Safe Haven No More in South Sudan
War has reached Yei, and South Sudan’s civil war has turned this once-peaceful town upside down.
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A Spreading Conflict
In July 2016, just two months after Riek Machar, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (IO), resumed his role as first vice-president in a transitional national unity government planned under the August 2015 peace agreement, his forces and government soldiers fought in the capital, Juba. Serious human rights violations marked the fighting. Government forces killed civilians and raped women perceived to belong to Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
Government troops have arbitrarily arrested and detained scores of civilians, subjecting them to inhumane treatment for prolonged periods of time. Human Rights Watch identified two cases of enforced disappearances by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) military intelligence. Soldiers also killed and raped civilians, and the army forcefully displaced thousands of civilians from certain areas in Yei, shooting threateningly in the air and the bushes, then looting homes and belongings.
Human Rights Watch researchers documented a dozen killings inside of Yei. In most cases, relatives and witnesses said they believed the army was responsible. Human Rights Watch received allegations of many other cases of killings outside of Yei, but was unable to verify them because of movement restrictions and the lack of security.
Human Rights Watch also documented dozens of arbitrary arrests and detention and torture of civilians in Yei since May by government forces, especially army military intelligence and South Sudan’s national security service.
Researchers documented two cases of enforced disappearances by government forces in Yei.
Human Rights Watch documented two cases of rape by SPLA soldiers. In another incident, two girls were raped by armed men they believed to be SPLA soldiers who were not in uniform. All four rapes took place during the week Human Rights Watch spent in Yei. Human Rights Watch also collected several credible reports of other incidents of rape by SPLA soldiers in Yei.
Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on September 11, government forces entered the Dem, Sopiri, and Lutaya neighborhoods of Yei, shooting in the air and the bushes and ordering civilians to leave the areas. Soldiers then looted homes. One displaced resident said:
“I was in church and when I came out, one of the soldiers told me ‘What are you doing here, this place is only for rebels.’ He told me I had to leave. Then they looted the area completely. No one can go back to Dem now, the women are afraid of being raped and the men are afraid of being killed by the soldiers.”
Another former resident said that rebels had come to the neighborhoods to tell people in churches they should leave the area. “They came for two weeks before the SPLA came and they warned us that we should leave the area because they wanted to fight the SPLA,” she said. “When the SPLA came, we were chased out. I saw them shooting in the air scaring people and breaking houses, they took two of my goats.”
The laws of war prohibit the forcible displacement of civilians except for their own security or for imperative military reasons.
Rebel Abuses Against Civilians
Rebels belonging to ethnic groups populating the Greater Equatoria region and operating around Yei appeared to have targeted civilians of Dinka and Nuba ethnicity on the basis of their perceived affiliation to the government.
Attacks on Civilian Convoys
Rebels have increasingly been accused of targeting Dinka civilians, especially along the main roads leading to Juba from the Equatorias. On October 8, rebels operating north of Yei attacked a civilian convoy transporting mostly Dinka civilians from Yei to Juba. More than two dozen civilians were killed.
“It was a surprise attack,” said the truck driver. “They had AK-47 and a RPG. They only attacked my truck. We were in the middle of the convoy. I was transporting about 70 people, most of them were women and children.”
A survivor said that her 8-year-old son was killed in the attack: “I was standing in the middle of the truck when they started to shoot. Some around me died. My son Victor was among them. I didn’t see at first but a wounded woman with a 4-month baby saw him dead first and said ‘Be strong.’ She died later.”
A wounded 13-year-old boy, with three bullets in his body, said his brother died during the attack. Once the attackers stopped shooting, all survivors who were interviewed said the rebels lit the truck on fire.
“There was a woman – her name was Nyalam – and she died inside the truck with her 1-month baby. She was my co-wife,” said a 29-year-old grieving mother who survived the attack. “There was also Nyankim, my 12-year-old niece, Agwer, my 5-year-old son, and Adhiu my 3-year-old son. They all died.”
Rape and Sexual Violence
On at least two occasions in September, rebels entered the Lasu refugee camp, south of Yei. There, they raped two Nuba women and abducted nine women and their children. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
A witness to one of the abductions said they pointed guns at him and gathered men, women, and children in his compound: “There were maybe 150 people in my compound. They did not take any man but abducted four women that afternoon, including one from my compound with her three children. We have no idea where they are.”
