The landmark sentence is five years longer than was asked for by prosecution, who said Ongwen’s difficult history should be taken into account when deciding his jail term.
Ongwen was one of tens of thousands of children who were abducted in northern Uganda between the 1980s and 2000s, before being indoctrinated and forced to fight on behalf of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group led by Joseph Kony.
Of the five top LRA commanders who were indicted in the early 2000s, Ongwen is the only one to have been apprehended.
Many northern Ugandans opposed the ICC prosecutions, arguing they were a political move encouraged by the Ugandan government and military, who were profiting off the continuation of the war and the failure of attempts at peace talks. Instead, they argued, a traditional justice and reconciliation process should have been followed.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has also been accused of crimes against humanity, including ordering the shooting of dozens of protesters last November, in the run-up to the highly disputed January 2021 election.
Opposition leader and musician Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was involved in making a submission to the ICC in January, calling for Museveni to be prosecuted.
The verdict in the Ongwen case was delivered in early February, with victims and Ongwen’s own family gathering around radios or projectors to listen to judges ruling in The Hague. Now in his mid-40s, Ongwen was found guilty on 61 counts, including the first ICC convictions for forced marriage and forced pregnancy.
Judges ruled that Ongwen presided over a system in which kidnapped girls and women were distributed to fighters as wives, and forced to bear children in the bush.
Witnesses and victims who participated in the trial are now calling for reparations, saying money can help them rebuild lives that were put on hold first by the war, and then by the ICC case.
In interviews with The Irish Times, participants from Lukodi, where Ongwen was accused of ordering an attack on a displaced persons camp, said they had been retraumatised during the trial, which lasted four years.
Most survivors of northern Uganda’s war received no government help, and assistance from non-governmental organisations also quickly dried up.
Florence Akello (37), was abducted aged ten and forced to marry an LRA commander; she gave birth to three children in the bush. When she escaped, her children were rejected by her family.
She told The Irish Times she believed commanders who joined the LRA as adults should be seriously punished, but with Ongwen there should have been a lesser sentence as “he was abducted when he was still young”.
Many former abductees still struggle daily, she said. They can’t afford school fees for their children and have problems finding secure accommodation.
“There are so many people who came here, interviewed us and didn’t help,” she said.