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In South Sudan’s War, Mass Gang Rape Has Become an Everyday Weapon

Tens of thousands of South Sudanese civilians are fleeing a scorched-earth campaign by militias allied with the government — one in which women pay the biggest price.
Displaced persons fleeing the civil war wait for food aid near Nyal, South Sudan. Photo by Ashley Hamer/VICE News

"Before they took me, they took my father first." When men with guns came to Nyajime's village in South Sudan's Unity State last May, they shot her father in the chest. He was badly injured, but he didn't die.

She ran with her family to hide him in the swamps by the Nile. Hidden in the reeds, he told them to leave him there and run away from the marauding fighters, sent by the government's army fighting rebels in the South Sudanese civil war.


When they returned, he was dead.

Then the men with guns took Nyajime, along with 11 other girls from her village. Nyajime cried when she talked about her father, but she shed no tears when she recalled the four days she spent in the soldiers' barracks.

"If you are lucky, you will get someone who will ask you about yourself, your age, where you are from, your family. They might recognize something about you," Nyajime — whose name has been changed to protect her safety — said.

Luck, if you could call it that, was on Nyajime's side. After the girls were walked to the army base and divided among the men, the fighter to which she was assigned asked Nyajime about her background. They discovered they were distant cousins. He didn't touch her.

In the morning, the army commander found out that Nyajime's cousin hadn't attacked her that night. He did not believe the claim that Nyajime wasn't violated because the man she was assigned to was a distant relative. Calling the soldier a spy, the commander had him arrested. Nyajime was sent to guard the cows that had been raided from villages associated with the opposition forces, and from there she managed to escape through the bush with three other girls. The search party sent to catch them didn't see the girls in the undergrowth.

Now Nyajime is in Nyal, an opposition-held sanctuary of relative calm on the swamps of the Nile in the lower part of Unity State. More than 50,000 South Sudanese walked, canoed, and dragged children on bits of tarp to Nyal to save themselves from a government-sponsored killing, raping and pillaging spree that ravaged the northern part of the state this past spring. Analysts say the sexual violence that defined the offensive was part of a scorched-earth campaign employed by the government to terrorize civilians and take back land lost to the opposition.


On Friday a report by the by the UN Human Rights Office documented the systemic use of rape as a weapon in South Sudan, which it said had become "one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world." Some of the most serious abuses of the conflict took place in Unity State in spring 2014, it said, with civilians suspected of supporting the opposition — including children and the disabled — being burned alive, suffocated in containers, shot, hanged from trees, or cut to pieces.

"The sexual assaults were characterized by their extreme brutality, with women who tried to resist or just looked their rapist in the eye being killed in some cases," it said. One woman told the UN she had been stripped naked and raped by five soldiers in front of her children on the roadside and then raped by more men in the bushes, only to return and find her children missing; another was tied to a tree after her husband was killed and had to watch her 15-year-old daughter being raped by ten soldiers.

All parties were guilty of grave and systemic abuses, said the UN, but government troops and allied militia were the worst offenders. Credible sources indicated they were being allowed to rape women in lieu of wages.

Every woman and girl who fled has a horror story. It seems like no one was left untouched. Now they are reeling, dazed, and starving — and their tales of rape, sexual slavery, and the disappearance of family and friends take a back seat to the harsh necessities of day-to-day survival.


"The patterns are clear. There has been massive rape, forced marriage, and abduction of women and girls in Unity State. This has been part of an abusive government strategy and an integral part to how this conflict has been fought there, to attack and forcibly move civilians perceived to be aligned with the opposition," Skye Wheeler, a researcher for Human Rights Watch's Women's Division, told VICE News. "I would say that the scale of sexual violence in Unity State since mid-2015 has been shocking and may be unprecedented."

Related: UN Official Estimates 50,000 Dead in South Sudan as Violence Spreads

There is nothing to eat in Nyal: the last food distribution by the World Food Program was six months ago, in September. The land is parched. Fights break out over the occasional fish grabbed from the swamps. In the town's market, rows of cigarettes and batteries line the dilapidated bodega shelves. Even if you had money, there's no food to buy, an aid worker quipped.

On a scorching February day, the thousands who fled to Nyal waited in daylong lines, in heat reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius), to register for food aid with the World Food Program and its partner, the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe or "Help for world hunger," which manages distribution on the ground.

Despite the wait in the sun, no water was available. Some people in line passed out. Crowd controllers patrolled the lines with sticks and homemade whips. One made a motion with a hand toward a young woman, and she lifted her hand to protect her face and grimaced in advance, trying instinctively to avoid a blow that didn't land.


