‘They Are Proud of What They Are Doing’
South Sudan's warring leaders have unleashed a terrifying wave of sexual violence that nobody has been able to stop.
NYAL, South Sudan — Five men raped the 5-year-old next door.
Mary watched helplessly from her home, where she had hidden when men with guns stormed into her village near the town of Leer in South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State. The men gang-raped Mary’s tiny neighbor until she died in the doorway. Then they killed the child’s father.
Here in opposition-controlled Nyal, where roughly 50,000 people fled after the South Sudanese army, known as the SPLA, attacked Leer as part of a bloody offensive to retake rebel-held territory last year, stories like Mary’s (not her real name) are depressingly common. Rape has become a defining characteristic of South Sudan’s two-year civil war, enabled by the atmosphere of utter impunity in the world’s youngest nation.
“There is currently near-total impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in South Sudan, and the vast number of survivors receive little or no access to justice,” said Antonia Mulvey, the executive director of Legal Action Worldwide, a non-profit that provides legal assistance to people in conflict-affected countries.
Once a relatively straightforward fight between supporters of President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar, the civil war here has morphed into a chaotic melee between splintering militias whose allegiances are constantly shifting. Many are fighting for reasons completely unrelated to the initial political struggle between Kiir and Machar — or even the ethnic undertones it later took on once violence broke out in December 2013. Today, disputes over land and cattle are major sources of strife. But the gradual Balkanization of the South Sudanese conflict has not just brought local grievances to the fore; it has plunged much of the country into a state of near anarchy and unleashed a terrifying wave of sexual violence that international peacekeepers have been unable to stop.
“[Rape] has become a culture among the armed groups,” said Edmund Yakani, the executive director at the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a civil society organization in Juba, the capital.
It is difficult to gauge the true scale of the epidemic of sexual violence, since much of the country remains beyond government control and no comprehensive reporting mechanism is in place. But testimony from survivors and aid workers as well as recent reports from rights groups and the United Nations have painted a terrifying portrait.
In the city of Wau, in the northwest of the country, more than seven women are being raped every day, according to a humanitarian worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. And that’s just the number being reported at the main hospital, suggesting that the real figure could be much higher.
“Today I met with two people, a mother and daughter. The daughter was raped by seven men, and the mother by two. All of [the perpetrators] in uniforms with guns,” said the humanitarian worker, adding that “nothing will happen to them. They are proud of what they are doing. They are not afraid of anything because they have power.”
The aid worker identified SPLA soldiers as the main perpetrators of sexual violence.
A March 11 report from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights tells a similar story, albeit on a much larger scale. It singles out both government and opposition forces for raping and killing civilians, but concludes that the government was responsible for the bulk of the abuses. Its forces routinely raped and gang-raped civilians, according to the report, and enlisted the support of tribal militias who were allowed to rape and abduct women “as a form of payment.” In Unity State alone, 1,300 women were raped between April and September of last year, according to the report.
Dr. Regina Lulo, the coordinator in South Sudan’s Ministry of Gender and Child Welfare, told Foreign Policy that she was unaware of any incidents of sexual violence perpetrated by government forces.
UNMISS, the 12,500-strong international peacekeeping force in South Sudan, has done little to halt the wave of sexual violence that has swept the country. Many of the rapes reportedly happened just outside so-called protection of civilians (PoC) sites on U.N. bases that house roughly 200,000 displaced people across the country. When women and girls leave the camps to collect firewood, they are often set upon by armed men, according to aid workers. In a biting statement in December, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) accused UNMISS of “complete and utter failure” to protect civilians outside the sites.
“Many women accessing medical treatment reported being raped while fleeing to the protection of civilian site, while others were raped inside the PoC itself or while outside its perimeter gathering firewood,” said Peter Paul de Groote, MSF’s head of mission for South Sudan, adding that those who have received treatment for sexual and gender-based violence is “very likely only the tip of the iceberg.”
“I don’t have anything to say about this,” Kasumi Nishigaya, the head of the Gender Unit at UNMISS, said of the repeated criticisms of the U.N. mission. “Within the constraints of resources, to best of their ability, [the peacekeepers] try to deliver what they are expected to deliver.”
Initially much of the sexual violence fell along ethnic lines, with the Dinka fighters, who were largely affiliated with the government, raping members of the Nuer ethnic group, the people affiliated with the opposition, and vice versa. In 2014, the African Union reported that opposition soldiers were told to rape any Dinka woman they saw. Increasingly, however, analysts say that the sexual violence is less a reflection of ethnic tension than a desire by militias to assert their authority.
“More than an ethnic divide, [there is a] need for soldiers to demonstrate what will happen if you don’t respect us,” said Jok Madut Jok, the co-founder of the Sudd Institute, a think tank in the South Sudanese capital, Juba. Nishigaya likewise hypothesized that young men were motivated to rape and loot as a means of validating themselves.
This dovetails with the testimony of most survivors of sexual violence in Nyal, who refer to the perpetrators first and foremost as government soldiers, not as members of a particular ethnic group. Indeed, many of the worst crimes were committed by Nuers against Nuers, since the government recruited members of the Bul-Nuer subgroup to lead its operations against rebel forces in Unity State last spring, promising the spoils of war in return.
A peace deal negotiated in August between the two largest factions in the ongoing war — Kiir’s and Machar’s — has not brought an end to the abuse. Few of its provisions have been implemented, and a host of smaller armed groups not party to the agreement continue to wreak havoc in much of the country.
“It is clear the conflict in South Sudan continues, despite the August peace agreement,” said Jehanne Henry, the senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The spreading conflict has brought a breakdown of law and order.”
Western Equatoria state, in the southwest of the country, was spared the worst of the fighting during the civil war, but it too has descended into lawlessness in recent months. An anti-government militia based there is facing off against the SPLA. Fighting began in May 2015, but escalated dramatically in December and then again in the middle of February. Henry said her organization has “documented a string of abuses against civilians, including killings, unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, and brutal rape” in Yambio, a city in Western Equatoria where there is a large SPLA presence.
But the region that has seen the worst brutality — so far at least — is the northeast of the country. For the past two years, rebels and the government have taken turns terrorizing the population here as they captured and re-captured major urban areas in Upper Nile and Unity states. Although the past few months have been relatively calm, a recent report from the Small Arms Survey cautions that the peace is “superficial and tentative, and none of the political problems that arose during 2015 [has] been adequately addressed.”
Land disputes are still simmering, and other Nuer subgroups are itching to exact revenge on the Bul for their collaboration with the government last year. None of this bodes well for civilians caught in the middle.
“If they want to do something bad to you, they will do it,” said Nyamai (also not her real name), who, like Mary, fled a village near Leer for the comparative safety of Nyal. “They are Salva’s soldiers,” she said, referring to the president by his first name.
Image credit: STEVE FORREST/AFP/Getty Images