South Sudanese government forces are guilty of burning civilians alive, running them over with tanks, and carrying out rapes and abductions, according to new testimonies released today.
In a report released on Wednesday, NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian property during the offensive carried out between April and June 2015 amount to war crimes, while the killings and rapes may also constitute crimes against humanity.
The accounts contained in the report make for very grim reading. A 22-year-old woman from Koch, in the north of the country, described militants attempting to hang her mother: "[They] asked us for money and alcohol, [my mother] said we didn't have any, so they took her to the tree and hung her by her neck… They didn't say anything besides 'bring us your things.' They used a rope. She survived because she fell down from the tree — after they hung her, they left."
A woman said her father-in-law had been killed after he attempted to escape his house, which had been set fire to. "They also killed his daughter," she claimed. "They killed them in front of the house. First the man was killed, and then his daughter."
Some who fled their villages described being hunted. "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."
"They were hunting people in the day and then at night they would go back to Kuer Geny," a man from Guit county said. "We don't have any place to run, they surrounded us and even went beyond us." The man said government forces had taken all 200 of his cattle. "All the cows had already been taken but they still came to catch people."
A 13-year-old boy from Bauw, Koch county, said that he hid in a river for three days because of the ongoing shooting. "There was random shooting into the reeds to get hiding people. We ate water lily and roots."
Reports also emerged of civilians being run over by army vehicles.
A woman from Rubchier village claimed she had seen four people run over by a tank belonging to government forces. "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," she said. "After I saw this I ran and escaped."
A young mother told HRW that both her husband's second wife and another woman had been killed in Guit county after an army vehicle hit them, before running them over. "They ran over their bodies many times," the woman said.
The accounts refer to a multi-pronged military campaign launched by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) against oil-producing Unity state, at that time under the control of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (IO).
HRW said that they had documented the burning of homes and food stocks, and the theft of animals, food, clothes, and cooking utensils. The organization also recorded at least 60 unlawful killings of civilian women, men, and children, put to death by hanging, shooting, or being burned alive.
At least 63 counts of rape were documented, though researchers suspect that this is a small fraction of the total number. Those that were reported included brutal gang rapes, public rapes, and rapes that occurred alongside the threat of murder.
HRW also documented 35 cases of abductions by Bul fighters — a group associated with the SPLA. While women and children were sometimes forced to act as porters before being released again, the fate of others who were taken remains unknown.
The devastating conflict in the world's newest state began in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his vice president Riek Machar of planning a coup. The cycle of retaliatory killings that followed divided the poverty-stricken country, beginning a litany of horror and widespread abuse that is showing no sign of abating. More than 2.25 million people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing war.
Over 100,000 civilians fled their homes after attacks on Unity's Rubkona, Guit, Koch, and Leer counties between late April and June, according to the United Nations.
Earlier this month, Akshaya Kumar, South Sudan Policy Analyst for the Enough Project, told VICE News that recently "there's been a real escalation in the brutality and the nature of the killing and the targeting, with both sides really adopting a scorched earth kind of attitude."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd