In an alarming and detailed report, the United Nations said on Tuesday that recent fighting in South Sudan has taken on a "new brutality and intensity," as victims and witnesses recounted atrocities committed by government forces, including gang rape and the burning alive of girls.
The findings by the UN's Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) come two weeks after VICE News first reported that UN human rights officials were zeroing in on government and aligned forces in Unity State, which has witnessed brutal violence following the start of a government offensive in late April. Staff at the UN's children's agency (UNICEF) told VICE News that in May victims and witnesses at a UN base in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, fingered the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the allied South Sudan Liberation Army in heinous crimes, including the rape and murder of girls and the castration of boys, who were left to bleed to death.
The UNMISS reporting, carried out by its human rights division and based on 115 victim and witness testimonies, offers a wider picture of the atrocities, and again casts allegations against the government.
One witness told UNMISS that she saw "government forces gang-rape a lactating mother after tossing her baby aside. Two other witnesses recounted "how a 17-year-old girl was gang raped by armed militia who shot her dead."
"In at least nine separate incidents, women and girls were burnt in tukuls after being gang-raped, particularly in the Boaw Village of Koch County," wrote UNMISS. "In at least five villages in Rubkona, Guit and Koch counties, women and girls were shot and killed after they were subject to gang-rape." Rubkona, Guit, and Koch counties are all in oil-rich Unity State.
Human rights investigators reported that at least 79 women and girl were victims of sexual violence, including gang rape. Armed groups, it said, had abducted at least 179.
"A survivor from Koch County narrated to HRD how she was dragged out of her tukul and raped alongside her neighbor by government soldiers in front of her three-year old child," said investigators. "The soldiers then taunted them that they would appreciate what men from Mayom County were made of."
UNMISS also reports that at least 67 civilians had been killed — though the true death toll is likely much higher. Many boys, it said, are missing, presumably having been recruited as child soldiers.
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The conflict in the world's youngest country broke out in December 2013, when government forces under President Salva Kiir first clashed with rebels led by Kiir's former vice president Riek Machar. Kiir is a member of the Dinka community, while Machar is Nuer, and fighting has largely split along ethnic lines, with both sides accused repeatedly of atrocity crimes. In its latest report, UNMISS said that dynamic continued unabated, and that divisions have become even more granular.
"The nature and level of the new alleged human rights violations point to the further ethnicization of the conflict," wrote investigators. "Lacking military training, militias from the various ethnic sub-groups of the region have been armed to serve largely as auxiliaries to more convention forces."
A running string of peace talks in Ethiopia, overseen by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional trade bloc, have witnessed at least seven tentative deals signed, only to be thrown aside, often before the ink had even dried. Since December 2013, let-ups in fighting have largely coincided with South Sudan's wet season — not any political maneuvering — which renders large swaths of the country impassable.
In March, the UN Security Council established a sanctions mechanism for individuals in South Sudan. This Wednesday, the Council's South Sudan sanctions committee is expected to levy its first sanctions against six commanders, three from each side of the conflict.
"Sanctions are essential to combat the unchecked impunity that has come to define South Sudan's political environment," Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan analyst at the Enough Project, told VICE News. "These sanctions may even help forge an enabling environment for peace negotiations."
However, the conflict-monitoring organization Crisis Group said that citing the generals, including the commander of Kiir's guard unit and the general staff of the rebels, would accomplish little if not accompanied by meaningful peace talks.
Not included among the names is Johnson Olony, an ethnic-Shiluk commander who switched from the government to the rebel side earlier this year. In its most recent monitoring report, IGAD cited Olony and his militia for the recruitment of as many as 1,000 child soldiers in just three days in June in Upper Nile State.
The UNMISS report covers attacks in April, May, and early June. In May, the IGAD reported "government forces have conducted full-scale military offensive against opposition forces in Rubkona, Guit, Koch and Mayendit," since April 27.
Upon learning of the attacks, UNMISS said it reached out to the SPLA to gain access to the sites of the alleged violence, which often took place in areas where peacekeepers were not operating.
"Access was regularly denied," it said, adding that "during the period when most of the attacks took place, the SPLA had imposed restrictions of movement on UNMISS and humanitarian actors, thereby preventing possible human rights investigations and humanitarian action in affected locations." At the start of the government offensive, between April 26 and 29, UNMISS said it was "not allowed to move anywhere in the state," and was able to do so "sparingly," and not to the site of atrocities, for most of May.
Nevertheless, UNMISS confirmed the government offensive, which it said was the major factor leading to the displacement of more than 100,000 civilians since late April. Alarmingly, human rights officials said that many "fled into the wilderness," in part due to the SPLA's encirclement of Bentiu, where the UN maintains a protection of civilians site. The UN base at Bentiu now holds upwards of 78,000 people — the largest number among a record high of 142,000 sheltering with the UN countrywide.
Given the paucity of information on the whereabouts of the remaining displaced, it is likely that the UN is not aware of the true toll of fighting in Unity State over the past several months.
UNMISS said that civilians in rebel-controlled areas of Unity State were taken by surprised when government forces launched their offensive. Accustomed to opposition troops repelling Juba's army and its militias, "most civilians were probably confident that the opposition would defend their territories."
"This did not happen, however, and most civilians, mainly women and children, were caught unprepared in their homesteads," said UNMISS.
Early in the conflict, UMISS was criticized along with other international actors, including the US, for not seeing fissures that predated the outbreak of violence. The American government was instrumental in coordinating the independence of South Sudan from Sudan, which officially took place in 2011. The US, which already has bilateral sanctions on actors in the conflict, supplied the six names to the Security Council's sanctions committee. UNMISS, for its part, has abandoned its original mandate in the country, which largely centered on nation building. On Tuesday, the mission made clear that its peacekeepers are completely overwhelmed and essentially unable to protect civilians that are not inside their bases — though even there fighting has left several dead.
"The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the report suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences," wrote UNMISS.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @SamuelOakford