LIKE with most cases in Africa, when the elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers and, in a comprehensive report titled: “They Burned it All: Destruction of Villages, Killings, and Sexual Violence in South Sudan’s Unity State,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) have documented the nearly Medieval and shocking suffering experienced by some of the country’s civilians.
In late April 2015, South Sudan’s government forces - the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) - and allied armed militia began a military campaign in the oil-producing Unity state, against territory at that time under the control of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army - who have been engaged in an armed conflict with the government since December 2013 with the Unity state seeing much of the fiercest fighting.
The report specifically documents brutal attacks that took place between April and June in Guit, Rubkona, and Koch, which strongly look like they were intended to displace the populations from those villages and settlements.
Here are some of the harrowing tales documented by the Human Rights Watch from the approximately 60 documented unlawful killings of civilian women, men and children.
They demonstrate the shocking reality of the suffering experienced by civilians and also the impact the conflict has had:
Government forces reportedly killed civilians in Leer county, which was attacked in mid-May after the government and allied Bul-Nuer forces moved south from Koch county. A group of women from Payak village in Leer county, who spoke to Human Rights Watch, said that Bul fighters slit the throat of an old man after he refused to carry looted property for them and that Bul fighters had also hung an old woman.
Crushed by tanks
One woman from Rubchier village said that she saw four people run over by a tank after government forces entered their village having overcome the resistance of some armed youth. “They were running with the tanks after the people and then after they hit them they would roll back over them to confirm that they were dead. After I saw this I ran and escaped,” she said.
Several killings took place during cattle raids. A 40-year-old woman from Guar in Koch county said forces in both full uniform and in civilian clothes arrived on foot in a cattle-grazing area in June and “started shooting … They shot [a woman] twice in the legs. After that we ran away and never saw her again.”
A woman from Guit saw Bul fighters kill an old man in May, shooting him in the back because “he told them he didn’t want them to steal his cows.”
Mayendit town, southern Unity, was attacked on May 12th by SPLA forces from neighbouring Lakes state who battled with local defence forces before entering the town. People who fled reported soldiers shooting civilians trying to flee and crushing others with tanks when they were in the town.
One woman who fled the town with other civilians reported seeing a woman shot and a soldier beat a boy to death as she ran away. A 35-year-old businessman also saw a 5-year-old child he knew killed by soldiers. Another woman said that her nephew, who was running with her, was shot by SPLA forces. “He was not a member of our local defense force, he had no gun,” she said. Several other witnesses said that they saw bodies of civilians, including children, on the ground as they fled or that they saw people “fall” as they ran together.
Nyanial nurses one of her children in a UNMISS camp near Bentiu. Soldiers and militia attacked her town in Koch county in May 2015. She thought that women and children would be safe but we were very wrong. They asked us, “where is your beer, your money, and show us any weapons.” They started beating us. ... They burned the tukul. They took our 20 cows.” (Photo/Samer Muscati, Human Rights Watch).
Many of the interviewees who fled villages in Rubkona, Guit, and Koch counties said that forces followed them from villages into bushy areas or sparser settlement areas where they shot at and sometimes killed civilians.
“We hid during the day in the bushes, and could go back to the village at night,” a woman from Bang village in Koch county said. “They were hunting for cows and people.”
Rape a “normal thing”
Rape was repeatedly reported to Human Rights Watch researchers, and was described by one woman as “just a normal thing.” Almost all interviewees had knowledge of rape in their communities or nearby villages. In many cases the women were raped by more than one perpetrator.
One of the first villages to be attacked in late April or early May was Ngop in Rubkona county where the mother of a six-month-old baby was raped. She told Human Rights Watch that three other female relatives were also raped at the same time. The woman said that the other women were too injured, as a result of the sexual violence, to be able to walk to the UN base.
Displaced people who fled from Bauw, northern Koch county, reported that the Bul forces who stayed several days in the village killed “many people.” Human Rights Watch documented seven deaths, including the burning of one man in a hut. One middle-aged man was shot while trying to run with his cattle. An old man was killed, his daughter-in-law said, when:
They put a fire on his house and he was trying to get out and they killed him. They also killed his daughter. They killed them in front of the house. First the man was killed and then his daughter.