A psychiatrist told the International Criminal Court that Acholi culture does not have all the answers for addressing the effects of the almost-20 year conflict in northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the government.
Psychiatrist Seggane Musisi testified on Wednesday and Thursday the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander, about Acholi culture and trauma. He told the court that the conflict led to northern Uganda’s having many orphans and many women having children because of rape, situations he said Acholi culture never had to confront before.
Musisi said that women with children born out of rape faced severe difficulty earning a livelihood because most are not married and therefore do not have land to cultivate.
He said a man or father is normally the one who inherits or gives land in northern Uganda, and in the case of a child born out of rape often there was no father to give land. Musisi said it was possible for a woman to buy land, if she was able to earn enough to do so.
“So, there is always a problem. By the way, sometimes our cultures don’t have answers to these questions because they never happened before. There were no mass orphans in traditional Acholi culture, but now they are here,” said Musisi.
LRA leader Joseph Kony is Acholi, as have been many of his senior commanders. During its northern Uganda rebellion between the mid-1980s and 2006, the LRA abducted thousands of Acholi boys and girls.
Ongwen, who is also Acholi, has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
A professor of psychiatry at Makerere University, Musisi was called as an expert witness by one of the groups of victims in the trial. This group of 1,501 victims is represented by a legal team led by Paolina Massidda.
Musisi told the court that during the northern Uganda conflict he treated several former LRA members who had suffered trauma and other mental health issues. He said he has researched mental health and Acholi culture over the years.
On Wednesday, one issue Massidda asked Musisi about was how former LRA members related to their families once they returned home.
“Is my understanding correct that in fact a former abductee coming back has difficulties in establishing trusting relationships even within his/her family?” asked Massidda.
“That’s true, Ms. Massidda. Not only do they have difficulties in trusting their family, the family may also have difficulties in trusting them. Some people may feel that once a killer, always a killer,” replied Musisi.
He observed that family ties in African and Acholi society are so close that it is common for siblings and cousins to sleep in the same bed. He said the northern Uganda conflict changed that.
“I have done it. I’m sure other Africans have done it. We are that close. How do you now go to share a blanket or a bed with someone who you know maybe killed your father?” said Musisi
He said the same distrust in the family applied to former female abductees.
“How do you listen to a girl who has been subjected to massive rapes and changed her values towards men and sexuality? How could she relate to a younger sister?” said Musisi.
“I called it in my report the desecration of Acholi culture. I didn’t call it derailment. Derailment I thought was simpler. It’s like desecration. It’s no longer sacred because the principles on which it stood became violated,” said Musisi.
The report Musisi referred to was admitted in evidence at the beginning of his testimony on Wednesday. This was done using Rule 68(3) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence. The judges decided on March 6 to allow this provision to be used to admit the report into evidence.
Rule 68(3) requires that a report will be entered into evidence if the author does not object to that happening. Musisi told the court on Wednesday he had no objection to his report being used as evidence.
Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, questioned Musisi on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. On Wednesday, Odongo asked Musisi about the removal from power of two Ugandan presidents who were from the country’s north and the effect that had on the psyche of northern Ugandans. Odongo also asked him about Kony and how he controlled the LRA and what that said about the mental state of LRA members.
On Thursday, Odongo told Musisi that Ongwen was injured in September 2003 and remains disabled from that injury. Odongo also told Musisi that Ongwen was imprisoned by the LRA when he sustained the injury and remained under close surveillance for a long time while being forced to participate in attacks. Odongo asked Musisi what effect imprisonment and long-term injury would have on the mental state of Ongwen.
Musisi said a psychiatrist would need to speak to a person, among other things, to be able to assess their mental state.
“I have never done that for Mr. Ongwen. I can’t answer that question,” said Musisi.
Other topics Odongo asked Musisi about were the nodding syndrome in northern Uganda, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Odongo concluded his questioning Musisi on Thursday, bringing the hearing to an end.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said Musisi was the last witness in the victims’ phase of the trial. He said that next, the defense would make its opening statement in defense of Ongwen. He said this would start some time after the court’s summer recess, but the date would be announced later. This year the court’s summer recess will be from July 20 to August 13.
A transcript of Wednesday’s hearing can be found here.