One South Sudanese woman said that she was raped by five soldiers in front of her children, raped again by more men in the bushes, then returned to find her children missing. Another was tied to a tree after her husband was killed and “had to watch her 15-year-old daughter being raped by 10 soldiers.” Women who left the U.N.-protected camps to search for food were also raped, as were those who were held in sexual slavery as “wives” for soldiers. Still more were raped as a form of payment between the government and soldiers.
These shocking revelations come from a U.N. report accusing the South Sudanese government of turning a blind eye to soldiers while they took on a “scorched earth policy” to commit human rights violations and violence against civilians, even allowing them to rape women in lieu of paying wages. The report blamed all parties for a civil war that began in December 2013, but singled out “state actors” who “bore the greatest responsibility in 2015 when more than 1,300 reports of rape were reported in just one of South Sudan’s ten states.
Children received the brunt of the violence with at least 702 children, some as young as nine years old, subjected to sexual violence, the report found. Hundreds more, potentially thousands, were recruited by opposition forces from cattle camps. Journalists have also been killed, while humanitarian groups, including the U.N., “have been the subject of threats, intimidation, harassment, detention and in some instances death by the government.”
“The scale and types of sexual violence — primarily by Government SPLA forces and affiliated militia — are described in searing, devastating detail, as is the almost casual, yet calculated, attitude of those slaughtering civilians and destroying property and livelihoods,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra`ad Al Hussein said in a press statement. “However, the quantity of rapes and gang-rapes described in the report must only be a snapshot of the real total. This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war — yet it has been more or less off the international radar.”
While the U.N. report is shocking for its depiction of the scope of rape, there have been other reports of similar large-scale violence against women and children in South Sudan. An African Union commission of inquiry previously found that women of all ages were also raped and people were beaten before being burned alive.
South Sudan has been in a downward spiral since it gained independence in 2011 and erupted into violence after President Salva Kiir fired his former vice president, Riek Machar, in the summer of 2013. They belong to rival ethnic groups, creating a political rift that renewed ethnic tension and violence between government forces loyal to Kiir and rebels led by Machar. The rival leaders agreed to set up a transitional government last year, but there is no clear timetable for that.
Both of their wives are set to appear at the International Peace Institute, a think tank in New York, next week to discuss “the contributions women are making to the ongoing peace process in South Sudan,” the New York Times reported. Human rights activists were appalled with the decision, with people like Akshaya Kumar, the deputy United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, telling the publication that their appearance could “weaken the broader movement to guarantee women a place at the peace negotiations table more globally.”
At least 50,000 people have been killed and more than two million have been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict.