The U.N. advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, issued a dire warning last month that the fledgling new country of South Sudan is “on the brink” of a genocide comparable to what happened in Rwanda over two decades ago.
Following a 10-day visit to the world’s newest country, the UN Commission on Human Rights urged that the international community is “under an obligation” to prevent holocaust in the country after finding it is facing a repeat of the 1994 Rwanda genocide that took millions of lives, which accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the WWII Holocaust.
According to the Commission, which is due to report to the Human Rights Council in March, a process of ethnic cleansing is underway, with brutal tactics such as starvation and gang rape being deployed against civilians.
Rape in South Sudan is “one of the tools being used for ethnic cleansing,” a U.N. team of human rights investigators said on Friday, Dec. 2, adding that sexual violence in the East African nation “has reached epic proportions.”
“The scale of gang rape of civilian women as well as the horrendous nature of the rapes by armed men belonging to all groups is utterly repugnant,” said Yasmin Sooka, the head of the U.N. investigation.
“Aid workers described gang rape as so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal’ in this warped environment but what does that say about us that we accept this and thereby condemn these women to this unspeakable fate?”
A U.N. survey found that 70 percent of the women in Juba had experienced sexual assault since the country’s civil war began in December 2013, the team said.
The U.N. team said on Friday they would call for a special investigation to collect evidence of rape for future legal prosecutions.
When the team visited the northern town of Bentiu, a woman described in a public meeting how she had been raped by soldiers:
“There is no stigma around rape because for us it is normal; it is happening every day to us.”
Rape and other forms of sexual violence by all sides in South Sudan’s civil war have become so widespread that a 2-year-old child was among the victims, according to the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict.
“In my 30 years of experience, I’ve never witnessed anything like what I saw in Bentiu,” Zainab Hawa Bangura told reporters about a recent trip to the northern town, one of South Sudan’s regions worst hit by the conflict.
There is a “growing trend of indiscipline” within South Sudan’s military, according to a government report:
“There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages; everywhere we went across this country we heard villagers saying they are ready to shed blood to get their land back.
“Many told us it’s already reached the point of no return.”
More than one million people have fled South Sudan since conflict erupted in December 2013, after President Salva Kiir Mayardit fired his vice president, Riek Machar, igniting a civil war between the two politicians and their followers.
Since then, more than 4,000 people a day have been crossing into Uganda, where the Bidibidi refugee settlement, open since August, now hosts over 188,000 people.
Another 36,000 refugees have reached Ethiopia since early September, and over 57,000 fled to Congo this year – the largest mass exodus of any conflict in central Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
South Sudanese officials have denied that civilians are being targeted. However, multiple accounts from refugees implicate both sides in targeting civilians down ethnic lines, giving more cause for alarm in light of the UN warning of a genocide in the making.
After fighting in July killed hundreds of people in the capital of Juba, women in the displacement camp revealed in interviews that they had been raped and gang-raped by government soldiers as they traveled to collect food and firewood just outside the camp. Four months after the attacks, several of the women still have not yet received adequate medical treatment for resulting complications.
In the southern town of Yei, women told The Associated Press last month how they lived in fear of being raped by government soldiers.
A female aid worker recalled what one soldier said as he pointed his AK-47 at her:
“Either you have sex with me, or we make every man here rape you and then we shoot you in the head.”
She didn’t seem to have a choice. By the end of the evening, she had been raped by 15 South Sudanese soldiers.
On July 11, South Sudanese troops, fresh from winning a battle in Juba over opposition forces, went on a nearly four-hour rampage through a residential compound popular with foreigners, in one of the worst targeted attacks on aid workers in South Sudan’s three-year civil war. They shot a local journalist to death while forcing the foreigners to watch, raped several foreign women, singled out Americans, beat and robbed people and carried out mock executions, according to several witness accounts to The Associated Press.
