Untold suffering in South Sudan as conflict enters fifth year

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©Lynsey Addario/Getty Images

Today marks the fourth anniversary of South Sudan’s conflict. Since the war started, thousands of civilians have been raped, killed and deliberately starved.

After decades of civil war, South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Sudan in 2011, only for their hopes of peace and prosperity to be dashed two years later. The conflict in South Sudan has devastated the lives of millions of people. Both government forces and armed opposition groups have committed violations and abuses against civilians with impunity, brutality and an utter disregard for human life.

Since the onset of the conflict, the delivery of humanitarian assistance has become increasingly difficult. Acts of obstruction have contributed significantly to civilians’ inability to access life-saving assistance and resulted in a paralysis in aid delivery. With the delivery of assistance increasingly restricted, the humanitarian situation has rapidly deteriorated. As the conflict rages on with no resolution in sight, South Sudanese civilians are in dire need of assistance and protection.

Sarah Jackson, Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Amnesty International
This a grave milestone should be a reminder of the urgent need to stop the ongoing violations
Women queuing in the rain waiting to registered. Women queuing in the rain waiting to registered.
©Natalia Jidovanu

Pervasive sexual violence

Since the start of the conflict four years ago, thousands of civilian men, women and children have been subjected to brutal forms of sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation and torture and sexual humiliation.

From the first days and months of the conflict, government and opposition forces committed grave acts of sexual violence, targeting victims on the basis of their gender, ethnic and perceived political identities.

In Unity, which has experienced some of the most intensive violence during the conflict, government troops committed gruesome acts of gang rape, abducting women and keeping them as sex slaves. Between May and December 2015, one of the heaviest periods of fighting in the area, humanitarian organizations estimated that 1,200 civilians were killed, 1,430 raped, and 1,630 abducted in Leer, Koch and Mayandit.

The already high levels of sexual violence skyrocketed as the conflict spread into previously peaceful areas of the country after the signing of the August 2015 peace agreement. This is particularly accurate in the period following the clashes that re-erupted in the capital city, Juba in July 2016.

Rape as a weapon of war

Rebecca was gang raped after clashes re-erupted in the capital city, Juba in July 2016. In 2016 and 2017, there was a surge of violence in the Equatoria region, in the southern part of the country, including widespread sexual violence. Many women were raped and gang raped in Yei, Morobo and Lainya.

Amnesty International
Edna, a women's rights activist in Yei
If men are caught, they are killed and if women are caught, they are raped. Some women continue to go [look for food in the bush] because they have children to feed.

Ambushed while fleeing war

Joy and two of her relatives were ambushed as they were travelling from Yei into Uganda where they now live as refugees. She was raped and seriously injured by her attackers, narrowly escaping. Her two relatives did not survive the attack.

Feeding the Family: Risky business

Women are particularly at risk when they venture out to look for food. Throughout the country, women often have to risk their physical integrity leaving the UN Protection of Civilians (POC) sites, or going into the outskirts of towns in search of food and other items to help their families survive. There, they risk being attacked and raped by soldiers

©Natalia Jidovanu

Satellite image showing burnt fields and burnt structures. Satellite image showing burnt fields and burnt structures.
Satellite images of burnt fields around Yei, a city in the Equatoria region south of the nation's capital Juba. ©2017 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Deliberate starvation

Both government and opposition forces have imposed restrictions on civilians’ access to food. The pattern of systematic and deliberate restrictions on access to food has contributed to severe food insecurity, which has become a regular feature of South Sudan. South Sudanese civilians are now facing severe food insecurity, starvation and famine. 1.25 million South Sudanese were facing starvation as of November 2017 with the UN warning of the possibility of yet another famine in 2018. Famine was initially declared in February 2017 in areas of Unity State. Today, 6 million people – around half of the population of South Sudan - are considered to be severely food insecure.

The situation has been made worse by the fact that parties to the conflict have regularly obstructed humanitarian access. At least 17 aid workers were killed in 2017 alone. Continuous fighting in various parts of the country has also forced aid workers to relocate from areas where civilians are in desperate need of assistance. Humanitarian supplies that could have saved lives and fed thousands and thousands of people have also been looted by parties to the conflict.  

Bread basket turned killing field

The fact that people in the Equatoria region, once considered the breadbasket of South Sudan, are now facing severe hunger, is truly shocking. Civilians in many areas are effectively under siege, no longer able to access their farmlands. Any attempt to do so exposes them to massive security risks, including murder and sexual violence.

“It’s unacceptable that people with the skills and land to grow food are now hungry,” said Alicia Luedke, Researcher for South Sudan, Amnesty International

© ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images

A large crowd of people (South Sudanese refugees in Uganda) standing outside two tents. A large crowd of people (South Sudanese refugees in Uganda) standing outside two tents.
©Amnesty International

The largest mass exodus of people on the continent since the Rwandan genocide

South Sudan’s conflict has resulted in Africa’s biggest refugee crisis and the third largest in the world after Syria and Afghanistan. Over 1 million South Sudanese refugees have been displaced into neighbouring Uganda in the largest mass exodus on the continent since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Close to 2 million civilians are internally displaced within South Sudan, over 200,000 of whom are currently living on UN bases under protection of the peacekeeping mission.

Most of the displaced civilians interviewed by Amnesty International in South Sudan and across the border in Uganda said that they had fled primarily because of fear, because they or their relatives had been directly affected by the violence or they had witnessed attacks. Additionally, many also stated that they fled because there was no food. Amnesty International interviewed people who had spent months living in the bush, trying to remain hidden from soldiers while remaining in the vicinity of their homes and farms.

©Amnesty International
Arnauld Akodjenou, UN Regional Refugee Coordinator for South Sudan
If the trend continues, by end of 2018 we will be over 2,800,000 refugees [from South Sudan]… More people are going to suffer.

South Sudan's conflict timeline

Four men in military gear standing in  muddy fields as they celebrate. One of them carries a large fire arm on his shoulder, Four men in military gear standing in  muddy fields as they celebrate. One of them carries a large fire arm on his shoulder,
©ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images

 Tell the government of South Sudan to end the suffering

Amnesty International is calling on the South Sudanese government and the international community to put an end to the human rights violations and abuses throughout the country. In efforts to bring accountability to the people of South Sudan, they must ensure the establishment of the Hybrid Court which as agreed during the 2015 peace process.

 

End the grave violations and untold suffering of civilians in South Sudan

With competing crises around the world, South Sudan risks becoming a forgotten conflict. Without sustained and public pressure to bring an end to the suffering and grave human rights abuses that South Sudanese are enduring, the numbers of killed, displaced and starving civilians will continue to rise.

This is particularly acute as we enter the 2017-2018 dry season in South Sudan which has seen an escalation in conflict-related violence. Civilians will continue to be trapped in the brutal conflict, increasingly cut off from their farmlands, river access and humanitarian assistance. Today, millions of South Sudanese are in dire need of assistance and protection.

The sooner the international community engages proactively and strategically on South Sudan, the sooner violations and the humanitarian catastrophe can end. The swift establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan would help realize the rights of victims and survivors of grave crimes to justice and reparations.

©Tim McKulka