Houses burnt in the Hai Ikpiro neighbourhood of Yambio city, South Sudan, during the December 2015 clashes between government forces and rebels. 

(Nairobi) – South Sudanese government forces have carried out numerous killings, enforced disappearances, rapes, and other grave abuses in the Western Equatoria region during expanded fighting in the region. Rebel armed groups there have also committed serious abuses, including rape.

The African Union (AU) Commission should move forward to establish a hybrid court to try the most serious crime cases from the current South Sudan conflict as envisioned in the August 2015 peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations (UN) Security Council should impose a comprehensive arms embargo on all forces in South Sudan to help curtail abuses against civilians.

“As South Sudan’s fighting has shifted west, so too have the atrocities by government forces and rebel groups. South Sudan’s leaders should put a stop to all abuses,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Both an arms embargo and an effective war crimes court are also crucial to help stem the abuses and send a message that the crimes will be punished.”

Under the peace agreement, President Salva Kiir and the opposition, headed by former Vice President Riek Machar, agreed to form a transitional government and cease hostilities and abuses. Since then, however, fighting between South Sudan’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the rebel SPLA in Opposition, has spread to previously uncontested western areas of the country, accompanied by familiar patterns of abuses against civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

In Western Equatoria, where Human Rights Watch researchers spent a week in February 2016, government soldiers have attacked civilian areas, burned and looted homes, and arbitrarily detained and summarily executed people. The abuses appear to be part of a counterinsurgency campaign targeting men and boys suspected of links to rebel militias known as “Arrow Boys.” The violence has taken on an ethnic dimension, with largely Dinka government soldiers targeting non-Dinka local armed groups.

The conflict first reached Western Equatoria in May 2015, when tensions between ethnic Dinka cattle herders and non-Dinka farming communities fueled fighting between government forces and local armed groups in the town of Mundri. In the ensuing months, fighting extended to Maridi and Yambio, two of the region’s main hubs.

The dismissal of the governor of Western Equatoria state, Joseph Bakosoro, over his suspected support of rebel forces, and his five-day detention by the SPLA, further polarized the community. The authorities re-arrested Bakosoro on December 22, 2015, and have held him without charge, with dozens of other political prisoners, family members reported. The authorities should promptly release Bakosoro and others detained without charge, Human Rights Watch said.

2016 Human Rights Watch

The most recent fighting near Yambio followed a spate of violent crimes in December attributed to the Arrow Boys, including the rape of a 67-year-old Catholic nun on December 28.

On January 21, 2016, SPLA forces attacked a rebel group, the South Sudan National Liberation Movement, in the village of Birisi, 20 kilometers south of Yambio. The fighting spread to Yambio, and at least 13 people were killed, including at least three civilians. Human Rights Watch saw evidence that government soldiers burned and looted civilians’ homes during and after the fighting in Yambio, driving thousands of people to flee. Other abuses included the enforced disappearance of at least 11 men since November 2015.

Civilians displaced from Mundri in Western Equatoria told Human Rights Watch that soldiers shot at civilians and burned and looted homes, causing an estimated 50,000 people to flee. Government soldiers have prevented aid agencies and observers from reaching the affected areas. Forces have also occupied schools, displacing students and depriving them of education.

Authorities have largely failed to respond to allegations of abuses, underscoring the breakdown in law and order that has accompanied the spread of conflict, Human Rights Watch found. Researchers saw the bodies of two men, shot in the head and chest, their arms tied behind their backs, decomposing in a teak forest more than two weeks after UN peacekeepers had discovered the corpses and alerted local authorities.

Fighting has also surged in other parts of South Sudan. In one widely reported incident, on February 17, government soldiers and other armed men attacked a UN protection of civilian camps in Malakal. About 20 people were killed and at least 100 injured, and 2,700 shelters were burned. Most of the camp’s 43,000 residents were forced to flee to an older protection site or back into the city. The UN called the attack a possible war crime.

Both the government and the opposition have made commitments to support justice for crimes against civilians since the conflict began in December 2013, but if there have been any domestic investigations into alleged abuses, they have not been made public.

The August peace agreement envisions a range of steps to hold violators accountable, including a hybrid court established by the AU Commission to try the most serious crimes. Hybrid courts, which include both international and domestic judges and other staff, have been used in other countries to deliver justice where national courts lack expertise or will to try these crimes. The AU Commission has yet to make significant progress on creating such a court, which will need a statute, infrastructure agreements, and a budget before it can begin functioning. These steps can be taken in parallel to other developments, such as the formation of a transitional government, Human Rights Watch said.

“Rather than seeing improvements following the peace agreement, we are seeing continuous attacks on civilians and other abuses carried out with impunity,” Bekele said. “It is high time the AU and the UN act, by moving forward with the hybrid court and implementing the long-threatened arms embargo.”