For hours throughout the assault, the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed less than a mile away refused to respond to desperate calls for help. Neither did embassies, including the U.S. Embassy.
Eight survivors, both male and female, were interviewed over the phone by The Associated Press, including three who said they were raped. The other five said they were beaten; one was shot. Most insisted on anonymity for their safety or to protect their organizations still operating in South Sudan.
The accounts highlight, in raw detail, the failure of the U.N. peacekeeping troops to uphold its core mandate of protecting civilians, notably those just a few minutes’ drive away. U.N. peacekeepers in Juba did not stop the rapes of local women by soldiers outside the U.N.’s main camp.
The attack on the Terrain hotel complex shows the hostility toward foreigners and aid workers by troops under the command of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, who has been fighting supporters of rebel leader Riek Machar since civil war erupted in December 2013. Both sides have been accused of horrific abuses. The U.N. recently passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution to send more peacekeeping troops to protect civilians.
Army spokesman Lul Ruai did not deny the attack at the Terrain but said it was premature to conclude the army was responsible. “Everyone is armed, and everyone has access to uniforms and we have people from other organized forces, but it was definitely done by people of South Sudan and by armed people of Juba,” he said.
A report on the incident compiled by the Terrain’s owner at Ruai’s request alleges the rapes of at least five women, torture, mock executions, beatings and looting. An unknown number of South Sudanese women were also assaulted.
The attack came just as people in Juba were thinking the worst was over.
Three days earlier, gunfire had erupted outside the presidential compound between armed supporters of the two sides in South Sudan’s civil war, at the time pushed together under an uneasy peace deal. The violence quickly spread across the city.
Throughout the weekend, bullets whizzed through the Terrain compound, a sprawling complex with a swimming pool, a squash court and a bar patronized by expatriates and South Sudanese elites. It also sits in the shadow of the U.N.’s largest camp in Juba.
By Monday, the government had nearly defeated the forces under Machar (pictured right), who fled the city. As both sides prepared to call for a cease-fire, some residents of the Terrain started to relax.
“Monday was relatively chill,” one survivor recalled.
What was thought to be celebratory gunfire was heard. And then the soldiers arrived. A Terrain staffer from Uganda said he saw between 80 and 100 men swarm into the compound after breaking open the gate with gunshots and tire irons. The Terrain’s security guards were armed only with shotguns and were vastly outnumbered. The soldiers then went to door to door, taking money, phones, laptops and car keys.
“They were very excited, very drunk, under the influence of something, almost a mad state, walking around shooting off rounds inside the rooms,” one American said.
One man wore a blue police uniform, but the rest wore camouflage, the American said. Many had shoulder patches with the face of a tiger, the insignia worn by the president’s personal guard.
For about an hour, soldiers beat the American with belts and the butts of their guns and accused him of hiding rebels. They fired bullets at his feet and close to his head. Eventually, one soldier who appeared to be in charge told him to leave the compound. Soldiers at the gate looked at his U.S. passport and handed it back, with instructions.
“You tell your embassy how we treated you,” they said. He made his way to the nearby U.N. compound and appealed for help.
Meanwhile, soldiers were breaking into a two-story apartment block in the Terrain which had been deemed a safe house because of a heavy metal door guarding the apartments upstairs. Warned by a Kenyan staffer, more than 20 people inside, most of them foreigners, tried to hide. About 10 squeezed into a single bathroom.
The building shook as soldiers shot at the metal door and pried metal bars off windows for more than an hour, said residents. Once inside, the soldiers started ransacking the rooms and assaulting people they found.
Some of the soldiers were violent as they sexually assaulted women, said the woman who said she was raped by 15 men. Others, who looked to be just 15 or 16 years old, looked scared and were coerced into the act.
“One in particular, he was calling you, ‘Sweetie, we should run away and get married.’ It was like he was on a first date,” the woman said. “He didn’t see that what he was doing was a bad thing.”
After about an hour and a half, the soldiers broke into the bathroom. They shot through the door, said Jesse Bunch, an American contractor who was hit in the leg.
“We kill you! We kill you!” the soldiers shouted, according to a Western woman in the bathroom. “They would shoot up at the ceiling and say, ‘Do you want to die?’ and we had to answer ‘No!’”
The soldiers then pulled people out one by one. One woman said she was sexually assaulted by multiple men. Another Western woman said soldiers beat her with their fists and threatened her with their guns when she tried to resist. She stated that she was raped by five of the soldiers.
During the attack on the Terrain, several survivors reported that soldiers specifically asked if they were American. “One of them, as soon as he said he was American, he was hit with a rifle butt,” said a woman.
When the soldiers came across John Gatluak, they knew he was local. The South Sudanese journalist worked for Internews, a media development organization funded by USAID. He had taken refuge at the Terrain after being briefly detained a few days earlier. The tribal scars on his forehead made it obvious he was Nuer, the same as opposition leader, Riek Machar.
Upon seeing him, the soldiers pushed him to the floor and beat him, according to the same woman who saw the American beaten.
Later in the attack, and after Kiir’s side declared a ceasefire at 6 p.m., the soldiers forced the foreigners to stand in a semi-circle, said Gian Libot, a Philippines citizen who hid during much of the attack under a bed until he was discovered.
One soldier ranted against foreigners. “He definitely had pronounced hatred against America,” Libot said, recalling the soldier’s words: “You messed up this country. You’re helping the rebels. The people in the U.N., they’re helping the rebels.”
During the tirade, a soldier hit a man suspected of being American with a rifle butt. At one point, the soldier threatened to kill all the foreigners assembled. “We’re gonna show the world an example,” Libot remembered him announcing.
Then Gatluak was hauled in front of the group. One soldier shouted “Nuer!” and another soldier shot him twice in the head. He shot the dying Gatluak four more times while he lay on the ground.
“All it took was a declaration that he was different, and they shot him mercilessly,” Libot said.
The shooting seemed to be a turning point for those assembled outside, according to Libot. Looting and threats continued, but beatings started to wind down. Other soldiers continued to assault men and women inside the apartment block.
From the start of the attack, those inside the Terrain compound sent messages pleading for help by text and Facebook messages and emails.
“All of us were contacting whoever we could contact. The U.N., the U.S. embassy, contacting the specific battalions in the U.N., contacting specific departments,” said the woman raped by 15 men.
A member of the U.N.’s Joint Operations Center in Juba first received word of the attack at 3:37 p.m., minutes after the breach of the compound, according to an internal timeline compiled by a member of the operations center.
Eight minutes later another message was sent to a different member of the operations center from a person inside Terrain saying that people were hiding there. At 4:22 p.m., that member received another message urging help.
Five minutes after that, the U.N. mission’s Department of Safety and Security and its military command wing were alerted. At 4:33 p.m., a Quick Reaction Force, meant to intervene in emergencies, was informed. The last contact on Monday was noted in the timeline from someone trapped inside Terrain one minute later.
For the next hour and a half the timeline is blank. At 6:52, shortly before sunset, the timeline states that “DSS would not send a team.”
About 20 minutes later, a Quick Reaction Force of Ethiopians from the multinational U.N. mission was tasked to intervene, coordinating with South Sudan’s army chief of staff, Paul Malong, who was also sending soldiers. But the Ethiopian battalion stood down, according to the timeline. Malong’s troops eventually abandoned their intervention too because the Quick Reaction Force ironically did not act quickly enough.
The American who was released early in the assault and made it to the U.N. base said he also alerted U.N. staff. As dusk approached, a U.N. worker he knew requested three different battalions to send a Quick Reaction Force.
“Everyone refused to go. Ethiopia, China, and Nepal. All refused to go,” he said.
Eventually, South Sudanese security forces entered the Terrain and rescued all but three Western women and around 16 Terrain staff.
