(Nairobi) – South Sudanese soldiers fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas and targeted people for their ethnicity during recent fighting in Juba, Human Rights Watch said today. The clashes in South Sudan’s capital, which broke out on December 15, 2013, saw scores of civilians killed and, according to witnesses and victims, soldiers specifically targeted people from the Nuer ethnic group.
The fighting followed deepening tensions between President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and the former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and police questioned residents about their ethnicity and deliberately shot ethnic Nuer. Thousands of people have fled areas of Juba, including more than 16,000 people who sought shelter at the compound of the United Nations Mission.
“The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Government officials – whatever their politics – need to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly deescalate rising ethnic tensions.”
Human Rights Watch has also received reports that ethnic Dinka may have been targeted in Juba and in the town of Bor by Nuer soldiers. Fierce fighting took place in Bor town on December 18. The violence has reportedly also spread to other parts of South Sudan.
The final death toll of those killed this week in Juba is still unclear, but it is likely that civilians from many different ethnic groups were killed during the fighting, including people caught in crossfire.
“We are deeply concerned that ethnically-based attacks on all sides will lead to revenge attacks and more violence,” Bekele said.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers had gone through their neighborhoods, firing indiscriminately and entering homes.
A Nuer man told Human Rights Watch that seven Nuer relatives and friends, all men, were killed on the afternoon of December 17 by soldiers who forced their way into a compound in the Gudele area of Juba, where 15 Nuer men were hiding. Two of the men were killed when soldiers shot into the house from within the compound. When the rest of the men tried to escape from the house through a window the soldiers then shot at them, killing five others. “We came back after the shooting and saw the dead bodies,” the witness said. “One of the [Nuer men] hid in a water barrel and was killed in there.”
An East African woman told Human Rights Watch that 15 Nuer civilians, including women and children, were killed in a Nuer neighbor’s house in the Gudele area of Juba, on December 16, by unidentified gunmen. “I was hiding during the shooting but saw the bodies afterwards,” she said. “They are still there, the Dinka are not allowing them to be moved.” She said that during the fighting on December 16 in Gudele she saw armed men from both Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, at different times, moving from house to house apparently searching for members of the other ethnic group.
Three independent sources who were not present at the scene told Human Rights Watch that soldiers forcibly pulled a Nuer minister, Reverend Simon Nyang Lam, out of his house in the Khor William neighborhood and killed him. “He thought he would be ok because he was a pastor,” a relative said. He also said that another man from his family had been taken from his house in the Amarat neighborhood, searched and then shot on the spot.
A Nuer man said he fled to the UN mission after soldiers killed his two brothers on the afternoon of December 16 in Juba’s New Site area. Soldiers entered the family’s compound and shot the two men, who were also soldiers but were unarmed and in civilian clothes. The soldiers also shot and wounded a third relative, a civilian and took him away. “I don’t know where he is,” the man said.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers in Juba sometimes asked individuals about their ethnicity before killing or releasing them, or identified them from facial scarification. A Nuer man told Human Rights Watch that soldiers shot and killed his cousin and two other civilians just outside his home the morning of December 16 in the Misah Sabah neighborhood as he hid under a bed. “I heard them crying when they were killing them,” he said. Another man independently said he had witnessed the shooting of the three men: “When they failed to answer if they were Dinka or Nuer, they were shot.”
Another Nuer man said that soldiers who had entered their home in the Jebel neighborhood of Juba on December 17 shot and killed his uncle and another relative, both traders, and carried off their bodies. “It is because we are Nuer, if they see the marks [traditional scarification] they kill you,” he said. “We only survived because we were hiding.”
A Dinka man described being stopped by police as he was driving through a check point. “They greeted me in Nuer so I responded in Nuer. They then asked me to get out, cocked a gun on my head and told me to kneel,” he said. The man was only able to leave after persuading the policemen that he was a Dinka and not a Nuer and by showing them his identity card.
Civilians of different ethnicities were also killed and injured during crossfire and by tanks, which were used in several different neighborhoods. An aid worker described the death of a non-Nuer woman who was shot by soldiers as they were fleeing fighting in the Lologo neighborhood. “She was running behind us and so they shot her,” he said. “We don’t know what happened to her children [who were with her].”
Residents described two cases in which tanks drove into houses. “I was lucky as I was in my house just before it was completely destroyed,” a staff member of a nongovernmental organization told Human Rights Watch. An aid agency worker said he saw the “completely smashed” bodies of two men, a father and son, and that witnesses told him a tank had run them over. A civil servant who visited Juba Teaching Hospital said he saw the body of a woman who had been crushed by a tank.
As of December 18, there have been reports of fighting in several other areas of South Sudan, including in Bor and Pibor towns in Jonglei State. The spread of fighting and increasing ethnic tensions raises concerns that Dinkas could also be targeted, Human Rights Watch said.
A media worker from the Dinka ethnic group based in Juba said that he had been told by family members in Bor that two relatives there had been killed by Nuer soldiers on December 15, the same night that fighting began in Juba. Aid workers and analysts fear that revenge attacks by Nuer fighters could now take place in Bor.
Human Rights Watch has also received disturbing reports, including from a direct eyewitness, that government security forces have moved an estimated 200 bodies from a clinic in the Jebel area of Juba. Human Rights Watch has been unable to corroborate this report further, but the FM Radio Tamazuj reported witnesses seeing trucks of bodies, mostly soldiers, being moved from a military hospital in another location.
Authorities should ensure they photograph and document all the dead in their custody before burial so that family members can identify them, says Human Rights Watch.
On December 17, government officials said that they had arrested 10 politicians “in connection with the foiled coup attempt,” adding that they planned to arrest four others still “at large”. Authorities should ensure that anyone arrested is afforded all due process rights under South Sudanese law and international human rights law and that all of those arrested are promptly charged or released.
The catalyst of the fighting remains unclear. President Kiir said on December 16 that the violence was an attempted coup by Machar, whom Kiir had fired earlier in 2013. Machar has since denied trying to take over the government. According to credible sources, the violence may have been sparked by a dispute within the presidential guard. Tensions between the two men go back many years to a split in the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) during South Sudan’s long civil war, which pitched many of the Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, against each other and led to enormous bloodshed.
The number of people killed in the violence is unclear but a senior United Nations official said that the estimated death toll is 500 or higher. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on December 17 that more than 300 people had been admitted into the main civilian and military hospitals after the fighting broke out. A UN official told Human Rights Watch that United Nations doctors had treated more than 30 civilians who had arrived at the UN compound with gunshot wounds.
“South Sudanese leaders, especially President Kiir and Riek Machar, need to do all they can to stop soldiers under their control from committing abuses against people, particularly because of their ethnicity,” Bekele said. “The UN Mission should also ensure that it fully implements its mandate to protect civilians and proactively patrol Juba, and flashpoint areas like Bor.”