The Long Wait of Thomas Kwoyelo

As a young boy, Thomas Kwoyelo excelled at mathematics and piano playing. He was a good shot with a homemade catapult. His mother, Roselina Oyella, remembers that he rose early in the mornings to lend a hand on the family farm, and always insisted on clearing away trash left in front of their home. It was this discipline, perhaps, that would make Kwoyelo a model soldier – a grim predicator of the years he later spent as a senior-ranking colonel with the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.

The group terrorized northern Uganda for more than two decades, abducting thousands of children to serve in its ranks. Kwoyelo himself was taken in 1987 and turned into a soldier. Now, he is the only member of the LRA to be tried for war crimes in a Ugandan court. His case has dragged on for 13 years, with the accused spending nearly as much time in a prison cell in the capital Kampala as he did with the rebels, and the court meant to try him frequently running out of money to proceed.

Meanwhile, some of those impacted by the war have questioned whether he should be charged at all, arguing that Kwoyelo is, himself, a victim of the LRA.

As the controversial trial limped on, I travelled to the small city of Gulu in northern Uganda, once the epicentre of the LRA conflict, to investigate the story behind this ‘guinea pig’ case.

The night commuters

The Lord’s Resistance Army arose from the remnants of the Holy Spirit Movement, captained by Alice Lakwena, which sought to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni in the late 1980s. Lakwena claimed to have spiritual powers and told her followers that smearing their bodies with shea oil could repel bullets in battle, that the rocks they threw would turn to grenades and that they did not need guns because they were holy.

After a failed attempt to capture Kampala, Lakwena managed to amass her growing recruits on sugar cane plantations just 90 kilometres outside of the city in November 1987. The Ugandan government then waged an all-out assault, beating back the guerilla fighters and sending Lakwena into exile in neighbouring Kenya, where she died in a refugee camp 20 years later.

Operating in a similar spiritual context, Joseph Kony formed his LRA from the remnants of Lakwena’s forces. His stated goals were also to topple the current government, and to rule the country according to the biblical 10 Commandments, but fighters often turned their weapons on the civilians of northern Uganda instead.

Gruesome images of men and women with hacked-off lips and limbs came to symbolize the conflict’s cost and the rebel group was notorious for conscripting tens of thousands of children. At the height of the war, young people known as night commuters streamed into urban centres as darkness fell, sleeping under shop verandahs to avoid capture, before walking back home at dawn.

‘[We were] living in great, great fear that anything could happen. I remember we’d go to our rooms at 5.00pm to sleep. You’d be lucky if you didn’t wake up and hear gunshots,’ said Rosemary Nyirumbe, a nun and director of St Monica’s Tailoring School in Gulu. ‘There were so many gunshots.’

I remember we’d go to our rooms at 5.00pm to sleep. You’d be lucky if you didn’t wake up and hear gunshots.

Roselina Oyella
During the war, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe kept children safe inside storage containers.

Nyirumbe took to sheltering young night commuters in storage containers in the school’s courtyard after dark. ‘Those containers were meant for building materials, but we were using them to hide the children,’ she said, pointing to the metal boxes that still dot the school property.

‘There is a big one on the end there that I divided for boys. The place where they are now sewing clothes is the place where I was keeping the girls.’

Meanwhile, the government herded embattled civilians into squalid and cramped internally displaced persons’ camps, where disease killed more people than the fighting did. These were also poorly protected, and government soldiers themselves were accused of human rights abuses. During more than two decades of war, hostilities between the LRA and the Ugandan forces killed tens of thousands of people, while displacing two million others.

Peace or accountability?

Archbishop John Baptist Odama arrived in Gulu in the midst of the crisis in 1999 and immediately made peace his primary mission. In his first speech to the city’s citizens, Odama picked up a two-year-old boy and held the child in his hands. ‘I asked him just simple questions,’ he recalled. ‘“Are you happy to live in war?” The child answered by shaking his head, no. Then I said, “would you like to live in a state of peace?” The child nodded. So, I started my speech from here. I said: “gentle people, this child would like to grow in a state of peace, who are we to deny this child an environment of peace?”’

