AN ACCOUNT of how worshippers were dragged from a church by government soldiers and then raped or shot, and their elder was hanged from a tree, is among the testimonies published in a new UN report on South Sudan. It was published on the day Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury called for fasting and prayer for the country.
The latest report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, published on Friday, speaks of “a young country tragically devouring itself”, and concludes that both government and opposition soldiers have deliberately targeted civilians for their ethnic identity, perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity, including killings, abductions, and rape.
It identifies dozens of army leaders and three state governors who may bear “individual responsibility for serious violations of human rights and international crimes”, and condemns the South Sudanese government’s failure to investigate or hold perpetrators accountable. Instead, the Commission writes, they have been rewarded with promotions and government appointments.
“Life for millions of South Sudanese is quite literally unspeakable,” the report says. “Killings go unpunished, along with brutal gang rapes, detentions, and the forced recruitment of children who are then used in battle. While all the parties to the conflict are responsible for violations, worryingly the Commission finds that it is government forces that bear the greatest responsibility for the majority of the violations.”
In total, the Commission collected more than 230 detailed individual witness statements and more than 58,000 documents, covering incidents in South Sudan since December 2013. Among the incidents recorded is the capture of the town of Mathiang in Upper Nile State by government forces in 2017. The report describes how government soldiers entered the Presbyterian church and dragged members of the congregation outside. “Three women were raped and another two women were shot and killed for resisting the soldiers’ advances. A church elder was also beaten with a stick and then hung by the neck from a nearby tree.”
In this region, there were also documented cases of rape, castration, and forced abortion. There is evidence, the Commission says, that the governor of the state was involved in planning army operations. It notes that many political leaders in South Sudan once held military office, or continue to do so. “The grave lack of accountability for gross human-rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by all parties since 2013 is the foremost factor in perpetuating the current conflict,” it warns.
Throughout the conflict, churches have provided sanctuary for civilians fleeing conflict, but have also been the scene of slaughter. In January last year, government soldiers shot and killed seven civilians at a church service in Kajo Keji. Among the horrific testimonies listed is that of a 28-year-old mother from Yei, who described how daughters, one eight months old, the other four years old, had been shot as they fled an attack by government soldiers. Her eight-year-old daughter, who survived, was too weak to walk, owing to lack of food.
More than half the population is now severely food-insecure. The Commission spoke to people who, to survive, had eaten grass and leaves.
The report concludes that, unless the government meets its obligations under international law to pursue justice, the African Union should establish a court to do so. The government has yet to establish a hybrid court with the Union, or a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, which has the overwhelming support of the population. Instead, the UN Commission reports, it has repeatedly used “blanket amnesties to protect leaders accused of atrocities”. A UN survey found “overwhelming demand from respondents for truth, justice, and reconciliation and healing as well as criminal prosecutions”.
On Friday, Bishop Anthony Poggo, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Adviser for Communion Affairs, and previously the Bishop of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan, spoke of the people’s longing for a “proper, signed peace agreement”. Its lack was “making leaders disappointed, discouraged. The hope has often been with church leaders, but even they are beginning to say ‘When is peace happening?’”
The day of prayer and fasting, summoned by Pope Francis and supported by Archbishop Welby for both South Sudan and DRC, was “an important day for us to focus on God to make peace”, Bishop Poggo said. “The suffering of people is something that reminds me of a South African saying: ‘When two elephants fight, it is grass that suffers.’ It is the people who suffer most.”
He went on: “The average South Sudanese person at grass-roots gets on well with his neighbouring tribe. It is only when politics are brought in, when you see this struggle for power at the top level, when some of the leaders take advantage of their ethnicity — that is where issues then become out of proportion.” Reconciliation must take root locally, he said. “The Church is the best institution that can undertake that, as the Church is everywhere.”
In December, the Bishop of Wau, the Rt Revd Moses Deng Bol, in whose diocese many atrocities have taken place, spoke of his prayer that the country’s leaders would “put the interest of their people first instead of their own political survival; that they will embrace the rule of law instead of the current military mindset; that they be willing to hold those who have committed atrocities against innocent civilians accountable” (News, 22 December).
A ceasefire signed just before Christmas has been repeatedly violated.