Witness Tells ICC about LRA’s Early History

A former member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who was abducted around the same time as Dominic Ongwen, narrated to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the LRA’s early history, including how for several years the group received military and other support from Sudan.

On Tuesday, February 19, Witness D-32 also described to the court what he did when he was a controller in the LRA. The trial of Ongwen, a former LRA commander, resumed on Tuesday after an 18-day break. The trial was scheduled to resume on Monday, but that day’s hearing was cancelled. No public reason was given for the cancellation. Witness D-130, who before Tuesday was the most recent defense witness to testify, did son on January 31.

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have had a role in. He is alleged to have committed the crimes between July 2002 and December 2005.

On Tuesday, Witness D-32, who testified via video link from an undisclosed location, told the court the role of a controller was to be in the battlefield and direct the fighting in favor of the LRA.

“The controllers have to be there [in the battlefield]. They go to the battlefield with shea butter oil, and they sprinkle this at the location where the fighting is taking place,” said Witness D-32.

A few questions later, Thomas Obhof, one of the lawyers representing Ongwen, questioned Witness D-32 further on the role of controllers in the battlefield.

“Was there a difference when the controllers were there at the battlefield vis-à-vis when the controllers were not there?” asked Obhof.

“In the LRA, once the controller is at the battlefront … all the soldiers will be happy and they will be energized because there is a magician who is working with them and fighting alongside with them at that time,” replied Witness D-32.

“Personally, I was a controller. When I was still active as a controller, I would go with the kind of things that I mentioned earlier [shea butter oil]. Yes, the fighters we moved with most times would fight with morale and would work hard,” said Witness D-32.

During his testimony in open court, Witness D-32 did not say for how long he was a controller. He also did not say in open court which year he was abducted or from where he was abducted.

The fact the LRA abducted him around the same time as Ongwen only came out as Obhof justified to Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt why he was asking Witness D-32 details about his first days in the LRA. Judge Schmitt had wanted Obhof to limit his questions about Witness D-32’s initiation into the LRA because many prosecution and defense witnesses have already testified on the issue. Obhof described the abduction of Witness D-32 as being “contemporaneous” to Ongwen’s own abduction. According to Ongwen’s lawyers and the testimony of Joe Kakanyero, a clansman of Ongwen, he was abducted in 1987.

Portions of Witness D-32’s testimony was closed to the public because he was testifying under in-court measures to protect his identity. These measures included distorting his face in public broadcasts of the hearing and any identifying testimony taking place in private session. These measures were granted for Witness D-32 when he was a prosecution witness, but he never testified for the prosecution. In a July 5, 2018 decision, Judge Schmitt, as the Single Judge for Trial Chamber IX, agreed to continue the in-court protective measures for Witness D-32 when the defense applied for them.

Parts of Witness D-32’s testimony was also closed to the public whenever he gave self-incriminating evidence. He was given assurances under Rule 74 of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence that any self-incriminating testimony he gave would not be used against him so long as he told the truth. Witness D-32 also had a legal advisor, Llewelyn Gray Curlewis, with him to guide him on any self-incriminating testimony.

During Tuesday’s testimony, Witness D-32 described what technicians in the LRA did, but he did not explain, at least in public, what unit in the LRA they were part of. In October, Jackson Acama, who said he once served as the clerk to spirits in the LRA, told the court there was a unit in the group responsible for spiritual affairs. Acama said the unit was called The Yard and controllers, technicians, and catechists were members of The Yard.

Witness D-32 told the court that technicians were also involved in directing LRA fighters in a battle, but they did not go to the battlefield. He said whenever a battle took place, technicians would light a charcoal stove and then they would sprinkle water on it.

“It means therefore people who are in the field, when they [LRA fighters] are fighting, that process [of sprinkling water on the charcoal stove] will also cool down the fire power of the enemy guns that the soldiers are engaging with,” said Witness D-32.

He said the group that abducted him was called the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces. He said the group changed its name on August 23, 1991 to the Lord’s Resistance Army after merging with another group called the Uganda People’s Army/Movement. Witness D-32 said he was present the day the name change was announced. He told the court that members of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force and the Uganda People’s Army gathered at one place when the name change was announced. He said the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) was based in eastern Uganda.

“As I explained earlier, [LRA leader Joseph] Kony said that the holy spirit he is possessed with is the one who changed that name,” said Witness D-32.

He said the UPA received some support from the Kenyan government, but he did not say what kind of support. Witness D-32 testified in 1993 the LRA reached out to the government of Sudan, through a militia group controlled by Riak Machar, for support. He said eventually the LRA dealt directly with the Sudanese government, and they started receiving support.

“For how long did the government of Sudan support the LRA?” asked Obhof.

“The Khartoum government started assisting the LRA from around 1994 to 2000. And that was approximately six years. And they were providing them with guns, weapons, food, as well as medication,” said Witness D-32. He also said Sudan allowed the LRA to have bases in its territory.

“While you were in Sudan, which groups did the LRA fight with?” asked Obhof.

“The LRA fought against the Uganda government as well as John Garang’s rebel group known as the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) because these groups would fight against the LRA. If the LRA are going to Uganda, the LRA would have to go through SPLA area(s). So, there was war between the LRA and the SPLA as well,” said Witness D-32.

Obhof asked him whether the Sudanese army ever fought alongside the LRA.

“The Sudanese government, [Sudanese President Omar] al-Bashir soldiers, whenever there was a war against the LRA or against the Bashir government they would come together with the LRA,” he said.

Witness D-32 will continue testifying on Thursday.