Also the head of an umbrella organization of religious denominations in northern Uganda, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, Odama positioned himself as a bridge between the government and the LRA, pushing for an end to the conflict. Among other initiatives, the Archbishop and his compatriots campaigned for an Amnesty Act, which was signed into law in 2000, allowing any combatant who renounced rebellion to be pardoned and allowed to come home again.

This law received significant support from the local community at the time, according to Stephen Oola, director of the Amani Institute Uganda, a thinktank focused on peace building: ‘The people of northern Uganda took responsibility and said, these children may have done all these things, but where were you as parents to protect our children? Where was the government to protect us? And where was the international community when all this was happening? There were so many layers of responsibility that justified the Amnesty Act.’

The decision to welcome home former fighters was not without dissenters, however, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denouncing the Amnesty Act as a violation of international law. Meanwhile, the Ugandan government ratified the Rome Statute, which served as the founding document for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague in 2002. With local leaders prioritizing reconciliation, Museveni referred the LRA case to the ICC a year later. The court then issued an arrest warrant for Kony and four of his deputies, including Dominic Ongwen, who was tried and convicted by the court in 2021.

Peace talks between the government and the rebels, which were hosted in Juba, South Sudan in 2006, were meant to bring an end to the conflict at last. Odama recalls speaking directly with Kony at the start of the negotiations: ‘I said “ladit”, which means sir, “now there is this process of peace talks. I am sure the key to peace is in the hands of the president and you”. [Kony] said, “yes Bishop. You wait and see now. The peace talk is on... I am for it.”’

It is widely speculated, however, that fear of arrest and trial ultimately prevented the LRA top brass from signing the final peace agreement in 2008. After the talks broke down, the rebels spilled over the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they committed a fresh wave of attacks. That next year, the Ugandan government established the International Crimes Division (ICD) of its high court, in an attempt to put agenda items from the unfinished peace talks into practice.

At the time the ICD was founded in Uganda, the fact that the ICC in the Hague had only investigated the crimes of the LRA was a particular bone of contention. ‘If you are for accountability, then both sides must be held accountable,’ said Francis Lukwiya, the current head of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. ‘You cannot say it was only the bullets of the LRA that killed the civilians, because both of them were firing. Even the bullets of the Ugandan forces killed the civilians.’

The stated goal of the ICD was to ensure Uganda had the capacity to try war crime suspects itself, something that could allow it to potentially refuse future involvement from the ICC under the court’s doctrine of complementarity, which states the ICC will only intervene if a member state is unable or unwilling to prosecute a particular case. ‘[The ICD] has come to be used to deflect calls for trials of Ugandan government abuses,’ said Adam Branch, a scholar focused on northern Uganda. ‘This has become particularly important for the ICC office of the prosecutor, which has faced intense criticism for its one-sided prosecution of the LRA to the exclusion of government, military or political officials.’

Indeed, the ICC’s prosecutor at the time, Luis Moreno Ocampo, actively participated in calls to find and capture Kony, appearing in videos by the charity Invisible Children, a youth led movement which often campaigned for US military intervention against the LRA. Between 2011 and 2017, the administration of Barack Obama poured some $800 million into a hunt for Kony, deploying special forces to provide intelligence and logistical support to Ugandan troops on the ground, before Donald Trump cut funding for the project shortly after entering office.

Kwoyelo’s arrest would come in the midst of this fervent debate over peace versus accountability.

Show trial?

Accounts of exactly how Kwoyelo was abducted differ, though all place his abduction in 1987, the first year of the war.

Oyella, his mother, says the boy had been lighting the evening fires when the rebels entered the compound in their home district of Pabbo. They promised Oyella that they were simply using Kwoyelo as a guide; that he would be released after crossing the valley. She let him go. When darkness fell and he had still not returned, Oyella tried to follow, but she never found him. The next time she saw him, he was in court more than 20 years later. ‘He was abducted from my arms,’ said Oyella. In contrast, Ugandan newspapers have widely reported that Kwoyelo was abducted en route to Pabbo Primary School. Even the estimates of how old he was when he was captured vary, ranging from nine to seventeen.

