(Nairobi) – South Sudan has committed serious abuses against civilians in its anti-insurgency campaign in Jonglei state, Human Rights Watch said today. Soldiers' abuses and conflict with rebels have caused thousands of civilians to flee, making them especially vulnerable to recent large-scale attacks in an ethnic conflict in the same region. At the same time, the army, massed in largely empty towns, has failed to protect civilians from these attacks.
President Salva Kiir should publicly condemn the attacks and ensure that authorities immediately investigate and identify all those responsible, including government officials. He should also publicly order the military to investigate and hold to account any abusive soldiers.
“Yet again the government of South Sudan has utterly failed to stop armed Lou Nuer youth from moving into ethnic Murle areas, despite advance warnings that they were mobilizing,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This failure, together with a spate of serious abuses by soldiers in the area, only reinforces the perception that South Sudan’s leaders are taking sides in this ethnic conflict.”
The anti-insurgency campaign started in earnest in March 2013 against David Yau Yau, a rebel leader and political aspirant from the Murle ethnic group. South Sudan’s army and government have blamed a lack of command and control and the actions of rogue soldiers for the abuses and have said civilians were killed in crossfire between rebels and the army.
Fighting between the Lou Nuer and Murle erupted in Jonglei state in the first week of July, when thousands of armed Lou Nuer men traveling on foot moved into remote areas of Jonglei’s Pibor county, an ethnic Murle area.
The total number of casualties is not known. But on July 15, South Sudan’s army, the SPLA, and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) airlifted nearly 200 injured Lou Nuer men to Bor, the state capital. Injured Murle, presumed to be in the hundreds, have yet to be located.
Military officials told Human Rights Watch in July that the soldiers, hampered by rain and a shortage of troops, would only be able to protect civilians in towns, not in remote areas. However, almost all Murle civilians had already fled the towns during the anti-insurgency campaign, often after soldiers committed serious abuses against civilians.
“People fled to the bush because of the conflict between soldiers and rebels but also because of soldiers’ abuses that have made them afraid to return,” Bekele said. “Outside of the towns Murle have no health or other services and are even more vulnerable to ethnic attacks.”
Murle and international organizations working in Jonglei allege that the army supported Lou Nuer groups with weapons and other supplies. They say that soldiers provided water and food to the Lou Nuer attackers in the town of Manyabol during the first week of July. They also say that soldiers provided ammunition to Lou Nuer groups in Waat and Nyandit ahead of the Lou Nuer mobilization.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the allegations, but they are serious and the government should urgently investigate them. The UN mission should also conduct a full human rights investigation and report publicly on the conflict and the human rights abuses in Pibor county since the conflict between Yau Yau and the government intensified in August 2012.
South Sudan’s army deployed thousands of soldiers to Pibor county’s main towns – Pibor, Gumruk, Boma, and Manyabol – as part of the 2013 anti-insurgency campaign. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled towns after fighting between soldiers and Yau Yau’s group, and a string of serious abuses by soldiers against Murle civilians that Human Rights Watch documented, include killings and widespread intimidation.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on July 18, 2013, that all six major population centers in Pibor had been abandoned with about 40,000 inhabitants displaced. At least 8,500 Murle are estimated to have fled to neighboring countries this year and around 7,000 to Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
In Manyabol, for example, almost all civilians fled after soldiers shot a group of three chiefs and five other men in the center of the town on May 26. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the men who were killed were all unarmed. Community members and authorities from the area said that another four men from the community, including two policemen, were killed the same evening in the army barracks.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch, witnesses reported a number of killings of civilians, including women and children, by soldiers in December, January, March, April, and May in or around the town of Pibor. Human Rights Watch also heard numerous accounts of verbal and physical abuse and looting of civilian property by soldiers over the months, especially in mid-May.
These latest abuses follow serious abuses, including killings and torture, by the army during a disarmament campaign in 2012 and failures by the government to hold perpetrators of earlier ethnic violence to account (see below for details), creating an environment of impunity.
Yau Yau’s forces have fought near the town of Pibor since late 2012, according to the UN, government authorities and others. Rebels have shelled the town, contributing to panic, and Yau Yau has publicly warned civilians to leave, saying his forces plan to attack it.
However, dozens of displaced Murle interviewed by Human Rights Watch in June and July said that it was fear of further killings and looting by the soldiers in the town that made them flee.
“We were hoping that the soldiers were coming to protect us (from Yau Yau’s forces), but instead they are killing us,” said a Murle civilian from Pibor who fled to Juba.
The attacks in July have caused more displacement. Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that the recent attack caused most civilians to flee Gumuruk, the only remaining town in Pibor county with a significant Murle civilian population.
Officials from South Sudan’s government and army should urgently condemn the attacks and ensure that all Lou Nuer fighters leave Pibor county and that those suspected of supporting or carrying out the attacks are investigated and arrested, Human Rights Watch said.
“Soldiers have repeatedly committed serious crimes against civilians, which has fuelled distrust of the military and the depopulation of towns,” Bekele said. “South Sudan’s leaders should ensure that soldiers protect civilians rather than abuse them, and the starting point is to hold abusive soldiers to account.”
Earlier Ethnic Conflict, Failed Government Response
The government has repeatedly failed to protect civilians from similar ethnic conflict, including large-scale attacks in Jonglei, despite warnings, in 2009, and again in December 2011 and January 2012. At that time, an estimated 6,000 armed Lou Nuer attacked Murle civilians in remote areas of Pibor county, killing hundreds.
A report by the UN mission on the 2011-2012 attacks and counter-attacks found that the army was too late to deploy adequate forces to protect Murle communities even though the mission had warned that Lou Nuer fighters were approaching. The mission documented the deaths of 612 Murle, and of 276 Bor Dinka and Lou Nuer in revenge attacks by Murle during the same period.
The government’s response, however, did not effectively address the cycle of violence or fully carry out the mission’s recommendations. The government has supported piecemeal peace processes in Jonglei since 2012. But, it has not investigated the ethnic violence, taken steps to prosecute leaders responsible for attacks on civilians, or investigated claims that government officials may have been involved in organizing the violence.
Rather than ensuring accountability for the crimes, the government delayed forming an investigation committee. Its primary response to the 2011-2012 conflict was an abusive disarmament campaign. In early 2012, South Sudanese forces began “Operation Restore Peace,” during which soldiers committed serious human rights violations.
These violations have been widely cited as a major reason why large numbers of Murle youth joined the rebellion led by Yau Yau. The government has sent emissaries to try to persuade Yau Yau to accept a peace deal and have offered the Murle rebels amnesty.