Expert Says the Importance of Spirits in the LRA Declined Over the Years

An expert told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the importance of spirits in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) diminished once the group was pushed out of its bases in the southern part of Sudan in the early 2000s.

Kristof Titeca told the court he came to this conclusion after interviewing between 100 and 120 former LRA members. Titeca said he has been interviewing them since 2004. He said he asked them about their belief in spirits in the LRA and the effect that belief had on the LRA and them as individuals.

Titeca testified on November 19 in the trial of a former LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen. He is a lecturer at the Institute of Development Policy of the University of Antwerp.

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

On November 19, Beth Lyons, a lawyer for Ongwen, asked Titeca about whether over the years the spiritual rules in the LRA changed.

Titeca said between 1994 and when Operation Iron Fist began, “they had very tightly established military bases in southern Sudan where life was the easiest. They could grow their crops and so on. They had their Yards and so on.” The Yard was a unit in the LRA responsible for spiritual matters.

The Operation Iron Fist Titeca referred is a military campaign the Ugandan government fought against the LRA that began in 2002. This included the Ugandan military attacking LRA bases in the southern part of Sudan after the Sudanese government agreed to the Ugandan military crossing into its territory.

“Once they (the LRA) were pushed from southern Sudan life became more challenging. Also, these spiritual rules they changed more often (once the LRA left Sudan),” said Titeca.

Titeca said the spiritual belief of LRA members allowed the group’s leader, Joseph Kony, to exercise control to an extent a “normal military organization could only dream of.”

“Some (LRA members) had an extremely strong belief in the power of these spirits and in the power of Joseph Kony. When I talk about the spirits this has to do with the power of Joseph Kony because in the LRA he is the messenger. He is the one who is contact with these spirits,” said Titeca.

He said LRA members were told that the spirits had given orders but in reality, “this is Joseph Kony who said these things.”

Titeca said that from his research he found that the longer a person spent in the LRA the stronger their belief in spirits would be.

“Does the age at which a person is abducted into the LRA have any effect on what you just described?” asked Lyons.

“Yes, very much so. There is a wide literature … Children are a blank slate if you will and they are much easier to indoctrinate if you want … They grow into this space easier,” replied Titeca.

Lyons asked Titeca about some of the effects of the spiritual rules on LRA members.

“Did rules and regulations provide any sense of security to abductees?” asked Lyons.

Titeca said they helped the LRA to function better and made the LRA members “very obedient.”

“They helped the individual combatant to find his or her place. They provided a very tight structure which almost did the thinking for them. The thinking of the individual combatants had been almost pushed aside,” said Titeca.

At the end of her questioning of Titeca, Lyons asked him about the LRA without spirits.

“In your expert opinion if you take spiritualism and spirits out of the LRA, what is left? What would the LRA look like?” asked Lyons.

“It is hard to imagine them (the LRA) without that (spirits) … for the people in the LRA the spirits are part of everything,” answered Titeca.

Senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert cross-examined Titeca for the prosecution and asked him whether the things the spirits were said to do were true. Titeca insisted that his research did not seek to confirm whether what people believed happened. He said his research was focused on the effect of spiritual beliefs in the LRA.

“I had interviewees explain to me that they talked with lions …  Indeed, I had interviewees who had used stone bombs and (the stones) had exploded above the battlefield … For me … what matters is the effects they (the spiritual beliefs) created,” said Titeca.

Gumpert also asked Titeca about how spiritual rules changed over time in the LRA. He referred to Titeca’s research in which he said spiritual rules became “less significant.”

“Indeed, they were no longer in these big bases,” said Titeca, referring to the time when the LRA was based in Sudan and spiritual rituals and rules were more widely practiced.

“It was more up to the commanders on how they (spiritual rules and rituals) were implemented,” said Titeca.

Gumpert concluded his cross-examination of Titeca on November 19 and this also concluded Titeca’s testimony. Ongwen’s trial also concluded for the year. The next witness is scheduled to testify on January 10.

A transcript of Titeca’s testimony is available here.