With the dry season winding down in South Sudan, government forces have gone on the offensive in the country's oil-rich Unity state in an apparent attempt to capture territory from rebels before heavy rains make troop movements impossible in the coming months.
The most intense fighting in nearly a year has led to reports of widespread atrocities, including the burning of nearly 30 villages, abductions of boys as young as 10, and rapes and abductions of girls and women.
"According to interviews with civilians who managed to flee, perpetrators of these atrocities are SPLA [government] soldiers and armed youth," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement. "Mobilized youth are reportedly clad in civilian clothes wielding AK-47s."
The reports of atrocities are difficult to verify. Government forces have blocked UN staff from accessing areas affected by conflict, and the UN has refused to grant journalists access to its peacekeeping base in Bentiu, where more than 53,000 people have taken shelter from the fighting.
Still, the UN said it observed "increased incidents of assault, shooting, and killing" near its base. At least 2,200 people have sought refuge there since the latest offensive began, but many more may be unable to reach the safe zone because soldiers have blocked their path.
"People are telling us the wounded were left behind, women and children," one aid worker from Bentiu told VICE News. "They just said they can't carry all of those people."
Another aid worker said there has been a worrying "absence of adolescent and young women and an absence of young males" among the new arrivals. "We're hearing reports of mass abduction of women, forced marriage, and we're hearing of rape and killing. Also reports of forced recruitment of young males," the person said.
The Bentiu base itself may not be fully safe. There is no fence around the perimeter, and an internal UN situation report viewed last week by VICE News noted incursions into the base by armed elements. A stray bullet has injured at least one child inside, and tensions are rising between groups perceived to be loyal to either the rebels or the government.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced so far this month in Unity, and international aid workers have been forced to evacuate, leaving some 300,000 people without life-saving assistance, according to the UN.
'People are telling us the wounded were left behind, women and children. They just said they can't carry all of those people.'
Government troops and associated militia have been pushing south from Bentiu, the Unity state capital, for about two weeks, heading toward the rebel stronghold of Leer, where tens of thousands of civilians are living, including many that previously fled violence in the conflict.
"The SPLA is pursuing the rebels south," SPLA spokesperson Col. Philip Aguer told VICE. "They will go to the last."
On Friday, SPLA forces reached Koch, about 25 miles north of Leer, according to sources in the capital Juba. The next day, aid agencies — including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the International Rescue Committee — evacuated their international staff from Leer and shut down operations. Aguer would not comment on whether the SPLA had taken Koch.
SPLA forces from the southern Lakes state have reportedly moved north toward Mayendit, which is on the way to Leer, potentially trapping civilians, according to sources in Juba.
The United States Embassy in Juba said it is "deeply concerned" by reports of heavy fighting following the government offensive, and demanded both sides "silence the guns."
Civil war erupted in South Sudan in December 2013 when troops loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, began fighting forces aligned with Riek Machar, the former vice president and a member of the Neur ethnic group. Nearly 2 million people have fled their homes, and some 50,000 are dead.
Kiir's forces have made steady gains against the opposition since peace talks collapsed in early March. The timing of the current offensive could have devastating consequences because it's also the time farmers sow their crops. Around 2.5 million people already face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity in part because fighting last year prevented farmers from reaching their fields.
"With the planting season at our doorsteps, people now displaced will not have the capacity to plant, nor will humanitarian organizations be able to provide them necessary seeds and tools in time," said Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC delegation in South Sudan. "This situation will most likely provoke higher dependence on food aid during a time of generalized increased food insecurity."
There seems little chance of a ceasefire. Both sides have dug in their heels since the last round of peace talks fell apart, with rebel commanders saying there can be no peace with Kiir as president and Kiir saying he will never share power with Machar.
With no serious international action regarding proposed sanctions or other measures to bring the warring parties under control, only Mother Nature might be able to stop the fighting.
As one senior aid official in Juba told VICE News, "Pray it rains like hell for the next few days."
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