South Sudan: Civilians killed and raped as ethnically-motivated violence spirals and famine looms

A new investigation into the conflict in South Sudan has revealed horrific atrocities committed by both parties to the conflict, with ethnically motivated attacks on civilians constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity, Amnesty International said in a report released today.

Nowhere Safe: Civilians Under Attack in South Sudan documents first-hand accounts from survivors of massacres, victims of sexual abuse, and witnesses to a conflict that has forced over one million people to flee their homes and driven the world’s youngest country to the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

The report catalogues human rights abuses committed by rival forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar since the conflict erupted in mid-December 2013. Civilians have been systematically targeted in towns and villages, in their homes, as well as in churches, mosques, hospitals and even UN compounds where they had sought refuge.  In some of these places Amnesty International researchers found human skeletons, and decomposing bodies being eaten by dogs.  Elsewhere they saw mass graves, including five in Bor that contained 530 bodies, according to a government official. Everywhere they saw looted and burnt down homes, destroyed medical facilities, and ransacked humanitarian food aid stores. 

“This research reveals the unimaginable suffering of many civilians unable to escape the growing spiral of violence in South Sudan. Civilians have been massacred in the very places where they sought refuge. Children and pregnant women have been raped, and old and infirm people shot dead in hospital beds,” said Michelle Kagari Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Eastern Africa. 

“Forces on both sides have shown total disregard for the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. Those up and down the chain of command on both sides of the conflict who are responsible for perpetrating, ordering or acquiescing to such grave abuses, some which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, must be held accountable.” 

Though triggered by a political dispute, the conflict has taken on a markedly ethnic dimension, with mainly Dinka members of government forces loyal to President Kiir, and mainly Nuer army defectors and their allied militias loyal to ex-Vice-President Machar. Both sides systematically target members of the other’s ethnic community. Amnesty International’s report, based on field research undertaken in March 2014, documents cases in which Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk civilians have been targeted on the basis of their ethnicity and assumed political affiliations.

One survivor of a massacre described how he was rounded up by soldiers in Juba and held with at least 300 other men in overcrowded rooms in an army barracks. “It was so hot and we had no water. At about 7-8pm we opened the windows to get some air. When we did so, soldiers fired into our room from the windows. Many people were killed in my room. Survivors lay among the dead, pretending to be also dead. The soldiers fired from the windows at anything that moved. We were 12 survivors.”

One woman described to Amnesty International researchers how her ten-year-old sister-in-law was raped by ten men in Gandor, Leer county, and another recounted how she was among 18 women raped by government soldiers in Palop. “I was three months pregnant, but because I was raped by so many men, the baby came out. If I had refused those people, they would have killed me. Nine men raped me.” She said soldiers forced large wooden sticks inside the vaginas of seven women who refused to be raped. All seven died. 

Because of the conflict, the humanitarian situation in South Sudan is becoming increasingly precarious. The ongoing violence has prevented displaced people from returning to their lands at this crucial time – the planting season. Unless crops are planted during these rains, famine will be almost inevitable. With the onset of the rainy season, roads will soon become unpassable, making delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid impossible in many conflict-affected areas. Humanitarian assistance, including medical and food supplies, is being deliberately prevented from reaching those displaced by the conflict and humanitarian agencies have been obstructed and attacked in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states, with at least three humanitarian workers killed. 

In response to the outbreak of violence in South Sudan, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed last December to a temporary increase in peacekeeping force levels, but deployment has been slow and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has struggled to carry out its mandate to protect the civilian population.  A Commission of Inquiry has been set up by the African Union Peace and Security Council to investigate human rights violations, but its members have only now commenced field investigations, and promises by the South Sudanese government to investigate abuses by its forces remain unfulfilled.  Concrete action is urgently needed at the local, regional and international levels to put an end to the violence, stop reprisals against civilians, and hold those responsible accountable. 

Amnesty International has several key recommendations:
The UN should amend UNMISS’s mandate to focus on the protection of civilians, human rights investigations, and the facilitation of humanitarian access. The parties to the conflict must immediately cease all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and allow unfettered access for humanitarian assistance to those in need. Both sides must cooperate fully with independent and impartial investigations into violations, including the AU Commission of Inquiry, and take steps to bring those responsible for human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations to justice.