South Sudanese government forces are responsible for deliberately killing civilians, raping women and girls and looting property in July in Juba, the country’s capital, Amnesty International said in a new report launched today. The new report, “We did not believe we would survive”: Killings, rape and looting in Juba, highlights the crimes under international law committed by government forces, as well as the UN’s disappointing and inadequate response. Based on field research conducted by Amnesty International in July, August and September 2016, it details deliberate killings, indiscriminate attacks, rapes and massive looting carried out by South Sudanese forces.
“South Sudanese government troops killed men from the Nuer ethnic group, raped women and girls, and carried out a massive campaign of pillage. These attacks by government forces are further proof of the urgent need to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, with the aim of stopping the flow of weapons, and establish an effective mechanism to monitor compliance. States should not be profiting off weapons that are being used to kill civilians,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser.
The report is released ahead of a field mission to South Sudan by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (AUPSC), scheduled to take place between 28 and 30 October. Amnesty International is calling on the AUPSC to look into the July violence during its visit, and to take steps to ensure the establishment of an independent hybrid court able to investigate and prosecute these and other crimes.
Targeted killings and rape
Fighting began at the presidential palace on 8 July with an exchange of gunfire between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and fighters allied to First Vice-President Riek Machar. Soon government troops were targeting people based on ethnicity and perceived political loyalties. John Gatluak Manguet Nhial, a 32-year-old journalist with Nuer facial scarring, was shot dead by a government soldier during a raid on the Terrain Hotel on 11 July, as other soldiers tauntingly shouted “Nuer, Nuer.”
A 24-year-old Dinka woman whose Nuer husband has been missing since July told Amnesty International that government troops stormed the family compound and arrested her husband and brother-in-law. When she told the soldiers that the two men worked for the government, she said that the soldiers responded that even if they worked for the government, they were still Nuer and ‘Nuer are rebels.’ “My life is shattered,” she told Amnesty International. “Life without him is hopeless.” Soldiers also sought out Nuer women for rape, not only to harm them, but also to humiliate and punish their husbands. A 35-year-old Nuer woman who was raped by three soldiers said the men emphasised: “Your husband is a Nuer man, our enemy.” She said her clothes were full of blood when they finally released her.
Government soldiers also raped other non-Dinka women and girls. A member of the Kuku ethnic group described how his two sisters, ages 14 and 17, were raped by soldiers on 11 July at their family compound in Juba’s Munuki neighbourhood. He said that the soldiers, who also looted the compound, accused the family of supporting Machar.
Amnesty International’s research reveals serious failings in the conduct of UN peacekeeping forces. Criticising the UN’s response to the violence as “disappointing and inadequate,” the new report details how UN peacekeepers failed to protect civilians from being killed or raped. A 24-year-old Nuer woman who was raped by five government soldiers just in front of the UN base in the Jebel neighbourhood told Amnesty International that UN peacekeepers and private security guards could see the attack but did not come to her aid. UN troops also failed to intervene during the attack on the Terrain Hotel, during which several women were gang-raped, even though it was only a kilometre away from their base. During the fighting, UN peacekeepers also abandoned their positions when they came under fire at one of the protection of civilians sites, POC 1, leaving civilians undefended. UN forces put civilians at risk by their actions as well as their inaction. In one incident, UN police shot tear gas canisters into a crowd of frightened Nuer civilians at the UN base in the Jebel neighbourhood.
“UN forces faltered in their mission to protect civilians, standing by as people were killed and raped. These killings and systematic gang rapes must not go unpunished. The government of South Sudan must ensure that they are promptly, impartially and independently investigated and all those suspected of responsibility brought to justice in fair civilian trials without recourse to the death penalty,” said Joanne Mariner.
The new report also criticises the use of military courts to try soldiers suspected of abuses. It concludes that the chronic lack of real justice in South Sudan for crimes such as deliberate killings of civilians underscores the need for the speedy establishment of an independent hybrid court that will have jurisdiction over such crimes.
Guns turned on civilians
Six-year-old Joy Kamisa was killed by a rocket shot from a helicopter gunship, which hit her grandmother’s house in Juba’s Gudele neighbourhood. Two-and-a-half-year-old Nyamuch died from wounds sustained when a piece of shrapnel hit her in the head. She and several of her siblings, who lived in a protection of civilians site at the UN base in Juba’s Jebel neighbourhood, were hit by an explosive device as they tried to flee to the main UN base. Her siblings survived, but were injured. Biel Gat Kuoth, 26, was sitting in his grandfather’s compound when, according to an eyewitness, a “bullet came out of nowhere” and hit him in his right leg, breaking his shin bone. The wound became infected and he died a few days later. Lili died in her home in the Gudele neighbourhood when it was deliberately flattened by a government tank.
“It is shameful that the South Sudan government can still freely acquire weapons when it has repeatedly used them to commit crimes under international law and human rights violations. The international community must impose a comprehensive arms embargo or risk being seen as complicit in these violations,” said Joanne Mariner.
Possible human shields
The report also describes abuses by armed opposition forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO). It details how opposition fighters entered the protection of civilians sites at the UN base in the Jebel neighbourhood several times on 10 and 11 July, at least once in large numbers. It is not clear whether in doing so the fighters intended to shield themselves from attack or impede military operations—which would constitute the war crime of using human shields—but regardless of their intention, such maneuvers endangered thousands of civilians sheltering in the sites. Another problem was the location of the SPLA-IO base in the Jebel neighbourhood adjacent to the protection of civilians site, which placed civilians in proximity to clashes between government and opposition troops.