A new frontline in South Sudan’s conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country’s fertile Equatoria region over the past year, creating ongoing atrocities, starvation and fear, according to a new Amnesty International briefing published today.
The organization’s researchers visited the region in June, documenting how mainly government but also opposition forces in the southern region have committed crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations and abuses – including war crimes – against civilians.
The atrocities have resulted in the mass displacement of close to a million people, including refugees fleeing into neighboring Uganda.
“The escalation of fighting in the Equatoria region has led to increased brutality against civilians. Men, women and children have been shot, hacked to death with machetes and burnt alive in their homes. Women and girls have been gang-raped and abducted,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who just returned from the region.
“Homes, schools, medical facilities and humanitarian organizations’ compounds have been looted, vandalized and burnt to the ground. And food is being used as a weapon of war.
“These atrocities are ongoing, with hundreds of thousands of people who only a year ago were relatively unscathed by the conflict, now forcibly displaced.”
South Sudan’s Equatoria region had been largely spared the political and inter-communal violence which has ravaged the country since 2013, when fighting broke out between members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to then Vice-President Riek Machar.
All this changed in mid-2016 when, for different reasons, both government and opposition forces descended on Yei, a strategic town of some 300,000 people 150 km southwest of the capital Juba, on a main trade route to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Government forces, supported by allied militia, including the notoriously unaccountable Mathian Anyoor – comprised of young, mainly ethnic Dinka fighters – have committed a litany of violations with impunity. Opposition armed groups have also committed grave abuses, albeit on a smaller scale.
Massacres and deliberate killings
Numerous eyewitnesses in villages around Yei told Amnesty International how government forces and allied militia deliberately killed civilians with reckless abandon. People who escaped the slaughter described a similar pattern.
In one such attack on the evening of May 16, 2017, government soldiers arbitrarily detained 11 men in Kudupi village, in Kajo Keji county, near the Uganda border. They forced eight of them into a hut, locked the door, set it ablaze and fired several shots into the burning structure. Six were killed in the incident – two burnt to death and the other four were shot as they tried to flee – four of the survivors told Amnesty International.
Joyce, a mother of six from Payawa village, south of Yei, described how her husband and five other local men were killed in a similar attack on May 18, 2017. She also told Amnesty International how soldiers had repeatedly tormented the villagers prior to the massacre:
“This was the fifth time the village was attacked by the army. In the first four attacks, they had looted stuff but not killed anyone. They used to come, arrest people, torture them and steal things. They would take people to hidden places to torture them. They would also arrest young girls and rape them and then release them. [They raped] Susie, my husband’s niece, age 18, [in the village] on 18 December 2016.”
In another incident, nine villagers disappeared after being taken by soldiers from a barracks near Gimunu, 13 kilometers outside Yei town, on May 21, 2017. A police investigation located the bodies of all nine by mid-June. The victims are believed to have been hacked to death with machetes. Nobody has been held to account, which is apparently not unusual when police try to investigate cases of soldiers killing civilians.
Attacks on villages by government forces often appear to be in revenge for the activities of opposition forces in the region.
Armed opposition fighters have also deliberately killed civilians they deem to be government supporters, often simply for being Dinka or refugees from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains region who are accused of sympathizing with the government.
Rape and other sexual and gender-based violence
Amnesty International also documented how abductions and rape of women and girls have skyrocketed across the Equatoria region since fighting escalated last year.
“The only way for women and girls to be safe is to be dead – there is no way to be safe so long as we are alive, this is how bad it is,” Mary, a 23-year-old mother of five told the organization.
In April 2017, three soldiers broke into her home in the middle of the night and two of them raped her. She later fled with her children to another abandoned home but, on another night, an unidentified attacker set fire to it as the family slept, forcing them to flee again.
Women are particularly at risk of sexual assault when they venture out of town to look for food in the surrounding rural areas – a necessity due to dwindling food supplies and increased looting.
Sofia, a 29-year-old woman, told Amnesty International how opposition forces abducted her twice. They held her captive with other women for around a month the first time and a week the second time, and she was raped repeatedly. They were undeterred by her pleas that she was a mother of three and that her husband had been shot by government forces. She later fled to Yei, where she faces dire food shortages.
Food as a weapon of war
Civilians’ access to food is severely limited. Both government and opposition forces have cut food supplies to certain areas, systematically looted food from markets and homes and targeted civilians carrying even the smallest amount of food across frontlines. Each side accuses civilians of feeding or being fed by the enemy.
In the town of Yei, the majority of whose inhabitants have fled in the past year, the remaining civilians are under virtual siege. They face severe food shortages because they are no longer able to get food in the surrounding rural areas.
On June 22, the UN warned that food insecurity had reached unprecedented levels in parts of South Sudan.
“It is a cruel tragedy of this war that South Sudan’s breadbasket – a region that a year ago could feed millions – has turned into treacherous killing fields that have forced close to a million to flee in search of safety,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser.
“All parties to the conflict must rein in their fighters and immediately cease targeting civilians, who are protected under the laws of war. Those on all sides responsible for atrocities must be brought to justice. Meanwhile, UN peacekeepers must live up to their mandate to protect civilians from this ongoing onslaught.”