What is undisputed is that Kwoyelo then went on to serve with the LRA for another 22 years, rising to the rank of colonel and managing a clinic for wounded fighters. He was injured and captured in a battle in the north-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009. Kwoyelo, by then likely in his 40s, was held by the Ugandan military for a period of three months before his case was at last sent to the newly formed ICD at Uganda’s High Court.

His trial was delayed, however, amid debates about whether or not he should benefit from the same amnesty policy that had served other senior LRA commanders, some of whom are alleged to have held a higher rank then he did. In 2011, after Kwoyelo had already spent two years in detention, Uganda’s constitutional court ruled he should be released immediately, and allowed to benefit from the Amnesty Act.

In 2012, Uganda’s attorney general controversially stayed Kwoyelo’s appeal for amnesty. But, after several sittings, in 2015, the Ugandan Supreme Court ruled that Kwoyelo was ineligible for amnesty entirely, based on the gravity of his crimes, sending his case right back to the ICD.

All the while, Kwoyelo remained in Kampala’s Luzira Prison. Lawyers for the former child soldier began preparing to defend him at the ICD. Among them was Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent human rights defender who grew up during the war in northern Uganda. He joined the legal team at the urging of his father who knew Kwoyelo’s family well, working on a pro-bono basis. Even in those early days, he observed legal irregularities, with pretrial hearings conducted under draft rules. According to Opiyo, there was no proper application process for alleged victims, statements sent by the prosecution were so heavily redacted that they were impossible to defend against, and the charges against Kwoyelo were repeatedly revised.

‘I came to the conclusion that the trial was a show trial and that Kwoyelo was a guinea pig of certain government bureaucrats to whom this trial was a personal project,’ Opiyo said. ‘The rules of the court didn’t matter. It was purely an experimental exercise that was motivated by extraneous factors, not by legal and due process requirements.’

The frustrated lawyer eventually left the case, allowing a court-appointed attorney to take over his role on the team. ‘I couldn’t lend my name to such a process,’ he said.

When Kwoyelo’s trial at last officially commenced in 2018, the list of charges against him was staggering. Prosecution lawyers laid out 93 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, murder and the forcible recruitment of child soldiers, allegedly committed between the years of 1992 and 2005, the height of LRA activity in Uganda. Dressed in a drab green shirt and ill-fitting black suit, Kwoyelo denied each of the charges against him at an early hearing, his voice quiet.

I came to the conclusion that the trial was a show trial and that Kwoyelo was a guinea pig of certain government bureaucrats to whom this trial was a personal project.

According to Florence Akello, a member of the prosecution team, who also hails from the north of the country, people there are eager to see Kwoyelo convicted of his alleged crimes. ‘The victims have all been saying that we want this man to be prosecuted,’ she said.

When I visited alleged victims of Kwoyelo in the Kilack Hills territory that was his fiefdom several years ago, they spoke of beatings, murder and sexual assault at the hands of his unit of the LRA, often singling out Kwoyelo himself. Their anger was palpable.

But not everyone who suffered from the war wants to see Kwoyelo in court.


Let him come home

Tony* was taken by the LRA at the age of 14.

‘You go to a certain place, and you are forced to abduct [others]. If you don’t do it, you will be killed,’ he explained when I spoke to him in Gulu. He tried to run away shortly after being captured, but was caught and made to kill two of his fellow escapees. He spent the next 11 years of his life with the LRA, which trained him as a radio operator and entrusted him with relaying coded messages between top commanders.

The work put him in the line of fire and Tony was shot six times beginning when he was 15 years old. While recovering from these injuries, he remembers playing cards with Kwoyelo, who was responsible for caring for the sick.

A survivor of the massacre
A survivor of the Lukodi Massacre standing beside the memorial.

Tony eventually managed to leave the rebels and began broadcasting different messages over the radio, this time calling on the LRA to abandon their weapons and come home. A beneficiary of the amnesty policy, he wants the same clemency to be granted to his former comrade now.

