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South Sudan Forces Accused of Leaving 50 People to Suffocate in a Shipping Container

Various groups have documented the use of metal containers as informal detention sites in South Sudan. The latest incident was among five violations of the ceasefire signed in August that a monitoring group described in a submission to the African...

by Samuel Oakford
Feb 1 2016, 10:00pm

Photo by Aalbert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

A ceasefire-monitoring group has blamed South Sudanese government forces for the deaths of some 50 people who suffocated in a shipping container last October — the latest gruesome incident to emerge from the country's two-year conflict.

The account, which the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) reported at an African Union (AU) summit on Sunday, allegedly took place in oil-rich Unity State around October 22.

Though JMEC offered little detail on the deaths, groups including Human Rights Watch have previously documented the use of metal containers as informal detention sites in South Sudan. The container incident was among five violations of an August ceasefire that JMEC documented in their submission to the AU. Opposition forces were also accused of killing or injuring an estimated 12 people in an attack on a civilian vehicle in Unity on December 18 and raiding and looting United Nations barges in Upper Nile state on October 21.

War broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 between government forces led by President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with Riek Machar, Kiir's former vice president. The two men, who were part of a tenuous regional alliance against Sudan before the South Sudan attained independence in 2011, are from different ethnic groups — Kiir is a Dinka, Machar a Nuer — and much of the initial violence in South Sudan's civil war fell along ethnic lines. According to the International Crisis Group, a conflict-monitoring organization, more than 50,000 people are believed to have died in the fighting, though the true number is unknown.

Related: South Sudan's War Just Turned Two — And the UN Says Its Peacekeepers Aren't Leaving

Under intense pressure from the international community, Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal last August. But, as JMEC noted on Sunday, that agreement and efforts to establish a transitional government have fallen by the wayside amid bickering and intermittent clashes. While some of the war's worst bloodshed occurred in Unity State and other parts of the northeast, new hostilities, often involving smaller local groups with varying grievances against the national government, have been recorded in recent months in other regions.

The JMEC submission comes on the heels of a separate January report issued by a Security Council-appointed panel of experts charged with tracking sanctions in South Sudan. Among the heinous crimes outlined in its findings, the panel cited humanitarian workers who estimated that more than 1,300 women and girls were raped in the country between April and September of last year.

Previous UN investigations have referenced widescale violence committed against children; in some instances boys were tied up, castrated or had their throats slit and were left to bleed out. In January, the panel of experts said that violence perpetrated by both the government and the opposition had been undertaken with the direct knowledge of high-ranking officials on each side, and insisted that Kiir and Machar should both face sanctions.

"The people in South Sudan are already suffering the unimaginable, and the peace agreement is on life support," said Ryan D'Souza, a South Sudan analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. "If the parties and the international community fail to resuscitate the peace process, we are likely to witness more atrocities and a greater humanitarian catastrophe."

Related: Victims of South Sudan's War Were Raped, Burned, Made to Drink Blood and Eat Flesh

While the JMEC report offered only five examples of ceasefire violations, it gave a dire assessment of the cooperation of both sides in the detente.

"In the months following the Agreement's signature in August 2015, little implementation activity occurred, and the momentum generated by the signature has largely dissipated," wrote JMEC. The monitoring group criticized Kiir for his December move to dissolve the borders of South Sudan's 10 states and replace them with 28 new ones.

"A number of the provisions of the Agreement are predicated on the continuation of 10 states," said JMEC. "The Government's action has created an impasse and challenges the spirit, as well as the sequence of the implementation of the Agreement."

The economy, added the monitoring group, "is in particularly dire straits, with foreign reserves rapidly diminishing, growing inflation and rapid depreciation of the national currency."

The formation of a hybrid court in order to prosecute those responsible for violence against civilians and other crimes has stalled. JMEC attributed this to the overall failure to establish a transitional government.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford