By Tom Maliti
A former member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the Spartan mobile medical units the group used to take care of its sick, the wounded, and expectant mothers.
Ray Apire told the court recently that he spent the 16 years he was with the LRA working in what the group called the sick bay.
Apire said there were several such units in the LRA and that all of them fell under Control Altar, the group’s high command.
Apire is the first person who worked in one of the LRA’s sick bays to testify at the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander.
Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in attacks on camps for internally displaced people, sex crimes, and conscripting child soldiers. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Tuesday, Apire said that during his time at the sick bay he treated LRA fighters with injuries from battle, people with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, and also gave care to women in labor.
Prosecution lawyer Yulia Nuzban asked Apire how many people attended to an injured person.
“It depends on the degree of injury of a person. If a person has a broken leg, the person could have up to four people [taking care of them]. If the person has been injured with a bullet that has gone through their body, that person can have only one person [look after them],” said Apire.
He said they treated bullet wounds by cleaning them with warm water in the morning and evening.
Apire said he also used traditional Acholi herbs to treat the wounds.
Later on Tuesday, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, Thomas Obhof, asked Apire how he treated someone who came to the sick bay with a fractured thighbone.
“There are some traditional herbs and bark of a tree…it can stick there for one month and act as a plaster and the bones would get healed,” replied Apire.
“How would you reset a bone that was shattered by a bullet?” asked Obhof.
“It is that same medicine. There are so many people who got healed with that herb,” answered Apire.
“How did you come to learn about these herbs?” continued Obhof.
“I inherited it. My mother was an herbalist back home so I learnt through her,” said Apire.
“Did you learn some of them from [LRA leader] Joseph Kony as well, Mr. Witness?” asked Obhof.
“Yes indeed, some of the herbs were shown to us by him,” replied Apire.
“Did Joseph Kony ever tell you how he came to learn about how these different herbs would heal people?” pursued Obhof.
“When I said earlier how the LRA was started I said it was the holy spirit and he [Kony] would say that it is the spirit that would show him these herbs,” said Apire.
When he began his testimony on Tuesday, Apire told the court he was abducted in 1988, when he was 38 years old, by a group he said he learned later on was called the Holy Spirit Movement. He said it transformed into the LRA in 1990.
Apire said he was in a bar, drunk, when members of the Holy Spirit Movement abducted him and others. He said he was taken to a house where there were many people. He said he sobered up and asked the person next to him where they were.
“He hit me with his elbow, then he told me that we have been abducted by the Holy Spirit Movement,” said Apire.
He said a commander called Oyoo ordered them out, where they were tied together at the waist.
“He [Oyoo] warned us never to try and escape. He said, ‘When you escape you will be killed,’” said Apire.
Apire said they moved to two other places, slept the night, and that the following day they were taken to Kony.
He said Kony told them how the Holy Spirit Movement was founded, and then for a week they received training on how to use and dismantle a gun.
He said that after the training they were split into different groups, with some being absorbed as fighters, and others working in what was called The Yard. He said he was assigned to the medical teams.
Nuzban asked Apire what rank he was when he left the LRA in June 2004. He said he was a captain. She asked him when he received that rank. He said he was given the rank in 1995 when the LRA was based in Palotaka, in southern Sudan.
He said this was during a time when the LRA was collaborating with people Apire called Arabs, which is how most LRA members referred to the Sudanese.
“Later on, the Arabs found the LRA did not have ranks and they advised Kony, ‘You do not have ranks. We have ranks. When you come to us and you do not have ranks that is not good,’” said Apire, explaining how LRA members got their ranks.
One of line of questioning Nuzban pursued was what Apire knew about Ongwen and how they related.
“How would you describe Mr. Ongwen as a person?” asked Nuzban.
“In calling or in reference I should call Ongwen my son. He was a good person. He would listen. He is respectful and is mindful of people. That is how I saw Ongwen,” replied Apire.
Later Nuzban asked Apire about the last time he spoke with Ongwen. He said it was during the time of the peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government in what was then the autonomous region of southern Sudan.
He said he, a journalist called Lacambel, and a former senior LRA commander, Kenneth Bania, arranged to call Ongwen.
Apire said the aim of the conversation was for them to convince Ongwen to leave the LRA.
Apire said he had been on a show Lacambel hosted on the Mega FM radio station in which he had appealed to those still in the LRA to leave the group. He said he had done this several times since he had left the group in 2004.
He said Lacambel approached him to talk to Ongwen. Apire said they went to Opit town and called Ongwen, who was nearby. He estimated they spoke for an hour or more.
“Could you describe the mood in which this conversation took place? The atmosphere so to speak?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“Me and Dominic laughed ourselves a lot because Dominic likes people. The reason I went to him was because me and him we like each other. We were actually making jokes as well. I tried to persuade him but he also said, ‘You are trying to trick (me) so that you can kill me when I come,’” replied Apire.
Another line of questioning that Obhof pursued on Tuesday was about Ongwen’s sister in the LRA called Lily Atong.
“Earlier today you mentioned a woman by the name Atong Lily. Who did she marry?” asked Obhof.
“Joseph Kony,” answered Apire.
“Do you know if she had children with Joseph Kony?” asked Obhof, a few questions later.
“She gave birth to six children with Joseph Kony,” replied Apire.
“With Dominic’s sister being so close to Kony, would it have been easier for him or harder for him to escape?” asked Obhof.
“At that time it was not possible for Dominic to escape because he [Kony] uses the young children,” said Apire, referring to Ongwen’s abduction as a youth.
“He (Kony) had brainwashed them. He had influenced them so that they cannot even think about home,” said Apire.