociously beaten to break their spirit and ingrain fear of their captors.
“When you see someone being beaten like a pig… and all those new recruits, their hearts were broken, they ask themselves, am I going to survive?” Kaunda says haltingly.
The dehumanising violence never ended and children quickly learned that there was no one they could trust, no one to protect them and little chance of escape.
“If you attempt to run, even your friend will just shoot you,” says Kaunda, who was himself eventually put in charge of the new kidnapped recruits.
– ‘Set him free’ –
Many of those who knew Ongwen as a boy or as a fighter argue that he cannot be blamed for his actions having suffered at Kony’s hands from childhood.
Ongwen may never have risen to prominence — and international prosecution — were it not for his younger sister, Atong. Kony, now an indicted war criminal still at large, noticed him because of her, seeing the two talking often.
When Atong explained he was her brother Kony promoted Ongwen to sergeant then lieutenant and ultimately to LRA brigade commander, a position that put him in the crosshairs of ICC prosecutors who have charged him with waging a “ferocious” campaign of terror.
The contradictions of victim-turned-perpetrator in Ongwen’s story are echoed in his sister’s, a victim of abduction and rape who acknowledges both Kony’s brutality and his closeness to her.
“We have a very strong bond,” she says, “I produced so many children with him. Although he has done some bad things also it’s very difficult to go very deep to explain about his life.”
Atong says her brother should not be judged as a war criminal.
“He was abducted while he was very young, indoctrinated. He never knew anything to do with laws. Is there no opportunity to set him free?” she asks.