Amid a fresh outbreak of fighting in South Sudan, a new report by Amnesty International reveals the true horror suffered by civilians at the hands of government forces after the August 2015 peace agreement was signed.
“We are still running”: War crimes in Leer, South Sudan, details how South Sudanese government forces and allied militia hunted down and killed civilians, raped and abducted women, stole cattle and torched villages in opposition strongholds in Leer County, Unity State, between August and December 2015.
“These war crimes and other abuses committed across the country are the result of ongoing impunity that continues to fuel conflict in South Sudan, as seen in recent weeks of renewed fighting,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.
“The murders, rapes and abductions of civilians must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated, and those reasonably suspected of criminal responsibility brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.”
The report details shocking accounts of violence meted out on individuals and entire villages by government forces and allied militia in blatant violation of the August 2015 peace agreement between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar. Leer is Machar’s home county.
Many of the 71 people interviewed identified men and women shot dead as they fled their attackers and others executed at point-blank range. They also described how children and elderly people were burnt alive in their homes, with girls and women abducted and raped multiple times by multiple soldiers, and others killed for resisting rape. Nyamile, a woman who witnessed the attack on Adok Payam on 28 October, recounted seeing six girls tied, raped and then abducted. She said: “We elected the president and now he is killing us … now because of this we tell the international community to tell Kiir to stop killing us. Women are suffering a lot. One woman was used [raped] by six men.”
These war crimes and other abuses committed across the country are the result of ongoing impunity that continues to fuel conflict in South Sudan, as seen in recent weeks of renewed fightingLama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International
Among the interviewees were 26 women and girls who had escaped or been freed from captivity, many of whom were subject to repeated sexual and physical violence while being held.
Women and girls in particular were abducted and forced to act as porters carrying soldiers’ looted goods from the attacked villages, forced to cook and perform other domestic activities at fighters’ encampments. Some of those who tried to escape were killed by their captors, others fled yet some remain in captivity.
All witnesses and survivors interviewed said the soldiers who attacked them were wearing army camouflage. One woman said: “The uniform was the one for Salva Kiir.”
Nyangun, one of the women who survived the attack on Adok Payam in November 2015, told Amnesty International: “They came at night … I ran with my relatives and children to the swamp … One man [a trader] died behind us … he was shot in the back.”
Maluth, a father of three who survived the attack on Gondor Payam in November 2015, said: “The enemies came. We ran to the river. They shot [and killed] my brother in the river. And they shot [and killed] my step-mom in her home. Then they caught my sister and my wife and they took them to the river and raped them. Then they burnt the houses.”
Nyewutda, a 31-year-old woman who lost five of her friends in the attack on Toch Reah Island in September, said: “When the government forces came, we ran away with our cattle to Bul. My cattle were taken by the government. We were standing in the water for four days, which is why my toenails fell off.”
Nyamot, an elderly woman who survived the attack on Gondor Payam, said: “The soldiers found my husband hiding in the bush. They shot him in the head, in the chest and in the back … I saw my husband get killed but I kept hiding.”
No effort has been undertaken to this day to identify and hold to account those responsible for these callous attacks on civilians.
“The South Sudanese government must ensure the immediate release and safe return of abducted women and girls to their communities, and support the speedy establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to prosecute those who bear the gravest responsibility,” said Lama Fakih.
“If it fails to do so, all states should consider invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction to ensure accountability for these and other crimes under international law.”
Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.
The report is based on research that Amnesty International conducted in January and February 2016 in Unity State, South Sudan.
In March 2016, Amnesty International released a briefing detailing the deliberate suffocation of more than 60 men and boys in shipping containers in Leer, Unity Statein October 2015 and called for an end to unlawful killings by the armed forces.
South Sudan became an independent country on 9 July 2011 after decades of war, lengthy negotiations and a referendum to secede from Sudan. It plunged into civil war two years later after President Salva Kiir accused his influential deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup.
Since the beginning of the civil war, thousands of people have been killed and entire towns and villages left in ruins. More than 2.3 million South Sudanese have fled their homes, with some 1.7 million internally displaced and another 600,000 living in neighbouring countries as refugees.
After two years of on-and-off peace talks, the two leaders agreed to a peace deal in August 2015 and later formed a transitional unity government with President Kiir at the helm and Machar as one of his two deputies.
Renewed fighting broke out in July 2016 with heavy clashes in the capital Juba, and in other parts of the country, including Leer County, where government forces once again attacked villages.