Spreading Conflict in Western Equatoria
Fighting between government armed forces, the SPLA, and local armed groups, known as “Arrow Boys” began in May 2015, and has since spread across Western Equatoria. The Arrow Boys, composed mostly of Zande, Jur, and Moru ethnic groups, are named after local defense forces formed in the region in 2009 to fight the Uganda rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army attacks in South Sudan.

While some Arrow Boys have publicly aligned with the rebel SPLA in Opposition, giving them a role in the broader conflict, one of their groups sought a separate peace deal with the state government.

On May 21, 2015, SPLA forces fought against a local armed group that has since joined the SPLA in Opposition, near Mundri. The fighting started after the bodies of two Dinka soldiers were found near the entrance to the town following several months of growing tensions between local Moru and Jur farming communities and Dinka cattle herders. UN monitors found that by the end of May, at least 60 civilians had been killed.

In June, a grenade attack by an unknown assailant on a cattle camp near Maridi triggered fighting between Dinka militias and local armed youths. It escalated when the SPLA and a newly formed rebel group joined in the fighting. Fourteen people were reported killed and 196 houses burned, according to an independent assessment by aid groups.

Fighting spread to Yambio in late July, following weeks of tit-for-tat violence between soldiers and local armed youth in the village of Birisi, 20 kilometers south of Yambio. On July 29, soldiers clashed with Birisi youth, and burned homes and a church, killing five people, including at least two civilians whose burned bodies were found in the church, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The same day, in Yambio, a Dinka soldier shot dead two motorcycle taxi drivers near the SPLA base in possible retaliation for the killing of three soldiers during the Birisi fighting.

On August 14, president Kiir recalled the Western Equatoria governor Joseph Bakosoro to Juba and dismissed him. The SPLA then detained him for five days, further fueling ethnic and political tensions across the state. On December 22, security forces arrested him again, reportedly for his alleged role in supporting rebel groups in his home region. Bakosoro has since been held without charge at the national security services headquarters in Juba, with limited family visits.

The most recent government offensive in the western part of the region followed a surge in violent crimes in Yambio in December attributed to the Arrow Boys. On December 28, five armed men broke into a Catholic organization compound and raped a 67-year old American nun, stole vehicles and valuables, and beat staff members. Two days days later, unidentified gunmen ambushed an SPLA vehicle on the Yambio-Nzara road.

In early January 2016, the government began a military operation called “Opening the Road,” targeting armed groups in the western part of the region. The SPLA attacked locations near Yambio, Saura, Li Rangu, Ezo, Tambura, and Source Yubo. On January 21, the SPLA’s Division 6 attacked an armed group at Birisi and fought it in Yambio. The group had signed a preliminary peace agreement with the state government in November. During these operations, soldiers allegedly shot at civilians and carried out numerous other abuses.

Unlawful Attacks, Looting, Displacement
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that during and after the January 21 fighting in and around Yambio, government soldiers attacked their homes and looted their belongings. Thousands were displaced, including at least 6,000 civilians, to a compound in Yambio operated by a nongovernmental group.

“Houses were burned along the main road and our chickens, ducks, goats, and valuables were looted by the soldiers,” said a priest who lived in the Doudouma area of Yambio. “Now, the men don’t feel safe to come back to the area. They are afraid of getting shot at or arrested by the soldiers.”

A 19-year-old from Yambio living in the compound said that he fled his house when fighting began on January 21 and hid in the bush for eight days. While he was fleeing, he saw soldiers burn homes and shoot at civilians.

“The SPLA came and burned the forest to force us out,” he said. “As people ran from the flames, the soldiers shot at them. There were no rebels in my area. Yet, the soldiers stole goods and food from us, and burned our houses.”

Another displaced man said that when he returned home to Yambio’s Doudouma neighborhood four days after the January 21 attack, his house had been burned, along with all of his goods. “When I got there, soldiers were still around, looting people’s belongings,” he said.

Some government officials denied that the army had purposefully set fire to civilian homes, claiming instead that bullets may have accidentally set the thatched roofs ablaze. But the governor of Western Equatoria’s new Gbudue state, Patrick Zamoi, confirmed that “houses were burned by the soldiers – but that is because the rebels were staying there.”

Human Rights Watch saw photographs appearing to show soldiers burning civilian huts in Naandi and Birisi, and visited the remnants of dozens of civilian houses in Yambio’s Doudouma and Ikpiro neighborhoods that had been burned at various times. In December 2015, soldiers reportedly burned and looted homes and were implicated in several rapes in Yambio, according to an assessment by aid groups.

Soldiers have continued to commit abuses against civilians, especially young men, generating fear and distrust among the community. In Yambio on February 7, soldiers shot an 18-year-old in the leg while he was laying bricks in a deserted neighborhood near the SPLA barracks.

