Extreme violence and attacks involving thousands of fighters at a time have engulfed more than three-quarters of South Sudan, UN human Rights Council-appointed investigators said on Friday, warning that the bloodshed and exactions faced by civilians are “the worst recorded” since the country’s civil war began in December 2013.
Highlighting a continuing lack of local and national State infrastructure almost a year since the formation of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity in South Sudan, Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan Chairperson Yasmin Sooka noted that although the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement two years ago had “led to a reduction in hostilities at the national level”…the country seen “a massive escalation in violence” locally.
Echoing that finding, Commission member Barney Afako explained that signing the cessation of hostilities ceasefire had left “a vacuum” at community level. “Because the parties of the conflict, although they’d signed the agreement, didn’t then go on to set up localized governments. There are no governors in place or no county commissioners in place. So, there is nobody to deal with those cleavages which had remained. Instead what we saw, was that the weaponry that have been left in the community as well as that which is now supplied by others fuelled this communal violence.”
Other worrying developments include restrictions and self-censorship among journalists and pressure groups.
“The level of State suppression and inability of civil society or journalists to operate is now completely different,” said Commission member Andrew Clapham. “There is sort of levels of fear and the State suppression and the fact that you can be picked up and tortured and killed is rather different.”
In its latest report, the Commission describes “waves of attacks and reprisals” that have left hundreds of South Sudanese women, men and children dead, maimed or destitute in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
Ms. Sooka told journalists via video conference that the armed groups and militias had mobilised along ethnic lines, often with the support of armed State and opposition forces.
She highlighted clashes between allied Dinka and Nuer militias and Murle pastoralist militias in central and southern Jonglei State and Greater Pibor Administrative Area between February and November 2020.
These involved massive violations against civilians including the killing and displacement of hundreds.
“We have documented the new levels of militia violence engulfing more than three-quarters of the country at a localized level in which children carry weapons and women are traded as spoils of war like chattels,” Ms. Sooka said, while highlighting the ready availability of weapons, which is indicative of outside assistance.
“Civilians describe combatants using new weapons which they had never seen before,” she said. “One man told the Commission, ‘I went to Pibor town and I saw guns being sold there. There the black guns used by the NSS were being sold for 25,000 South Sudanese shillings, each less than a few hundred dollars.’ He also said that children all have guns.”
The Commission Chairperson also described as “shocking” the extremely high number of fighters involved in the localized conflicts, with “up to 50,000” involved in one attack in Padoi in Jonglei State and at least 15,000 fighters in an attack against Likuangole village, also in Jonglei State”.
Women were traded as “spoils of war” and children carry weapons, Ms. Sooka continued, adding that levels of violence “have already surpassed (those) documented in December 2013”, when civil war erupted across South Sudan.
Describing further graphic attacks in Jonglei and the Greater Pibor area, she noted that homes were “systemically and deliberately torched, murders and forced displacements have been perpetrated, women and girls have been abducted, they have been raped and gang-raped, sexually enslaved and in some instances forcibly married off to their captors. Abducted boys have been forced to fight and, in some instances, forcibly assimilated into rival armed groups.”
The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan is due to present its report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 10 March.