No one else was sent that night to find them. The U.N. timeline said a patrol would go in the morning, but this “was cancelled due to priority.” A private security firm rescued the three Western women and the staffers the next morning.
“The peacekeepers did not venture out of the bases to protect civilians under imminent threat,” Human Rights Watch said Monday in a report on abuses throughout Juba.
“Obviously, we regret the loss of life and the violence that the people who were in Hotel Terrain endured, and we take this incident very seriously,” the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters Monday. “As you’re aware, we have called on the national authorities to investigate this incident thoroughly and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The U.S. Embassy, which also received requests for help during the attack, “was not in a position to intervene,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters Monday. She said the U.S. ambassador instead contacted local government officials, and she noted that the Terrain area was controlled by South Sudanese government forces at the time.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that “during the fighting throughout the city, the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan responded to distress calls from the compound and urgently contacted South Sudanese government officials, who sent a response force to the site to stop the attack.”
“We are deeply concerned that United Nations peacekeepers were apparently either incapable of or unwilling to respond to calls for help. We have requested and are awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the United Nations and demand swift corrective action in the event that these allegations are substantiated,” she said in a statement.
The assault at the Terrain pierced a feeling of false security among some foreigners who had assumed that they would be protected by their governments or by the hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers camped out practically next door.
One of the women who had been gang-raped said security advisors from an aid organization living in the compound told residents repeatedly that they were safe because foreigners would not be targeted. She said: “This sentence, ‘We are not targeted,’ I heard half an hour before they assaulted us.”
A shaky U.S.-backed power-sharing arrangement between Kiir and Machar collapsed in July, after a surge of fighting between their forces in Juba resulted in a bloodbath that violently claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and Machar fleeing the country. Machar was subsequently cut off by the United States, effectively throwing its support behind a government that has increasingly ruled solely on behalf of Dinkas. Machar, meanwhile, has called on his armed followers to resume resistance to Kiir and has pledged to return to South Sudan.
Since July, violence has spread from Juba to greater Equatoria — where more than 200,000 people have fled a government offensive between July and October — and the Western Bahr el-Ghazal, Upper Nile, and Unity states. In Yei, armed forces linked to the government, and drawn primarily from the Dinka tribe, have reportedly carried out a brutal campaign of rapes, extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture, looting, and the burning of homes, according to a report published this month by a U.N. panel of experts. Members of South Sudan’s other tribes “see no viable forum to express political dissent, pursue reform or ensure their basic security,” the panel reported.
In Central Equatoria, which encompasses Juba, armed opposition groups have responded by carrying out reprisals against Dinkas. That has spurred threats by Kiir to lead the army’s military offensive across the region.
“[T]he war is increasingly characterized by the targeting of civilians on a tribal basis, given that it has evolved into what is widely perceived to be a zero-sum confrontation between the Dinka and non-Dinka tribes in many areas,” the U.N. panel concluded.
The situation, the panel warned, holds the possibility for a “catastrophic escalation of violence.”
Alan Boswell, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey who recently returned from the border between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reported eyewitnesses fleeing Central Equatoria described Dinka paramilitary forces ravaging other ethnic communities where “the rebellion is making headway.”
“Ethnic cleansing has characterized this entire war,” Boswell stated, relaying eyewitness descriptions of “villages looted and abandoned and civilians killed based on ethnicity.”
Yakani of CEPO elaborated that warring parties have stockpiled enough weapons and firepower to spur “massive fighting that could lead to the commitment of atrocities.” In Yei and other trouble spots, fighting has barred communities from gaining access to their farms, and “the humanitarian situation is getting worse every day,” he said.
A breakdown in security, marked by a surge of armed robberies across the country, has increased in recent months, Yakani said. But the greatest fear among locals, he said, is of a “massive military confrontation.”
Yakani added: “The citizens are losing hope in the peace agreement.”