‘I am a living example,’ Tony said. ‘I am home. I need [Kwoyelo] to be home like any other person.’ He is not alone in this viewpoint.

Angus* was abducted by the LRA when she was just nine years old. Her older brother was killed at the same time, and she was taken away as she wept. Angus stayed in Kwoyelo’s care for seven months after her initial capture, when her feet became so badly swollen she could not walk.

‘He treated us well. He would send the young soldiers – the boys – to go and fetch food,’ she remembered. ‘Meanwhile, he stayed with us back at the sick bay. He’d eat with us after the food was cooked, and nurse our wounds.’

Still a young girl, Angus was first used as a babysitter, caring for younger children born into captivity. Later on, she was made a fighter. After a decade with the rebels, Angus grew tired of war and its costs.

‘I was taken at the age of nine. I was turned into a soldier. They kept telling me that if I wanted to see my parents I should fight very hard, so I kept that in mind. I kept fighting,’ she said. ‘When I made 19 years of age, I looked at all the 10 years I’d been fighting and then I saw there was no change. In captivity, life is difficult. You only see death all the time. You start fighting from morning to night until the next morning. There is only destruction, only the smell of blood.’

In captivity, life is difficult. You only see death all the time. You start fighting from morning to night until the next morning. There is only destruction, only the smell of blood.

Angus eventually managed to escape the LRA, returning to her family, who thought she had died alongside her elder brother. She too benefited from the amnesty policy and wants Kwoyelo to come home and be forgiven as she was. ‘All of them did what Kwoyelo did,’ Angus said of her fellow soldiers. ‘What is so heartbreaking is the way they are taking Kwoyelo when the others are free.’

Like so many other children in northern Uganda, Kenneth* was taken by the LRA as a young boy, and transformed into a soldier, even charged with guarding Joseph Kony. He managed to escape after four years, but worries that the looming threat of court cases will prevent others from leaving the rebels as he did.

Meanwhile, Kenneth continues to face challenges as a result of his time in captivity. Neighbours know he was with the LRA, and this impacts all his interactions. ‘You cannot even joke with anyone. You just have to be quiet and humble. Whenever you start doing anything people will start pointing at you,’ he said.

The war also disrupted his schooling, and he has not been able to return to his studies as he once hoped, nor can he afford the fees to send his children to class.

Nearly a dozen former combatants interviewed by New Internationalist espoused similar messages of forgiveness, asking for Kwoyelo to be allowed to come home as they had.

More than Kony

The dusty city of Gulu is peaceful and lively with the rustle of new development, but many of its people are still poor. Organizations meant to support victims of the war are now running out of donor funds, as international attention moves on to more urgent crises. The Gulu Orthopaedic Workshop, for example, which makes prosthetic limbs for survivors of conflict and is currently being supported by the ICC Trust Fund for victims, is set to lose funding within a year. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative is also low on funds, according to its head Francis Lukwiya.

Civil society representatives in Gulu say that while progress has been made, the needs are still great, despite a steep decline in interest.

‘When people listen to the story of northern Uganda, the only thing that comes to their mind is the story of Joseph Kony. What about the untold stories of the struggles of the LRA survivors or victims, and the communities? Their resilience in rebuilding their lives is something that has been left behind for a very long time,’ explained Magdalen Amony, head of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group.

In northern Uganda, memories of war still hang like ghosts overhead. Former rehabilitation centres, once meant to house returning soldiers, have been converted into hotels. Along the highway between Gulu and the neighbouring district of Kitgum is a memorial listing the names of dozens of people killed. In the opposite direction is another monument to civilians slaughtered in a 2004 attack in Lukodi.

A boda boda – or motorcycle taxi – took me out to the Lukodi memorial. As we sped down red dirt roads, my driver spoke about his own time as a night commuter, pointing out the site of a former IDP camp. At Lukodi, a guide told me how 15 of his family members were killed in the 2004 massacre. ‘Sometimes I dream someone is burning my home, or someone is shooting,’ he said.

Across a field is another museum where everything from World Food Programme ration cards used during war time to the bullets turned on civilians have been saved. Out-of-focus photographs of the dead paper the walls. Small fees are required to visit the memorial and museum – a way for Lukodi to also bring in a small amount of income.

