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'If men are caught, they are killed. If women are caught, they are raped'

Men, women and children in South Sudan have been shot, hacked to death with machetes and burnt alive.

amnesty woman Refugees from the Equatoria region of South Sudan in northern Uganda, June 2017 Source: Amnesty International

Warning: Some people may find details in this article distressing

A REPORT RELEASED today documents the atrocities being carried out in South Sudan.

The ongoing conflict in the country has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the Equatoria region over the past year, leading to atrocities, starvation and fear, according to a new Amnesty International briefing.

The organisation’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 report – ‘If men are caught, they are killed. If women are caught, they are raped‘ – says the atrocities have resulted in the mass displacement of close to one million people, including refugees fleeing into neighbouring Uganda.

Abductions and rapes

Researchers have 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 Amnesty.

In April, 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, Amnesty said.

Sofia, 29, said 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 the town of Yei, where she faces dire food shortages.

The Equatoria region had been largely spared the political and inter-communal violence which has ravaged South Sudan 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.

This changed in mid-2016 when both government and opposition forces descended on Yei, a strategic town of some 300,000 people 150km southwest of the capital Juba, on a main trade route to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Amnesty said government forces, supported by allied militia including mainly young, ethnic Dinka fighters, have “committed a litany of violations with impunity”, adding: “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. People who escaped the slaughter described a similar pattern.

In one such attack on 16 May last, government soldiers arbitrarily detained 11 men in Kudupi village, in Kajo Keji county, near the Ugandan border. Amnesty said the soldiers forced eight of the men into a hut, locked the door, set it ablaze and fired several shots into the burning structure.

amnesty man Man wounded in a market shooting on the 15 May in Payawa, southeast of Yei Source: Amnesty International

Six men were killed in the incident – two burnt to death and the other four were shot as they tried to flee, four of the survivors said.

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 18 May. 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.

Joyce said they raped her husband’s 18-year-old niece on 18 December 2016.

In another incident, Amnesty said nine villagers disappeared after being taken by soldiers from a barracks near Gimunu, 13 kilometres outside Yei, on 21 May last. 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 a member of the Dinka ethnic group or refugees from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains region who are accused of sympathising with the government.

‘Hacked to death’

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, said 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. Homes, schools, medical facilities and humanitarian organisations’ compounds have been looted, vandalised and burnt to the ground. 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,” O’Gorman said.

amnesty group Refugees from Equatoria region of South Sudan in northern Uganda, June 2017 © Source: Amnesty International

Amnesty noted that civilians’ access to food is “severely limited”. The organisation said 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 22 June, the United Nations warned that food insecurity had reached unprecedented levels in parts of South Sudan. More than 100,000 people in the region are affected by famine.

“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.

“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,” O’Gorman stated.

Read: 15 infants die in South Sudan after children as young as 12 years old administer measles vaccine

Read: Explainer: Why tens of thousands face starvation in war-torn South Sudan

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Órla Ryan

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