(Nairobi) – Both pro and antigovernment armed forces are responsible for serious abuses that may amount to war crimes in two key oil hubs in South Sudan during recent fighting, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch researchers visited Malakal and Bentiu, the capitals of two oil producing states, between January 29 and February 14, 2014. Researchers found that armed forces from both sides have extensively looted and destroyed civilian property, including desperately needed aid facilities, targeted civilians, and carried out extrajudicial executions, often based on ethnicity.
“The wanton destruction and violence against civilians in this conflict is shocking,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to stop their forces from committing abuses and hold those who have responsible for their actions, and the African Union (AU) should accelerate its long promised investigations.”
Since late December 2013 Human Rights Watch researchers have investigated allegations of serious abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Juba, Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal. Researchers interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses of the fighting and attacks, and investigated sites of attacks in all locations where security permitted access.
The towns of Malakal and Bentiu are now extensively destroyed and mostly empty because terrified residents fled to United Nations (UN) camps and surrounding rural areas. Threat of further attacks and targeting of civilians based on ethnicity prevent the vast majority from returning. Both towns are important political and economic hubs, where residents from many ethnicities have lived together.
Despite an agreement on January 23, 2014, to end the hostilities, and signed on by both the government and antigovernment forces, now known as SPLA-in-Opposition, there have been new attacks by both sides. Credible reports indicate that government forces, in some cases supported by the Ugandan military, attacked Leer, Gatdiang, and other locations in Unity state in early February.
On February 18 opposition forces, including the so-called white army of armed Nuer fighters, attacked Malakal. Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports that on February 19 opposition forces killed civilians at the Malakal hospital, and that fighting both near and inside the UN camp in Malakal resulted in additional casualties.
A political dispute between President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnicity, and former Vice President Riek Machar, from the Nuer ethnicity, is behind the conflict. The fighting began when members of the South Sudanese presidential guard clashed in Juba, the country’s capital, on December 15, 2013. President Kiir said the fighting was a coup attempt by Machar and his allies, which Machar has denied. Since December 15, the conflict has spread to other towns and villages in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states.
In any armed conflict, murder, attacks directed at civilians, civilian property – including objects used for humanitarian relief – and pillage are prohibited and constitute war crimes. A clear pattern of reprisal killings based on ethnicity, massive destruction, and widespread looting has emerged in this conflict, Human Rights Watch said, based on its research.
In Juba, Human Rights Watch researchers found that Dinka members of South Sudan’s security forces carried out widespread killings and mass arrests of Nuer soldiers and civilians during the first week of the crisis. Human Rights Watch has also documented killings of Dinka civilians in the town of Bor, where opposition forces – including the Nuer “white army” fighters – destroyed and looted markets and homes, and killed civilians hiding in their homes or other buildings. As elsewhere in South Sudan, the attacking Nuer youths have cited revenge for the killing of Nuer in Juba as a motivation.
In Bentiu and the adjacent town of Rubkona, a majority ethnic Nuer area, there was fighting between pro and antigovernment members of the country’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) on December 20 and 21. Opposition forces held the towns until January 10, 2014. Human Rights Watch received reports that government forces, consisting of pro-government SPLA and Sudanese rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) fighters, extensively looted shops, homes, markets, and offices of aid agencies. Large areas of Bentiu and most of Rubkona were burned during the recapture of the towns.
Although most civilians fled their homes ahead of the arrival of the government forces, government soldiers shot and killed civilians who remained, residents said. Human Rights Watch also received reports that government forces burned villages in Guit county as they pursued the opposition forces in the following days.
When opposition forces were in control, the antigovernment soldiers, together with police and civilians, looted Bentiu and Rubkona, including before fleeing the towns on and in the days before January 10. As antigovernment soldiers and civilians fled into rural areas, the soldiers also stole precious food from civilians.
Researchers also found that prior to the first clash in December 2013, ethnic Nuer – including members of government security personnel – had attacked ethnic Dinka living in Bentiu and Rubkona, including targeted killings.
