Acholi Chief Tells Court Acholi Culture Forbids Killing Women, Children, and Looting During War

An ICC prosecution senior trial lawyer, Benjamin Gumpert, questioned Acholi chief Yusuf Okwonga Adek on Thursday about what was permitted in Acholi culture during war.

Adek had told the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday that Acholi culture did not allow fighters to kill women or children during war. He also said Acholi culture did not allow looting.

Adek is testifying in the trial of a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander, Dominic Ongwen. Ongwen has been charged for his alleged role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) during which women and children were killed and looting occurred. The attacks Ongwen has been charged with took place between 2003 and 2004 in northern Uganda.

“In Acholi culture, it is forbidden to attack women, am I right?” asked Gumpert on Thursday.

“Yes, that is correct,” replied Adek. He gave the same answer when he was asked the killing of children.

Gumpert then asked whether it was against Acholi culture for LRA commanders to order their fighters to abduct women and forcibly marry them.

“We understand that the war brought a lot of abductions. That happens in any war. But no marriages should have taken place in the bush,” replied Adek.

“When LRA commanders ordered their fighters to pillage, to take food, that was breaking the rules, isn’t it?” asked Gumpert.

“That was a crime even in the Acholi culture. It is the crime of the individual. Acholi do not accept pillaging,” answered Adek.

Gumpert also questioned Adek about several senior members of the LRA and the circumstances in which they left the rebel group. The people Gumpert asked Adek about are Charles Otim, Onen Kamdulu, Sam Kolo, Michael Acellam Odongo, and David Matsanga.

Adek said he only knew what he had heard but he did not have any first-hand information. Gumpert asked Adek about Matsanga. Adek said Matsanga began by volunteering to work with the LRA delegation during the peace process between 2006 and 2008. He said Matsanga eventually acted as the delegation’s spokesperson and chaired their meetings.

Gumpert also asked Adek about some details of a meeting Adek testified about on Tuesday in which Adek said LRA leader Joseph Kony confirmed he killed his then deputy Vincent Otti. Gumpert asked him about an ambush Kony referred to. Adek said Kony had told them that Otti had organized for Kony to be killed and seven men ambushed Kony and tried to kill him. Adek told the court that Kony told them in April 2008 the LRA arrested six of those men. He said the seventh man, called Opiyo Makis, fled and was captured by the Ugandan military.

After Gumpert concluded his questioning on Thursday, the next defense witness, D-150, testified. D-150 told the court that when he was nine years old he got an illness that paralysed him, and he was unable to walk. He said he could only crawl “like a snake.” D-150 said for five years his parents consulted doctors who were unable to help.

He said one day they then took him to an ajwaka, which is an Acholi word for someone who acts as a spirit medium. D-150 said the ajwaka identified him as someone who is supposed to be a spirit medium as well and the ajwaka began treating him. He said the treatment took some time, but he was eventually healed.

“I was able to talk. I was able to walk, and I started operating like any other person. From that time, I started using spirits, even before I got married,” D-150 said.

D-150 testified under in-court protective measures, including his face and voice being distorted in public broadcasts of his testimony. Portions of his testimony were also closed to the public to protect his identity.

He told the court he had three spirits he communicated with. He also told the court he treated people who with herbs, some of which the spirits helped him identify. D-150 also answered questions about whether Kony was also an ajwaka and what powers spirits had. He also identified some ailments and herbal prescriptions for those ailments on a page of a hand-written LRA prescription book. The prosecution disclosed the book to the defense and Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, got the court’s leave to have it entered into evidence.

When Odongo concluded his questions for D-150, the prosecution did not have any questions for the witness.

The next day, Friday, Harriet Adong also testified about her experience as an ajwaka. She said she became one in 1987. Adong said she was in primary school, Class Seven, when spirits started “disturbing” her to become an ajwaka. Adong said she dropped out of school because her parents couldn’t afford to pay the school fees and because of the spirits.

Adong said she had five spirits, and each served a different purpose. She said she treated people using herbs and at times performed exorcisms. She also identified some ailments and herbal prescriptions for those ailments on a page of a hand-written LRA prescription book. Once Abigail Bridgman, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, concluded her questions for Adong, the prosecution had no questions for her.

Witness D-87 is scheduled to testify on Monday.

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