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Expert Explains Variance in Memory Among Trauma Victims

A forensic psychologist has testified at the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Congolese general Bosco Ntaganda about the causes of variances in memory among individuals who experienced trauma.

Dr. John Charles Yuille, a Canadian national, testified via video link from Canada, with his evidence centered on variations in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the factors that affect memory patterns among individuals who face trauma. He said some victims may have detailed, vivid, and fairly accurate memories, while others may have amnesia with no memory at all.

“It depends how they coped with the different types of trauma. If they responded the same way to the same kind of trauma, then the pattern of recall [of the traumatic event] would not be different,” stated Dr. Yuille. He explained that while one person may “integrate trauma” and be able to provide a full narrative of their traumatizing experience, another individual may only have fragmented memories of it, or be unable to recall anything.

According to Dr. Yuille, for some individuals, narrating traumatic experiences “can be therapeutic and cathartic in the process of dealing with PTSD,” while “others may relive the negative impact of the event and may stop responding.”

He contended that, in order for the court to evaluate evidence of traumatized victims, it is essential to determine the quality of their memory and to understand the factors that have played a role in creating that memory. “Since you are going to get different memory [levels] among witnesses, it is essential to see if any factors [identified by psychologists]…are consistent with the pattern of memory being reported by the victim.”

Some witnesses that have testified at the ICC, including in Ntaganda’s trial, have been unable to recall specific details of many of the events they recount, which has often led to discrepancies between their prior recorded statements and in-court testimony. Others have broken down during testimony and required the assistance of in-court support officers.

Ntaganda is on trial over 18 charges including murder, attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, and use of child soldiers. The crimes were allegedly committed during a 2002-2003 war in Congo. At the time, he was a commander in the Union for Congolese Patriots (UPC), one of the militia group active in the conflict.

Dr. Yuille said he had assessed witness evidence in more than 1,000 court cases, mainly of sexual abuse and murder, and served as an expert witness in Canada and the U.S. In the Ntaganda case, he was asked by the prosecution to write a report on the psychological effects of trauma, with reference to four prosecution witnesses. His report relates to Witness P018, Witness P019, Witness P108, and Witness P113, who are yet to testify in the trial. The retired professor at the University of British Columbia is one of 12 expert witnesses expected to testify for the prosecution.

The expert explained that personality is one of the factors that determine how individuals react to traumatic events. He said “hyper-sensitive” individuals are easily traumatized, unlike other individuals who are not easily stimulated, such as those who may have elements of borderline personality disorder.

Dr. Yuille also explained that some individuals show a “fight response,” meaning that their bodies are able to mobilize psychological and physical resources to deal with the source of the trauma. “That person’s memory is going to be better about the attack, about the trauma itself,” he added.

The expert stated that another factor that impacts both trauma and the degree of trauma is helplessness. For example, a victim of sexual assault may have a feeling of helpless because they can not get out of the situation. In the context of a battle, one of things that often brings strongest trauma, including to soldiers, is long-time shelling.

He explained that, for some individuals, at least immediately after trauma and perhaps for some time after it, memories of components of the events remain fragmented and disconnected, and it often takes some time for the victims to be able to integrate the pieces of the traumatic event into a chronological narrative.

He emphasized that the ability of people who experienced trauma to narrate events in clear order varied among individuals. “Some victims will have detailed, well organized, chronological memory and will have the ability to answer questions. That is different for a person for whom memories are still in fragments, has trouble recalling events and they will not be in chronological order,” he said.

Dr. Yuille continues giving evidence in the trial on Thursday, April 21. Tomorrow morning, hearings in the trial will continue with the evidence of Witness P892.