The country's warring leaders have left their citizens with two options – flee or starve.
PALORINYA, Uganda – The bloodstain outside Peresi Saima’s house told her what she already knew. Still, she pushed the door to her home open just far enough to see her dead husband’s body slumped against a chair, dragged inside as a cruel joke by the South Sudanese soldier who had shot him multiple times in the chest.
“I couldn’t even bury him,” she said recently from the safety of the Parolinya refugee settlement in northern Uganda. “I knew that if I stayed for five more minutes, I would be next.”
Saima found her husband dead in January, two days after troops loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir attacked the village of Loka Round in Lainya County, some 60 miles southwest of the capital of Juba. For months, Saima had followed the news of a government offensive, tracing the army’s rampage through the country’s southern equatorial regions and wondering when it would reach her. When it finally did, she hid with her five children in nearby brush. Her husband stayed behind, believing that as a peaceful farmer he would be spared.
Saima and her children are now among the more than 740,000 South Sudanese living as refugees in Uganda, most of whom have arrived in the last seven months. Civilians are fleeing attacks by government and rebel troops alike. They are also fleeing the crippled economy and growing food insecurity that the two sides have left in their wake.
On Feb. 20, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of the country, saying that some have already died from hunger and another 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation. One million more are headed toward the same fate. “Our worst fears have been realized,” Serge Tissot, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in South Sudan, said in a news release. “Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.”
More than 4.9 million people need urgent food-related assistance, while the number of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda has surpassed the number who crossed the Mediterranean in 2016.
“This crisis is man-made,” acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, calling famine “the direct consequence of a conflict prolonged by South Sudanese leaders who are unwilling to put aside political ambitions for the good of their people.”
Fighting has prevented farmers in parts of the country from planting and harvesting crops for the last three years, and Kiir’s government has routinely obstructed the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In places where food is still available, skyrocketing inflation — which peaked at 836 percent in October — make it difficult for the average South Sudanese to purchase staple goods.
A power struggle between Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group, and his former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, sparked the civil war in December 2013. Mass violence ensued, with troops loyal to each man targeting civilians from the opposing ethnic group, but the majority of atrocities being carried out by Kiir’s troops.
A peace deal signed in August 2015 offered some hope that the war would end. But Kiir signed it under the threat of sanctions, and appended a list of reservations to the document that raised questions about his commitment from the outset. Machar then took until April to return to the country to take up his post in the unity government, citing concerns about his safety. When he finally did, he lasted only until July, when fighting between government and former rebel troops in the capital killed hundreds and effectively scuttled the peace agreement.
Government forces bombed Machar’s camp in Juba, forcing him to flee on foot to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is now in South Africa, but his troops still control territory in South Sudan and have continued to clash with government forces, particularly in the region previously known as Central Equatoria (South Sudan’s states were divided and renamed in 2015 under a controversial presidential decree.)
Refugees from Central Equatoria say Dinka soldiers are now carrying out a campaign of mass rape, executing civilians they accuse of aiding the rebels, and burning entire villages to the ground. Although most of those living in Central Equatoria are neither Nuer nor Dinka, they say government troops see them as loyal to Machar’s cause. They say these troops are trying to exterminate them.
On Feb. 6, Rose Tabu, who is 20, crossed a rickety, wooden bridge that separates South Sudan from Uganda and registered herself and her 5-year-old daughter as refugees. Together they had walked for three days from the town of Yei, where their neighbors, including a girl the daughter’s age, were raped and then killed by Dinka troops.
That same week, Emmanuel Lodu, a 22-year-old teacher, fled his home in Kajo-Keji County, where some of the worst fighting has taken place. He walked for days with his wife and infant daughter after a friend warned that government soldiers were shooting civilians at random in a nearby village. “South Sudan is not safe for non-Dinkas,” he said, recalling how a woman from his neighborhood was raped and shot by troops wearing government uniforms when they found her washing clothes alone in January.
Grace Kolong fled her home in Kajo-Keji around the same time. During an assault by government soldiers, the 46-year-old saw a group of them gang-raping a woman. “I could see it happening, but I was helpless,” she said. “When they capture a woman, each one takes a turn.”
Even some members of Kiir’s government have begun to speak out about the uptick in violence. In recent weeks, multiple officials, including the minister of labor and two army officers who oversee South Sudan’s military court, have resigned, citing corruption and ethnic motivation behind the country’s perpetual conflict. In his resignation letter, Lt. Gen. Thomas Cirillo Swaka, the army’s deputy head of logistics, said he believes the conflict was “planned and orchestrated by design” and accused Kiir of turning the military into a “tribal army.”
South Sudanese presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
After a visit to South Sudan in November, U.N. Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng told the Security Council that he saw “all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it.”
But the international community has continued to sit on the sidelines. For years, there has been talk of targeted U.N. sanctions and an arms embargo — yet the U.N. Security Council has failed to impose either. Now, as refugees pour into northern Uganda, where some of the world’s largest refugee settlements have materialized almost overnight, it is clear that the Ugandan government will pay the price.
“At some point, people have to take responsibility and send the right messages,” said Jonathan Pedneault, a South Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Those messages need to be ones of consequence, that you cannot constantly and repeatedly abuse your own people.”
But it’s not just the government that stands accused of carrying out horrific abuses. Refugees in northern Uganda say that rebels operating in Central Equatoria have also attacked civilians, though on a smaller scale than Kiir’s troops.
When Dinka soldiers invaded Moses Ayilla’s hometown of Morobo in October and slaughtered his brother-in-law, he considered it a stroke of luck he was at work and they didn’t find him, too. Rebel fighters didn’t see it that way. They thought it proved he was a government collaborator. After questioning him with a gun to his head, they executed him in front of his wife and two young children.
“Neither side cares,” said Ayilla’s widow, Lillian Poni, who buried him the next day and then fled on foot to Uganda, where she is now caring for their two children and her niece and nephew alone. “They kill you and move on to the next.”
Thomas Magok Chuol, Machar’s deputy representative in Uganda, denied in an interview that opposition troops had targeted civilians. “We are hungry for peace,” he said. “We don’t kill civilians. We don’t even kill Dinkas. Human beings are human beings.”
That claim would likely ring hollow to many of the refugees fleeing attacks by militants on both sides of this war.
Saima, whose husband was killed by government troops, said it’s hard to believe that her community once trusted Kiir and Machar to lead the country in peaceful independence. “This war is only for two people,” she said. “We don’t know what’s happening or why.”
Image credit: ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images