In October, Nuba community leaders said, rebels raped a 26-year-old female Nuba student in Goli, 30 kilometers west of Yei.
Human Rights Watch also heard from credible sources that in late September, rebel fighters abducted three women in Ombassi, 20 kilometers from Yei. Two are still missing but one escaped after three weeks with the rebels and was then detained for by police in Yei for three days in mid-October for questioning.
Sources who were told of the rapes said that women and girls raped in rebel areas were apparently unable, or too fearful of both sides, to cross lines to get medical care in Yei, though no such care is available outside the town. Many health facilities in rebel-controlled areas, including those that could have provided emergency post-rape care, were closed because of the lack of security or have been looted or otherwise vandalized.
Abuses of Sudanese Refugees
Refugees who fled from conflict in the Nuba mountains area of Southern Kordofan state in Sudan have been in the Yei area since 2011. Church and aid workers said that, following the increase in tensions in the Yei area, local people accused the Nuba refugees of taking up weapons and supporting the South Sudan government.
In August 2016, rebels ambushed a convoy of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, carrying 15 metric tons of food destined for the Lasu refugee camp, 46 kilometers southwest of Yei, which has about 2,000 mostly Nuba refugees and 8,000 Congolese refugees. In August and September, witnesses said that dozens of rebels entered the camp, wearing a mixture of civilian clothes and military fatigues, and looted the premises, including the clinic.
Aid groups have not provided any food to the camp residents since June 2016 due to lack of security, and the camp has since disbanded, with refugees fleeing to the bush and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Arbitrary Restrictions on Freedom of Movement by Both Sides
In armed conflict, civilian movement may be restricted on security grounds or for imperative military reasons. However, some restrictions may also be arbitrary, and in some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch the restrictions by both government and rebel forces appear to have been arbitrary. For example, in some cases, both SPLA forces and IO forces have stopped civilians in such a way as to unjustifiably obstruct access to health care and food.
Human Rights Watch was told that the Yei River state governor, David Lokonga, had publicly instructed civilians not to move outside the city limits. Researchers found a widespread perception by local civilians that the army would arrest or shoot at them if they traveled beyond two or three kilometers from the center of town.
Six women independently told Human Rights Watch that soldiers had chased them or their family members away when they tried to gather in areas around Yei, forcing them back into town.
In two cases, people were stopped by soldiers at checkpoints while trying to enter Yei for medical care. Soldiers beat one man in September when he tried to come into town for brucellosis medicines.
Fear of arrests and harassment at army checkpoints has led local civilians to use bush roads to get in and out of town. In one case in October, a pregnant woman from a nearby village delivered in the bush as she tried to get to the Yei Civil Hospital. Service providers told Human Rights Watch that when she finally reached the hospital, two days later, the baby had died.
Some of the government forces’ restrictions may also be discriminatory. Researchers visiting Yei mid-October saw hundreds of Dinka civilians leaving town for Juba in army trucks, assisted by SPLA soldiers. Civilians from Yei told researchers that people from the Dinka ethnic group were the only ones allowed to travel with the army convoys.
The rebels have also stopped civilians from moving freely into Yei. In the village of Goli, 30 kilometers west, rebels have prevented roughly 300 students from leaving the compound of their school since late September. The only remaining doctor of the Yei Harvester’s Hospital for Women and Children is also stranded in Goli, leaving the hospital unable to provide medical care to women during childbirth.
Rebels have also prevented civilians from returning to Yei with food, accusing those who do of feeding the Dinka. A 29-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that rebel fighters called her “the wife of Dinka … [who wants to] feed the soldiers in Yei” and stopped her in September while she was bringing sweet potatoes from her farm in Lupapa, two miles out of town, back to Yei. Another 23-year-old business woman said rebel fighters stopped her from bringing food into Yei from nearby Sokah.
Both the general lack of security and arbitrary restrictions on movement by fighters on both sides have meant that government and church officials, health workers, and members of aid groups have been unable to reach some victims of abuse who live in areas under rebel control.