(Juba) - Both sides committed human rights violations during clashes with rebels in March 2011 in Upper Nile state in which more than 60 ethnic Shilluk people were killed, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a research mission conducted in the first half of April in Upper Nile state, near the north-south border, Human Rights Watch documented evidence that soldiers fired indiscriminately at civilians and burned and looted homes. The clashes occurred between Southern Sudan's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers and a rebel group led by Johnson Olony on March 6 and 7 in the Owachi area. The SPLA and Olony had both located their forces in close proximity to civilian villages as tensions rose between the army and Olony's rebels.
"If the Southern Sudan government wants a sustainable peace when it becomes fully independent in July, it should demonstrate its commitment now with a prompt and thorough investigation into human rights violations in Upper Nile," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "Southern Sudan's government should show no tolerance for crimes against civilians by either side."
The clashes between the SPLA and rebel forces were part of the government's anti-insurgency campaign in Upper Nile. Authorities should prosecute those responsible for any criminal acts, Human Rights Watch said. They should also either charge or release those detained there in the following weeks.
Southern Sudan is set to declare independence on July 9, following an overwhelming vote for self-determination in a January referendum. The vote was held under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended 22 years of civil war in Sudan.
The clashes killed more than 60 people, mostly civilians, and displaced more than 7,000. The exact number and nature of casualties is still not known since the area is still largely off-limits to the United Nations and humanitarian groups. Displaced communities fear returning because of the large presence of SPLA soldiers throughout the area, local leaders told Human Rights Watch.
"Neither the armed forces nor the rebels took sufficient precautions to protect civilians from the conflict, despite clear signs that the fighting was imminent," Bekele said. "The government should send a strong and clear message that it will not allow soldiers to abuse civilians or fail to protect them during clashes."
More attacks and human rights abuses, particularly targeting Shilluk males, followed the clash at Owachi. Less than a week after the clash, Olony's rebels counterattacked in the town of Malakal in the early morning hours on March 12. A total of 45 soldiers and rebels died in that battle.
In a "mop up" operation over the following weeks, SPLA soldiers arrested and detained scores of Shilluk men suspected of links to Olony's rebels and to SPLM-DC, the political party led by a Shilluk politician, Dr. Lam Akol. Authorities accuse the party of supporting militias led by Shilluk commanders, including Olony.
Released detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being held in the SPLA military barracks. One man, a government employee, was held for six days in an underground cell without access to his family or a lawyer.
The Shilluk community has borne the brunt of political violence and human rights abuses, fuelled in large part by rivalries between the ruling SPLM and the SPLM-DC over the last two years. After the April 2010 elections, for example, the SPLA carried out operations against militia allegedly linked to SPLM-DC in Fashoda county, committing serious human rights abuses in the process.
The March clash at Owachi resulted in high civilian casualties partly because the rebel forces and new recruits were living among civilians. Olony's rebels had moved to Owachi with SPLA support, in preparation for re-integration into the army following a January ceasefire agreement between government and several southern rebel leaders. The prospect of employment with the army attracted many new recruits to Olony's group, including women and children.
Southern Sudan's top leaders have yet to address the root causes of the growing violence in Upper Nile, including a long-simmering land dispute between Shilluk and Dinka communities that has turned violent on several occasions in recent years alienated Shilluk communities, government and church leaders told Human Rights Watch.
"In addition to providing accountability, the government needs to address the underlying grievances that are clearly fuelling the conflict in Upper Nile, including the land dispute," Bekele said. "These steps would put the southern government on the right track as it prepares for the declaration of its independence."
Clash at Owachi
Olony's rebel group arrived at Owachi, a town on a tributary of the Nile river, in early January following the January 5 ceasefire agreement between the government and a group of rebels led by a renegade SPLA commander, George Athor. Athor took up arms against the SPLA after he failed to win the governor's seat in the April 2010 elections.
The January agreement provided for rebels to be re-integrated into the SPLA at specific locations in Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Unity states. Civilians from surrounding areas, including women and their children lured by the prospect of jobs with the army, joined Olony and mixed with the civilian population in the area, military and government authorities said. However, tensions between SPLA and Olony's forces increased in February and March, particularly after a rape allegedly committed by an SPLA soldier.
On the morning of March 6, SPLA forces carried out a surprise attack on Olony's forces at the village of Duur, witnesses and local chiefs told Human Rights Watch. SPLA soldiers on foot surrounded the village, backed up by military vehicles mounted with machine guns. Witness accounts suggest that the soldiers targeted rebels, who returned fire, but that soldiers then fired at unarmed civilians as they fled to the bush or across the river.
"I jumped into the river and swam to the island," said one witness, who asked that his name be withheld. "We saw the mounted vehicles shooting toward the island and we hid ourselves in the swamp grasses."
The same day, five civilian men were shot dead near Dot, where they had gone to fetch bamboo. The men, who included a radio station staff member and a carpenter, were found tied up and blindfolded. The family of one of the victims told Human Rights Watch that a local woman told them she had witnessed the killings.
On March 7, soldiers shot civilians who had not fled Duur and burned huts there, witnesses present during the clash said. While most civilians fled to Malakal, others took refuge near SPLA barracks at Owachi for several days before leaving the area.
The clashes also affected other surrounding villages. On a visit to Owachi in mid-April, Human Rights Watch observed scores of empty homes on the outskirts of the village that local leaders said had been looted by soldiers following the fighting at Duur. A group of chiefs from the villages, now displaced to Owachi, told Human Rights Watch that they are afraid to go home because soldiers are harassing civilians and looting property.
A UN report found that 62 people, including women, were killed, more than 70 injured, and 7,265 displaced in the fighting. But a complete tally of the dead remains unknown. Some bodies were recovered in the river, while others were buried near affected villages. On March 25, the SPLA granted access for community leaders to return to Duur to collect the dead, and by the first week of April they had completed burials of 52 bodies, including women and children.
The clashes in Upper Nile are the latest in a series of armed clashes between SPLA and rebel forces that have emerged since the elections in April 2010. Athor, a former chief of staff for the SPLA, took up arms against the southern army after he lost the gubernatorial election in Jonglei state. A handful of other commanders in Jonglei and Upper Nile also waged small rebellions following the elections.
The January 5 ceasefire with Athor provided that rebel forces aligned with Athor would re-integrate into the SPLA at specific locations in Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Unity states. The agreement broke down in February, when Athor attacked the town of Fangak, killing more than 200 civilians, including local government officials and people who had returned south from Khartoum for the referendum. Some other rebel groups covered by the agreement have meanwhile re-integrated in the SPLA.
In recent weeks, a former northern-aligned militia leader, Maj. Gen. Peter Gatdet, defected from the SPLA and formed a new movement, harnessing discontent with the southern government and potentially posing another military threat.