In Malakal, an ethnically diverse town of mainly Shilluk, Nuer, and Dinka communities, conflict erupted on December 24 when pro and antigovernment forces clashed at SPLA barracks, the airport, and key locations in town. The government recaptured the town on December 27, but it changed hands again on January 14, 2014, January 20, and most recently on February 18, following a third attack by opposition forces.
The town has been extensively burned and looted, and almost all civilians have fled to villages, churches, the hospital, or the UN compound north of the town.
Human Rights Watch found that each side, when in effective control of the town, attacked civilians, destroyed and looted civilian property – including food and humanitarian aid – and targeted people based on their ethnicity. During a week in January when the opposition effectively controlled Malakal, for example, “white army” Nuer fighters went house to house looting and robbing residents at gunpoint, killing some in cold blood.
While government forces were in control of Malakal from January 20 through mid-February, soldiers looted and burned civilian properties and carried out targeted killings of civilian ethnic Nuer men, including inside the Malakal teaching hospital, witnesses and family members told Human Rights Watch.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) provided safe haven for tens of thousands of civilians – more than 27,000 in Malakal and more than 7,000 in Bentiu at the height of the conflict – and in some cases transported residents to safety, almost certainly saving numerous lives.
“The conflict in South Sudan is far from over, with civilians still at risk of further abuse even inside UN compounds,” Bekele said. “Military commanders from both sides have an obligation to immediately and unequivocally order their forces to stop attacking civilians and civilian property, and the commanders need to hold abusive soldiers to account.”
A thorough and impartial investigation into human rights abuses during this conflict is a necessary first step to secure justice for victims and to respond to widespread anger, in particular resulting from the ethnic targeted killings of civilians. Unaddressed, these abuses risk leading to further violence, Human Rights Watch said.
On February 21 the UN mission released its interim report on human rights abuses during the conflict, detailing abuses by both sides. The report is a positive step and should be followed by more frequent public reporting in an effort to prevent further abuses by both sides.
On December 30, 2013, the AU Peace and Security Council called for an AU commission of inquiry to report by March 30, 2014, on human rights violations and other abuses during the conflict. Despite the urgency of this task, the commission has yet to be appointed.
“The start of the AU’s promised investigation is long overdue,” Bekele said. “It is urgently needed, both to prevent further abuses and as a crucial step in the path to lasting peace.”
Bentiu and Rubkona
Bentiu and neighboring Rubkona are a gateway to key oil fields, with a population largely of ethnic Nuer. On December 21, 2013, following skirmishes between pro and antigovernment forces at army barracks, General James Koang, the head of the SPLA’s Division 4, defected and declared himself the military governor of Unity state. His forces exercised control over the towns until January 10, 2014, when government forces attacked and recaptured them.
During the period when Koang’s forces were in control, opposition soldiers loyal to him, as well as police and civilians, extensively looted markets, shops, and the offices of numerous international aid organizations.
After taking control of the town on January 10, pro-government forces also looted and burned large areas of Bentiu, including markets on either side of the main road and almost all of Rubkona market and surrounding neighborhoods, leaving only charred remains.
Bentiu and Rubkona are currently under government control. Some civilians have returned to the town looking for food, but the majority of the population continues to take shelter at the UN base or have fled to other areas.
Attacks on Civilians by Government Forces
As the government forces entered Rubkona from the north on January 10, Dinka who had taken shelter at the UN compound, including some pro-government soldiers who had fled during Koang’s defection, jumped over the fence and joined the attacking forces. Witnesses saw the government soldiers give these men weapons, including machetes, and described seeing some men from this group beat Nuer civilians living next to the base and burn numerous huts.
At least five people were killed, including an elderly woman who was burned in her hut. “They came, pushed me in, and then lit my house on fire,” said another elderly woman who survived and who still had severe burns on her face and arms when she spoke to Human Rights Watch. “They were singing in Dinka when they came up to me. When they saw that I had [traditional scarification] marks, they identified me as Nuer.”
Almost all of Rubkona and Bentiu’s civilian population had fled the towns ahead of the government attack. Government forces shot at the remaining civilians, killing some as they fled toward the UN compound. A witness told Human Rights Watch that he saw Sudanese rebels from JEM and government soldiers taking aim and shooting civilians as they were running toward the UN base.