The SPLA has also temporarily occupied at least four Yambio schools, displacing the students, and created a military post on the road leading south of town. Residents displaced by fighting and abuses told Human Rights Watch they feared to return as long as soldiers remained near their homes.

Enforced Disappearances, Extrajudicial Executions
Human Rights Watch documented 11 cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions by government forces between November 2015 and February 2016 in and around Yambio, and received credible reports of many others. Two of the men were eventually freed, the bodies of three men were later discovered, and the whereabouts of the other six remain unknown.

Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities take an individual into custody but refuse to acknowledge doing so or do not provide information about the person's whereabouts or fate. Among the rights an enforced disappearance may violate are the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person, including protection from torture and other ill-treatment.

In one case, a woman told Human Rights Watch that soldiers came to arrest her husband on the night of January 18, and pulled him into their vehicle. When she went to the military base to find him, a soldier told her: “If this is your husband, forget about him and marry another man.”

Among the bodies found was a 34-year-old man arrested by soldiers in the Napere neighborhood of Yambio in November and detained for two months. He was last seen alive by his brother at the SPLA barracks in late December. “One night, they even poured some fuel on him and burned his arms, feet, and back,” his brother said. “I saw circles of burned skin all over him when I visited him one day.”  His body was found days later in the village of Saura, where the SPLA attacked a suspected rebel camp during the January offensive, witnesses said. 

The brother said: “I found the dead bodies. My brother was among them. He was tied and his face was rotten. All of his body was rotten. But I recognized him from his clothes, feet, and fingers.”

Two more bodies were found on the morning of January 22, 2016, by UN staff at the mission’s dumping site in a teak forest near the SPLA barrack of Yambio. The two unidentified males, whose arms were tied behind their backs, had been shot in the head and the chest, UN staff said.  

Based on interviews with Yambio residents and a local SPLA officer as well as photographic evidence, Human Rights Watch believes one of the two bodies belonged to a former soldier, nicknamed Woror, who was discharged from the SPLA in early 2015 for disciplinary reasons and allegedly joined the rebels.

An SPLA officer told Human Rights Watch that the National Security Services (NSS) arrested Woror in January and handed him over to the military. Three days later, he said, soldiers executed Woror in the teak forest.

Arbitrary Detentions, Beatings, Torture
Human Rights Watch documented 12 cases of arbitrary arrests and detention by the SPLA and the NSS around the time of the fighting in January. 

In some cases, detainees and witnesses described beatings and torture. A local activist said that on January 21 he saw soldiers arrest a boy at a market in Yambio because of his “rasta” hair. “They beat him up with their guns, slapped him and kicked him as they carried him to the car,” he said.  “I don’t know what happened to him afterward.”

A teacher said that he witnessed soldiers beating three young men behind his house on the night of January 21: “The soldiers asked the men for their tribe. They threatened them, saying ‘If you are Zande [the majority ethnic group in the area], you will see what will happen to you.’”

A teenage girl said soldiers arrested her and her sister early in January as they walked on the road between Nzara and Yambio. They were brought to an SPLA barracks and detained for three weeks. “They asked us questions and made us cook for them,” she said. “We were beaten during the interrogations.” 

She said that while in detention, she saw soldiers abuse the male detainees: “Some detainees were tortured. One had his fingernails removed. I saw it when we delivered them food. Every day I saw the group of boys, about 10, brought out for interrogation. I think some were killed because the number went down.”

Another man from Yambio, arrested by soldiers on January 17 and detained for two months, was also beaten in detention, his brother said. 

On February 8, Human Rights Watch met with the acting SPLA commander of Yambio, Col. Makeny Makor Buoy, who denied that his forces ever detained anyone.

NSS officials have also carried out arbitrary arrests and detention, and beat detainees. In late January, NSS officials arrested Silvester Ruati, a radio journalist in Yambio, and held him for two days. “Someone had accused me of sponsoring the Arrow Boys,” Ruati said. “At some point during my detention, they blindfolded me and ordered me to tell the truth, threatening to kill me if I did not.”

Around the same time, the NSS detained a 22-year-old student and held him for nine days. The student said that for the first two days, officials beat him to try to make him confess to being part of the Arrow Boys. Over the course of his detention, he saw the NSS hand over five other detainees to the SPLA, one of whom was later found dead in a teak forest.

On February 6, the NSS arrested two more men, who were apparently suspected of transferring money to rebels, and transferred them to the NSS in Juba. The wife of one of the detainees said she has had no news of her husband’s whereabouts or well-being and fears for his life.

While NSS officers in Yambio denied having detained anyone, Governor Zamoi told Human Rights Watch that the NSS could carry out arrests if they were “political.”