Civilians wait in long lines to register for food aid in Nyal, South Sudan. Locally hired "crowd controllers" often use sticks and branches (seen on the right in this picture) and excessive force to keep the queuing families under control. (Photo by Ashley Hamer/VICE News)

South Sudan is the youngest country on earth. Formerly part of Sudan, the southern section went to war demanding greater investment and representation in the central government, which was keeping the vast majority of the money made from drilling oil in the southern territories. After more than 20 years of bloodshed and an oil-sharing agreement, South Sudan seceded and became a separate entity: on July 9, 2011, the international community welcomed its newest member.

The country is about the size of France — yet according to the International Monetary Fund, when it celebrated its independence it had exactly 30 miles (50 km) of paved road.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), formerly the rebel group fighting for the split, is now the national government. Its leader Salva Kiir, of the Dinka people, is the country's first president.

Though they united for decades to fight the north, the tribes in South Sudan are disparate groups with a history of rivalry. A skirmish between soldiers of the Dinka and Nuer groups in a barracks in the capital, Juba, led to a massacre of the Nuer people at the hands of the Dinka in December 2013. South Sudan was less than three years old when the bloodshed that started in Juba spread to engulf the nation in a civil war.

Related: In Photos: The Children Fighting For an Education in South Sudan

The opposition army, the SPLA-IO, fought fiercely in 2014 under the leadership of Kiir's former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer.


The Nuer people are typically affiliated with the opposition, but the government army wooed thousands of armed militiamen from the Bul Nuer clan with promises of spoils of war: they could go into villages and towns and take what they wanted.

The resulting raids last year "appeared to be led more by armed youth groups working with the military, given carte blanche to do what they wanted. But it is not just criminal activity — the government clearly had a role in allowing this to happen, and has utterly failed to stop the crimes or hold anyone accountable," Jenhanne Henry, the Senior Africa Researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.

Authorities promised the men cattle, one of the main indicators of wealth in South Sudan, along with women, guns, and whatever else they found.

"The abductions of women have historically been a part of cattle raiding in South Sudan," wrote Lizzie Lacey, in a study analyzing the abductions of women in South Sudan. It is telling that after the offensive Bentiu, the government-controlled capital of Unity State, is now emptied of people but full of cows.

"If they want to do something bad to you, they will do it," said Nyandiwu, whose name was changed for her safety as well. Nyandiwu is from a village near Leer, a major town in Unity. Her unborn baby girl, now two months old, saved her from being raped by 10 men. She was heavily pregnant when the uniformed men surrounded her, yelling at her to lie down. Nyandiwu pretended to go into labor. The men didn't rape her, but they still beat her with sticks. Another woman, she recounted, was being gang-raped nearby.


"They raped even the young girls, old women and breastfeeding mothers. It happened to our neighbour with her girl child, she was raped by five men in front of their house and the child died," said this mother of five who fled Leer. (Photo by Ashley Hamer/VICE News)

A young man who gave his name only as William said that last July he was in Vienjack, a cattle camp about a three-hour walk from Nyal where nomadic people herd the animals to graze, when Dinka fighters came in trucks with the SPLA logo. The soldiers killed 70 people, he said, and took 25 women and girls, plus 9,000 heads of cattle. He saw women and girls being raped. William didn't know what happened to any of the 25 women who were abducted.

After he fled, he found himself living off tree sap while guarding about 800 bony cows in Duong, outside Nyal. He was not able to register for food aid because he had to watch the precious cattle, lest more be stolen.

"Following the offensive on Unity State this past spring, our protection team received many harrowing stories from sexual and gender-based violence survivors. One woman I spoke with described witnessing her pregnant neighbor being raped and decapitated in front of her," said Kerry Akers, formerly Protection Coordinator for Oxfam in South Sudan.

"When they get any woman, they are just raping," said Maria, whose name was changed as well, who estimated her age to be around 20. She was raped when she was pregnant, she said, and soon after she lost the baby.

After 19 months of fighting that saw 2 million people displaced and forced more than 500,000 to become refugees in neighboring countries, the SPLA and the opposition came to a peace deal last August. The political steps agreed upon, including the formation of a transitional government, have yet to be implemented.

Related: Violence Erupts in South Sudan Peacekeeping Camp, Killing 18

After more than six months of stall, clashes between government troops and militias broke out again in February, and are indicative of the countless fractures running through the nation. But whatever comes next — more war or the success of the peace agreement — generations of women in the youngest country on earth will never be the same.

"People and communities are broken. It is not only a men's problem. I have seen women encouraging their men to rape women from other communities in revenge for their rape," said Casie Copeland, the South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group. "The wounds in Unity will not heal through implementation of the peace deal alone."

As for the government of South Sudan, it seems to be mostly ignoring the issue. "We've not seen any serious efforts by the government to provide justice for perpetrators," said Human Rights Watch's Wheeler, "or address allegations with a view to ending these patterns."