After the government forces recaptured the town, witnesses saw about 30 civilian bodies on the road between the town and the UN base, including some in areas where there had been no exchange of fire with opposition forces. Civilians who fled to nearby streams and swampy areas said the government soldiers shot at them in their hiding places in tall rushes.
“I saw three people shot … in the head and chest,” said one man who hid among reeds for three days without food or water. “On the second day of hiding they decided to walk out [of hiding] and then they were shot.” Another man who hid nearby in a riverbed said soldiers burned the rushes, perhaps to get a better look at where people were hiding: “If you got out you would be killed, if the grass [rushes] moved they shot at you,” he said. The same man saw soldiers shoot a boy running beside him as he fled, and saw the bodies of a woman and two other children in the river after soldiers shot them.
Human Rights Watch was also shown the remains of five civilians reportedly shot on the same day in a neighborhood of Rubkona, close to these hiding areas. Their bodies had been burned at the site. A young man, around 18 years old, said he had been shot in his left thigh by government soldiers as he ran away from them. A government worker said his 19-year-old nephew was also killed on January 10 and his body had been left in the Kallevalle neighborhood of Bentiu. Several people told Human Rights Watch that they had seen or heard of bodies left in various neighborhoods in Bentiu following the recapture of the town.
Ethnic Targeting Before the Government Attack
Human Rights Watch found that prior to the clashes on December 20, 2013, ethnic Nuer members of security forces targeted ethnic Dinka civilians in Bentiu and Rubkona in reprisal for the killings of Nuer in Juba in December.
A government administrator was killed and two others were injured when a mix of Nuer police and wildlife personnel attacked a house in Bentiu, a relative of the inhabitants said. One woman said Nuer members of the wildlife service beat her aunt so badly on the night of December 20 that she later died. Another man said that Nuer policemen had killed four people in his house after he fled.
One church leader said he gathered frightened Dinka in his church on the night of December 19 as Nuer civilians and armed police moved around his neighborhood looking for Dinka: “I heard people talking behind my fence saying, ‘We will kill all Dinka.’ It was a mix of civilians and police.” He saw the body of a Dinka woman, a cleaner in his church, among around 15 corpses sent to the hospital the next day.
A senior government official said that about 70 Dinka civilians had been killed during the targeted killing in the towns. As most Dinka had already moved to ethnic Dinka parts of Unity state, Human Rights Watch was unable to ascertain the full extent of the killings.
Efforts by government officials, army officials, and the UN mission to collect Dinka and move them to the UN camp probably helped save many lives.
Conflict spread to Malakal, the ethnically diverse town with large groups of Shilluk, Nuer, and Dinka, on December 24. Nuer forces commanded by General Garhouth Galwak defected from the SPLA and other security organs and clashed with the pro-government forces in several locations, including near the UN compound north of town.
The government recaptured the town on December 27 and held it for several weeks. The town changed hands again with an opposition attack on January 14, 2014, back to a government recapture on January 20, and a another opposition attack on February 18. The attacking opposition forces in January and February included thousands of fighters in the so-called white army, the name used to describe large groups of armed Nuer youths fighting en masse, in addition to uniformed opposition soldiers.
Forces on both sides killed many civilians, often based on their ethnicity. The death toll is unknown, but many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they saw dozens of bodies lying on main roads in January and February. In addition to the targeted killings, civilians were killed in the crossfire during clashes near the UN compound on December 24, 2013, January 20, 2014, and February 18, and as a result of fighting inside the camp for displaced people inside the compound.
Attacks on Civilians by Opposition Forces
During their attack on January 14, the opposition “white army” fighters, wearing colored headbands to indicate their country of origin, went house to house demanding money, phones, food, or other goods. They looted indiscriminately, including from ethnic Nuer residents, but appear to have carried out more violence against non-Nuer residents.
