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African commission on South Sudan describes mass atrocities

06 November 2015


Washing and drinking water: some of the hundreds of  people who have fled to Kok Island in Unity state, to seek shelter from fighting in South Sudan, last month

Washing and drinking water: some of the hundreds of  people who have fled to Kok Island in Unity state, to seek shelter from fighting in South Sudan, ...

WOMEN who were raped in churches are among the victims of mass atrocities perpetrated during South Sudan’s 22-month civil conflict, the long-awaited report of the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, published last week, shows.

The Commission documents acts of “extreme cruelty”, including brutal killings, the mutilation of bodies, and forced cannibalism.

The abuses were conducted “in a systematic manner and in most cases with extreme brutality”, it says. Witnesses in Juba reported sexual violence against women committed by both parties to the conflict, and “extreme cruelty exercised through mutilation of bodies, burning of bodies, draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others from one ethnic community to drink the blood or eat burnt human flesh”.

Accounts of women disappearing after being kidnapped from churches were “rife” in Malakal, Upper Nile state. The Commission has concluded that both government soldiers and rebel forces raped women at churches in the city, which has changed hands 12 times during the conflict.

A mother sheltering at a UN camp there described how she had been unable to locate her 13-year-old daughter since she was kidnapped by Opposition soldiers after running out of the church where they were taking shelter. By the time she returned to the church, a week later, animals had already eaten the flesh of those shot there.

Another state capital, Bor (Jonglei state) was the scene of “brutal killings and cruel mutilations” witness statements say. A youth described how 24 women, praying at the church, were raped and killed.

The Commission visited St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Bor, and found two graves, each containing the body of a priest, and a larger mass grave containing the bodies of 18 women and two men. The Archbishop of Canterbury prayed over the mass grave last year (News, 7 February 2014).

“Most of the atrocities were carried out against civilian populations taking no active part in the hostilities,” the Commission re-ported. Among the “heart-wrenching” stories were those of people burnt in places of worship and hospitals, mass burials, and women brutally gang-raped, and left unconscious and bleeding. Killings were brutal: “People were not simply shot, but beaten before being compelled to jump into a lit fire.”

There are, it concludes, “reasonable grounds to believe” that both sides have committed war crimes. The Inquiry was established by the African Union to investigate human-rights violations on 30 December 2013, two weeks after the conflict broke out. It began in March 2014 and continued for six months. Members of the panel travelled throughout the country.

In its analysis of the causes of the latest conflict, it cites flaws in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the 17-year civil war between the North and the South. There was “inadequate attention paid to building democratic in-stitutions”. Many witnesses spoke of a “crisis of leadership”.

It concludes that relations among and within communities have been “wrecked” and that the previous approach of burying the past to build the peace left violations unaddressed. There is a need, it says, for “a structured process to provide an opportunity for South Sudanese to engage with their history, to discover the truth about the conflicts and human rights violations of the past, and to attend to the needs of victims. . . Such a body should lead to truth, remorse, forgiveness and restitution where necessary.” The Church could play a “critical role in ending the conflict and ensuring peace and reconciliation holds fast in South Sudan”, the Commission writes.


Troubled country faces faces severe food shortages

SOUTH SUDANESE people are resorting to wild foods and unsafe water to survive, as famine officially hits the country for the first time, Christian Aid has warned.

About 30,000 people in Unity state are now considered to be experiencing “catastrophic” food shortages, an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification alert indicates. This means that at least one in five households in the area lacks food, and that “starvation, death, and destitution” are evident.

The alert has confirmed what aid workers have known for a long time, Christian Aid’s emergency programme officer, Rosie Crowther, said on Friday. The only reason famine had not been declared before was the difficulty in accessing areas to record data.

“People have not been able to plant because they have been forced to flee their homes,” she said. “There has been massive looting of cattle so communities have lost their livelihoods. Crops have either been looted or destroyed.”

Unity is one of the states worst affected by the violence that has engulfed South Sudan for almost two years (News, 21 August). The UN is calling for “urgent and unrestricted” access to it, and other conflict-affected areas.

During a recent visit to the state, Ms Crowther learned that fighting had forced civilians to flee into swamps, where they had survived on wild food, including waterlilies, and unsafe water. The need for funding was “urgent”, she said. In addition to the funding shortfall — the UN’s country appeal is only 55 per cent funded — high inflation means that the response is expensive, particularly given the need to drop aid by air in hard-to-reach areas.

Christian Aid’s partner in the state is distributing fast-maturing vegetable seeds, fishing nets, water purification tablets, plastic sheeting for shelter, and mosquito nets.

The country — still only four years old — is dealing not only with the consequences of a brutal sectarian conflict, but with erratic rainfall, depleted livelihood options, high food prices, and a “generally degraded economic environment”, the UN says. Nearly one in five of the population of 12 million has been displaced by the current conflict. More than 200,000 people are still sheltering in UN camps.

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