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Dozens of civilians in South Sudan were killed and tens of thousands displaced amid fighting between armed groups in Western Equatoria state from June to October this year, Amnesty International said today, after carrying out an in-person investigation and interviewing dozens of survivors.

Clashes which erupted between competing local groups aligned with forces affiliated to the government’s SouthSudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) on the one hand and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) on the other, have centered around Tambura county.

In the first detailed human rights analysis of the conflict, Amnesty International documented potential war crimes and other violations committed by all parties against members of the Azande and Balanda communities who had previously lived in harmony and intermarried for generations.

“A trail of death, destruction and division ensued after politicians whipped up ethnic hatred and mobilized youth to fight. The testimonies we have gathered speak of unimaginable violence, including civilians killed as they fled and bodies set on fire and mutilated,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

“That the attacks not only involved local groups, but also fighters affiliated to government and opposition forces, indicates this is much more than inter-communal violence.”

Amnesty International interviewed 76 people, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), humanitarians, government officials, activists and others. Fifty of those interviewed were Azande, Balanda, and ethnically mixed survivors who had been forced to flee and were sheltering in Wau, Yambio and Tambura town, the previous epicenter of the violence.

Abductions, unlawful killings and other civilian harm

Survivors gave harrowing accounts of escaping indiscriminate gunfire that lasted for hours and of entire neighborhoods being set alight. Thirteen witnesses, some of whom were briefly abducted, described incidents where fighters from both sides summarily killed civilians by shooting them or slitting their throats. Deliberately targeting civilians and the murder of captives are war crimes.

Stray bullets landed in homes and IDP shelters, injuring civilians, including a 10-year-old girl whose case Amnesty International documented. Many civilians were killed as they attempted to flee to safety or after coming out of hiding to seek food or better shelter. The vast majority of IDPs who were interviewed spoke of having lost a loved one, and in some cases multiple relatives, due to the violence.

Many said they saw bodies of civilians brought for burial or along the road while fleeing. Several survivors spoke of family members who have been missing and presumed dead for months. According to local government figures, around 300 people were killed.

A 20-year-old Balanda woman described how three Azande-speaking armed men wearing face coverings showed up at her house in Tambura town at night on September 2 and killed her 27-year-old husband as she and their three-year-old daughter watched. “I, my husband and child were sleeping… One of them came in and took my husband out by force… they sat him near the door and shot him… in front of me. My husband fell down,” she told Amnesty International.

A 41-year-old Zande woman said she and an older sister were captured in the bush in September, as they attempted to flee from Tambura town to Ezo after their brother was shot dead. Armed men took them and other civilians captive and proceeded to kill some of them.

“They ordered us to sit down and said they were going to slice us like a pumpkin,” she said. She said the fighters had tied their hands behind their backs and placed her 18-month-old son next to her. One of the fighters “put his leg on [my sister’s] head and cut her neck with a knife,” she said. She and her son were spared when pro-Azande forces arrived and started shooting at the men holding them.

One witness described seeing fighters burn the body of her brother after they decapitated him in Mupoi in August; her husband and three of her children were abducted and killed weeks prior. Another woman said she heard the screams of her two brothers pleading for their lives as she hid nearby, shortly before seeing their slashed-up bodies with a severed ear each. “When I remember what they did to my brothers, I cannot sleep at night… I have so much fear; if anything comes near me, I jump,” the 42-year-old said of the incident that took place in June in Nabiapai.

Seven witnesses described seeing what appears to be one or more cases of a pregnant woman’s disemboweled body alongside her slain fetus. Eight survivors lamented that the bodies of their loved ones were left to decompose without burial, in some cases due to armed men apparently awaiting to target anyone coming back.

Survivors mentioned that some older people with limited mobility were left behind and killed. One witness described seeing armed men beating to death a woman with a mental health condition before setting her body on fire.

Looting and destruction

Most of those interviewed said their homes were looted or burned, and crops were left unharvested due to the insecurity, impacting many of them who farm for a living. Satellite imagery analyzed by Amnesty International illustrates widespread damage or destruction of structures between June and October across the county, including in and around Tambura town and Mupoi and the vicinity of Source Yubu.

Armed men also ransacked and looted health facilities, depriving civilians of crucial care and violating international law. A senior humanitarian worker told Amnesty International in November that 13 out of 20 medical facilities across Tambura county were rendered unusable after being vandalized, and the rest are “barely functional.”

Another humanitarian worker said that out of 53 schools in the county, only eight were open at the time of the interview in November. Practically all displaced people with school-age children who spoke to Amnesty International said their children had been out of school for months. 

Seven witnesses told Amnesty International that pro-Azande, SSPDF-affiliated fighters had used a primary school in Tambura town as barracks for several weeks during the fighting, until late October when government officials finally coaxed them into leaving. Such use of schools by armed actors runs contrary to the global Safe Schools Declaration, which the South Sudanese government endorsed in 2015, and undermines international human rights and humanitarian law.

Displacement and humanitarian crisis

According to government figures verified by the UN, the fighting has displaced more than 80,000 people. Some moved to makeshift displacement sites within Tambura town, including a church and a camp protected by UN peacekeepers, which Amnesty International visited. Others travelled as far south as the state capital Yambio and all the way north to Wau in Western Bahr el Ghazal state, often walking between three and 10 days.

Families were separated as people fled in different directions, with some still unable to reunite months later. Traveling with just the clothes on their backs, many went without food for days in the bush. One woman said her 15-year-old gave birth along the way, another said her three-year-old daughter died from medical complications during the journey.

Displaced people in both camps and host communities said they lacked food and medicine and suffered dismal shelter conditions, which Amnesty International researchers witnessed. The vast majority said they had received either no humanitarian relief or just a one-off 15-day ration of basic food items.

“My child at home is very sick and there is no money for treatment… We don’t have food. We don’t even have money for rent. We are going to die from hunger,” said a 42-year-old woman who was displaced in July from the outskirts of Tambura town to Yambio with seven of her children.

Survivors said despite announcements that the fighting has ended, they remained fearful of lingering fighters and politicians who had stoked the inter-communal enmity. They also said they had nothing to return to with their houses, crops and properties destroyed. Many highlighted their urgent need for speedy assistance, including psychosocial support.

The government must expedite reconstruction efforts; facilitate assistance and provision of essential services for the displaced; establish conditions for their safe, voluntary and sustainable return; and ensure that those responsible for war crimes and other violations are held to account,” said Deprose Muchena.

“The violence in Western Equatoria is yet another stark reminder that a holistic accountability process is needed, including truth-telling, reforms, compensation and working with the African Union Commission to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. Meanwhile the UN Security Council must maintain its arms embargo to stem the flow of weapons to warring parties.”

Background

The recent violence in Western Equatoria can be traced to the allocation of the state to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) in May 2020 as part of a power-sharing agreement between parties to the 2018 peace deal. The First Vice-President Riek Machar’s subsequent appointment of a governor angered key figures in the political elite among the Azande community.

Despite the creation of a transitional government of national unity in early 2020, violence persists in various pockets across South Sudan, pitting parties to the conflict, as well as local groups aligned with them, against each other. Key provisions of the peace deal, including some pertaining to accountability and security, remain unfulfilled.

Contact: Gabby Arias, [email protected]