In one example, two armed “white army” members shot a man from Maban county in the face and stomach, killing him instantly, when he refused to hand over money and mobile phones, said his 22-year-old wife, who witnessed the shooting:
When the rebels came from Nassir, we were at home. Some came together and demanded a mobile. My husband, Jumaa, said ‘No, we don’t have one.’ The rebels left but then two of them came back and again asked for a mobile and money. They pointed their gun at Jumaa and shot him in the belly and in the mouth.
A priest from Western Equatoria from the Moro ethnic group, told Human Rights Watch that he had remained in town following the opposition attack on January 14. He said that a soldier had arrested his son, tied his hands, and took him to the river at gunpoint. “The neighbor who saw this called us, and me and his mother went running after the soldier,” the clergyman said. “He started to fire in the air, then recognized me and let my son go.”
Many witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had left the town before the January 14 attack. They said that people who returned to the town after the attack reported seeing dead bodies on the streets or in homes, and that the victims apparently had been shot during robberies. Since the opposition forces recaptured the town on February 18, witnesses reported seeing additional dead bodies and burning houses.
Ethnic Targeting by Government Forces
Human Rights Watch received consistent reports from many sources that government soldiers targeted ethnic Nuer males for arrest and killings after January 20. A Nuer Presbyterian pastor was among those reported killed, as he was shot in the street in the days after the town was recaptured.
“When the government came, they targeted Nuers,” said a witness, a clergyman. “One pastor we know was killed. He put on his collar and wanted to visit the hospital but was shot on the way.”
A 20-year-old student told Human Rights Watch that a group of seven soldiers arrested him and two friends as they were walking to the UN compound on January 20. The soldiers tied the youths’ hands with rope, put them in a vehicle, and then handed them over to other soldiers at a military barracks.
“They lined us up outside of a building and started shooting at us,” he said. “When they shot at me I just fell down.” The three of them were left for dead, but an hour later another soldier discovered that one youth was alive and took him to the hospital. His wounds required amputation of his right hand.
Another student, 18, said that on January 24 a group of government soldiers arrested him and two other Nuer youths at their home in Muderia area, took them to the riverbank, and shot at them.
“They took us because we are Nuers,” the youth said. “They walked us to the riverside near the hospital. They told us to sit down and then they shot us. I tried to run into the river after I was shot and I fell into the water.”
He was shot in the buttocks and the thigh, and could not walk. Another soldier found him later that day and took him to a church. He believes the other two youths were killed.
Soldiers also arrested Nuer men at the Malakal teaching hospital, where thousands of residents, most of them Nuer, had sought refuge when the government recaptured the town. Witnesses said the soldiers pulled the young men out of the hospital, took them near the river, and shot them. One 24 year old student who had sought refuge in the hospital said he went to the riverbank after hearing gunshots in the evening and saw four bodies of Nuer men in their twenties.
Another student, also in his early twenties, was in the hospital because he had been shot in the crossfire during the December 2013 clashes. He told Human Rights Watch that a soldier had entered his room where he was staying, demanded his younger brother, 20, come out of the hospital, then took him near the river and shot him. Their 60-year-old mother found the body the next day. “When I went to the river I saw my son with my own eyes,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I couldn’t bury him because soldiers were at the river.”
Widespread Destruction, Looting
The clashes and attacks, widespread looting and destruction, and other abuses by both sides have left the town destroyed and empty. Many witnesses noted that Malakal has never seen this level of destruction, even during the long civil war. Tens of thousands of civilians, some fleeing ahead of the first clash in December 2013, are now in villages or taking shelter at churches or the UN compound, seven kilometers from the town.
Following initial looting and burning by opposition forces in December, thousands of “white army” fighters from Nassir, Ulong, and other Nuer areas did substantial damage during six days in January 2014, looting the remaining shops, homes, and humanitarian aid compounds. These forces continued to destroy civilian properties when they regained control over the town following a February 17, 2014, attack, according to aid workers.
Government forces also looted and burned civilian property after January 20, said displaced residents who are now at the UN compound, particularly as law and order broke down and many of the state’s top officials defected or fled. When Human Rights Watch visited the town on February 13, several homes were aflame or smoldering from fires caused by vandalism.