“We need to stick together”: Meet the family made up of Ongwen’s ex-wives
After escaping the LRA, the former “wives” of the convicted war criminal were shunned by their families. So they decided to be their own.
When Dilis Abang escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 2014, she was initially overcome with relief. After being held captive for ten years by the notorious rebel group, she found her way home in northern Uganda. When she hugged her mother for the first time in a decade, the tears flowed freely. “I felt safe in her hands for the first time”, she remembers.
Abang had just escaped untold trauma. As an LRA abductee, she had been forced to “marry” a rebel soldier called Dominic Ongwen. She had three children by the now infamous commander who was recently sentenced to 25 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Abang was overjoyed to be free, but the feeling did not last long. One night as she slept alongside her children, she woke to the sound of heavy footsteps. Locals had surrounded her grass-thatched hut. They set fire to it and shouted expletives.
“At first I thought I was dreaming,” says Abang. “I began choking because the house was full of smoke. I opened the door very fast to save my children and ran away”.
Ten years earlier, Evelyn Aromorach had lived through a very similar set of events. She was abducted in 1996 by Ongwen himself. She was just 13 years old and was in the northern town of Patiko when the LRA fighter grabbed her arm.
“I told Ongwen that I was going to inform my uncle that there was a sick person at our home, but he ordered that ‘you won’t go anywhere…from now on you will be part of us’”, she recalls.
Ongwen raped her and made Aromorach his “wife”. She was an LRA captive for the next nine years until, one day, government soldiers ambushed the rebels in Pabwo village. In the attack, she was separated from her baby by a bomb blast. Amazingly, a few days later, she heard on the radio that an LRA escapee had identified the child who was then returned to Aromorach’s mother. After pleading with Ongwen, who contacted LRA leader Joseph Kony by walkie-talkie, Aromorach was released.
Her family were delighted to see her. But like Abang, her welcome did not last long. A few days later, she was given an ultimatum. “My relatives said I had two weeks to look for place to stay because our family land was not enough for ‘bush people’”, she says.
Almost a decade after the first time, Aromorach left her home against her will for a second time, this time with her three children in tow.
Meeting the family
In the course of the LRA’s two-decade insurgency in northern Uganda, the rebel group is estimated to have abducted around 30,000 children. They have typically been used as child soldiers or sex slaves. Ongwen himself was first captured when he was just nine years old.
Many of these abductees eventually escaped or were released but, like Abang and Aromorach, have been revictimised by their communities. Former LRA captives have faced a wide array of mental health problems as well as economic difficulties after leaving the rebel group.
This was Aromorach’s experience after fleeing her home for the second time. For years, she did odd jobs to survive, feeling abandoned and alone. Then, in 2019, she heard that a local NGO in Gulu city was training former LRA abductees in vocational skills. She enrolled.
That’s where she met Abang. For the first time, Ongwen’s two former “wives” could share their experiences of abduction, trauma and rejection by their own families with someone who understood exactly. “It was like meeting your little sister,” says Aromorach.
They soon became friends and began looking for others they had known in captivity. They found Agnes Aber, 32, who had held by the LRA from 2000 to 2010 and had three children by Ongwen. She too had been driven out by her community after finding her way back.
“When I returned home, I found out that my father had passed away,” recalls Aber. “His co-wives were bitter with me when they heard that my half-sister died in captivity. Then they began accusing me of killing her.”
Next, the women discovered Scovia Achan, 30. She had been an LRA captive from 2002 to 2015 and also had three children with Ongwen.
The four former “wives” of the LRA commander got to know each other well and helped each other through their difficulties. They found such comfort in each other that they decided to live together and began renting a tin-roofed house on the outskirts of Gulu. Having felt shunned and misunderstood for so long, including by the communities they expected to welcome them back with open arms, the women were finally part of a supportive family.
“These days I don’t worry much,” says Achan. “My mind is settled and I now have people who understand me well because they went through the same experience that I did.”
“Now I am happy,” adds Aber. “If one of us has a problem, we deal with it collectively as a family.”
As students, the women receive a small allowance of 50,000 Ugandan shillings ($14) per month. They sew and wash clothes and do gardening work for others to earn some extra income.
With this they just about get by, but they are also appealing to the ICC to compensate them as war victims. Yet despite their clearly traumatic experiences, the process is not necessarily straightforward.
The ICC’s Trust Funds for Victims (TFV) has said it will pay reparations to those who suffered under Ongwen’s command between 2002 and 2005 in four locations: Lukodi, Pajule, Odek and Abok. Yet only one of Ongwen’s ex-wives – Aber from Pajule – is from one of these locations.
An ICC spokesperson, however, told journalists in April that the location limits will not apply to certain atrocities such as sexual crimes. And Maria Kamara Mabinty, Outreach Coordinator for Kenya and Uganda, explained that the ICC “has issued a seven-page document indicating how reparation may take place – mapping and engaging the victims on what they [should] expect from their outcome from the Appeals Chambers”.
This, however, is all assuming Ongwen’s guilty verdict isn’t overturned. The former LRA commander’s lead defence lawyer, Krispus Ayena, recently told African Arguments that his team has filed an appeal. “There are so many grey areas on why the High Court should look at the evidence afresh. If we could manage those technical legal matters which we think we are washed away, perhaps the case could collapse all together,” he said.
“This is our life now”
After decades of trauma, Ongwen’s four “ex-wives” are looking for compensation and institutional recognition in what can be a complex and difficult to navigate system.
No amount of organisational support, however, will replicate the immense emotional support they can provide each other. Having long felt deeply alone and rejected, they have found solace in each other’s company. They still face significant economic and social challenges, but for the first time in years, they are beginning to look to the future.
“This is our life now,” says Aromorach. “Once we save enough we want to buy land where we can stay with our children…We need to stick together and look out for each other as one big family”.