"If they catch you, they'll kill you"

War crimes in Unity State, South Sudan

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© STEFANIE GLINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Civilians again paid a terrible price amid a new military offensive in recent months in South Sudan’s Unity State – a region already wracked by conflict and extreme hardship.

As part of nearly five years of armed conflict, South Sudanese government forces and allied militias carried out an offensive in Leer and Mayendit counties, Unity state, beginning in mid-April 2018. For more than two months, they attacked villages, deliberately killed civilians, abducted and gang-raped women, and engaged in widespread looting and destruction. Since the conflict started in December 2013, civilians in the area suffered through two previous offensives as well as the world’s only famine in recent years.

According to UN estimates, in the latest offensive 232 civilians were killed, at least 120 women and girls were raped and gang-raped, and 21 locations were burnt and pillaged. In all, more than 31,000 people were displaced in a matter of weeks. This comes on top of the more than 10,000 killed and thousands raped or abducted in Unity State since 2014. It mirrors the staggering brutality meted out across South Sudan as a whole.

Flashpoint

Area where the latest military offensive took place

An elderly woman displaced in Leer, South Sudan in 2018. An elderly woman displaced in Leer, South Sudan in 2018.
© Amnesty International
A displaced man mourning the death of his son, who was killed in a government attack in Leer county, South Sudan. A displaced man mourning the death of his son, who was killed in a government attack in Leer county, South Sudan.
© Amnesty International
Cattle in front of a tukul (traditional dwelling), Unity State, South Sudan. Cattle in front of a tukul (traditional dwelling), Unity State, South Sudan.
© Amnesty International

Attacks on civilians

An elderly woman named Nyalony described how soldiers killed her husband in front of her:

“When the attack started, early in the morning while we were sleeping, my husband and I ran to the swamp together ... After the fighting was over, the soldiers came into the swamp looking for people, and sprayed the area where we were hiding with bullets. My husband was hit; he cried out in pain. He was still alive, though, and the soldiers caught him, and then they shot him again and killed him .... “

“When they caught my husband, they told me to go away. I tried to stay and they beat me. They hit me with a stick, and told me they could kill me too.”

When the attack started, early in the morning while we were sleeping, my husband and I ran to the swamp together ... After the fighting was over, the soldiers came into the swamp looking for people, and sprayed the area where we were hiding with bullets. My husband was hit; he cried out in pain. He was still alive, though, and the soldiers caught him, and then they shot him again and killed him ....
Nyalony, elderly woman displaced in Unity State

The South Sudanese military, known as the SPLA, together with allied youth militia, attacked numerous civilian villages during the Unity state offensive. They deliberately killed scores of civilians, including women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. 

The brutality was staggering. Besides shooting civilians, both deliberately and indiscriminately, the military burned people alive in their homes, hung them from trees, and ran them over with armoured vehicles.

They also systematically set fire to civilian homes, looted or burned food supplies, and stole people’s livestock. 

 

Cattle looted

"These are my cattle," Gatluak, a young boy whose family was displaced by fighting in Leer county, told us proudly, as he made them out of clay and decorated them with beads. Gatluak's family lost its herd when their village was attacked.

Fleeing a brutal attack by South Sudanese forces

A 20-year-old from Dablual town, Dablual payam, Mayendit, describes her flight from an attack by government forces who gang-raped her 25-year-old friend.

 

Images of the swamp where civilians fled in Unity State. Images of the swamp where civilians fled in Unity State.
© Amnesty International
A displaced woman on an island in the swamp in southern Unity state, South Sudan. A displaced woman on an island in the swamp in southern Unity state, South Sudan.
© Amnesty International
People survived in the swamp for days and even weeks on a diet of water lilies and the occasional fish. People survived in the swamp for days and even weeks on a diet of water lilies and the occasional fish.
© Amnesty International

Displacement

Tens of thousands of people fled in terror from these attacks, many hiding on small islands in the swamp. Even there, they were hunted down by the military, which used amphibious vehicles to carry out attacks on remote parts of the swamp where civilians had sought refuge.

“We spent all of May and June in the swamp .... Families made big floating platforms out of reeds for people to live on .... My platform had 10 people: my mother, mother-in-law, me, my sister, my baby, my sister's two kids, and my three brothers .... We survived on water lilies.”

We spent all of May and June in the swamp .... Families made big floating platforms out of reeds for people to live on .... My platform had 10 people: my mother, mother-in-law, me, my sister, my baby, my sister's two kids, and my three brothers .... We survived on water lilies.
Internally displaced person who fled to the swamps.

The only source of nourishment for many displaced people was the edible parts of water lilies, which would be ground into a paste and cooked, or eaten raw. People from Leer and Mayendit were just beginning to recover from the famine declared in South Sudan in 2017.

Displaced people continue to live in arduous conditions. Some still lack access to shelter, food and even the most basic of services. For many, this was not the first time they had been displaced, either.

Arms embargo

For the past decade Amnesty International has lobbied for a comprehensive arms embargo to halt the flow of weapons into South Sudan. It should be a no-brainer for the international community to suspend the flow of arms to places where those arms are being used repeatedly to commit war crimes and grave and systematic human rights violations and abuses.

Finally, in July 2018, the UN security Council imposed an arms embargo that prohibits transferring weapons to all sides involved in the conflict. It is crucial for the international community to ensure that this embargo is strictly enforced.

Displaced woman with baby, who fled government attacks on her village in Leer county, South Sudan. Displaced woman with baby, who fled government attacks on her village in Leer county, South Sudan.
© Amnesty International

Ending the cycle of violence and atrocities

Amnesty International visited Unity State in early 2016 and documented violations during a previous military offensive on southern areas of the state, including Leer county.

Following that visit, the organization identified four individuals suspected of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity and called on South Sudan’s military chief-of-staff to investigate them. There was no response. Recent UN reports have suggested that some of these individuals may also have been involved in the atrocities committed during the 2018 offensive.

It’s impossible to ignore the cruel reality – if the South Sudanese authorities had acted on the warnings back in 2016, this latest wave of violence against civilians in Leer and Mayendit might have been avoided.

The only way to break this vicious cycle is to end the impunity enjoyed by South Sudanese fighters on all sides. The government must ensure that civilians are protected that those responsible for such heinous crimes are held to account.

Amnesty International is urging South Sudan’s government to end all the abuses and to establish the Hybrid Court, which has been in limbo since 2015. The government must immediately sign the Memorandum of Understanding on the Hybrid Court, adopt the statute and ensure that the court becomes rapidly operational.

The road to justice

Since South Sudan is not a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Court has no direct jurisdiction over crimes committed during the ongoing conflict.

The peace agreement signed by both parties in August 2015 provides for the formation a special court to investigate and prosecute those responsible for atrocities. Unfortunately, little progress has been made towards setting it up.

 The Hybrid Court – combining elements of both domestic and international law and staffed by legal experts from South Sudan and abroad – currently represents the most viable option for ensuring accountability for crimes committed during the conflict, as well as for deterring further abuses.

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