The massacre at Lukodi is central to the indictment of Dominic Ongwen at the ICC, another ex-child soldier whose name was among the early arrest warrants issued by the court. Ongwen fled the LRA in 2015. He was picked up in the Central African Republic by Seleka rebels, who delivered him into the waiting hands of US special forces stationed in the area. Ongwen was then sent to the Hague, making him the first and only LRA commander indicted by the ICC to be brought to trial there.

As a result of so much international attention, the rundown Lukodi memorial is often visited by reporters and researchers seeking to learn about the LRA. Local residents told me they want to build a bigger historical site and tourist lodge, in the hope of bringing more money and more visitors to the area.

Similar debates about whether Ongwen should have been granted amnesty have swirled around the case. But while Ongwen was controversially convicted last year and is in the process of an appeal, the Kwoyelo case continues to drag on.

13 years and counting

Following the long-awaited hearings that took place in 2018, Kwoyelo’s trial faced continued delays, with the coronavirus shutting down Ugandan courts for two years, and the IDC out of funding to hold regular sessions in Gulu. ‘They don’t put on a session when there is no money,’ Charles Dalton Opwonya, one of Kwoyelo’s defence lawyers, said simply.

Frustrations about inadequate funds have impacted lawyers on all sides of the case. Henry Kilama Komakech, a human rights lawyer based in Gulu, is meant to represent Kwoyelo’s alleged victims in a position modelled after the ICC. But he hasn’t been able to see his clients in several years due to a lack of funds from the court. It is a big challenge. ‘Even now, I want to go back to find out how they are doing, whether some of them have passed on,’ he said. ‘We don’t know.’

‘The question is, why do you try somebody when you have no money, and you can’t finish a case?’ Komakech asked from his office in Gulu, the desk before him stacked with books and legal files.

Court sessions for Kwoyelo take place some four times a year, each lasting about two weeks. Another was expected before the end of 2022, but lawyers involved in the case said they weren’t sure exactly when it would take place. Some have begun to wonder about how fair Kwoyelo’s trial actually is. ‘Even yesterday I was thinking of dropping out,’ Komakech said in October. ‘Why should I be in a process which is flawed? It is a bogus process, with all due respect. We are taking too long.’

Opiyo also remains concerned. ‘In many ways it is a mockery of the principle of complementarity and Kwoyelo will never get justice, just by how long he has been detained and the way he has been treated,’ he said.

Such views are echoed by scholars like Branch: ‘[Kwoyelo] is being used to demonstrate the principle of complementarity in action, another example of people, whether victims or alleged perpetrators, being sacrificed to the development of international criminal law.’

Meanwhile, many Gulu residents have forgotten about Kwoyelo altogether. ‘Nobody in northern Uganda even thinks or even knows about that case anymore,’ said Oola. ‘They have moved on, and the court is still going on, with the man stuck in a prison cell somewhere, looking for donor funds to bring him to court tomorrow.’

The LRA is now a severely reduced force, numbering about 200 to 1,000 recruits who sell honey to and loot small farming communities in Congo and the Central African Republic to survive. Kony himself is widely believed to be hiding out in the disputed Kafia Kingi enclave, somewhere between South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and has little contact with the now scattered LRA groups. While he will likely remain there until he dies, the current ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, in a surprise move, announced in November 2022 that he would ask the judges to confirm the charges against Kony. Doing so would speed up a trial, should Kony ever be caught, raising questions about renewed interest in the LRA.

Roselina Oyella
Roselina Oyella, Thomas Kwoyelo's mother, wants to see her son released from prison within her lifetime.

Kwoyelo’s family, however, are still hoping desperately for his safe return. His mother continues to attend his trial sessions when they take place in Gulu, but the case has taken a toll on her.

‘I see Thomas Kwoyelo in court with my eyes, and I feel broken seeing him facing trial. I feel like my son should be freed like any other commander who received amnesty,’ Oyella said. ‘At my age I worry he is going to die before he sees me.’

* These names have been changed to protect identities