(Nairobi) – South Sudanese government soldiers have carried out a wide range of often-deadly attacks on civilians in and around the western town of Wau. Soldiers have killed, tortured, raped, and detained civilians and looted and burned down homes.

The abuses in the Western Bahr el Ghazal region took place during government counterinsurgency operations that intensified after an August 2015 peace deal. The attacks underscore the need for the national unity government to take immediate steps toward accountability for crimes by all warring parties since the start of South Sudan’s conflict in December 2013.

Houses burnt in South Sudan's western town of Wau in April 2016.

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

“With all eyes on the new national unity government in Juba, government soldiers have been literally getting away with murder in the country’s western regions,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government should immediately call a halt to the abuse, free all arbitrarily detained civilians, and support the creation of a war crimes court that can investigate and prosecute those responsible, including at the highest levels of authority.”

Since December 2015, newly deployed, mostly Dinka, soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have attacked ethnic Fertit civilians in villages and neighborhoods of the town of Wau.

The abuses have forced tens of thousands of people to flee, leaving villages and entire neighborhoods empty, Human Rights Watch found during a research mission to Wau in April 2016. In the neighboring region of Western Equatoria, Human Rights Watch documented the army’s similarly abusive counterinsurgency tactics, also along ethnic lines, in February 2016.

A surge in abuses began in late December and continued into the spring, after large numbers of new soldiers from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap were deployed in and around Wau. Local authorities told Human Rights Watch that the deployment was part of a counterinsurgency operation against mostly Fertit rebels based southwest of Wau.

Human Rights Watch documented numerous killings, most of which were reportedly committed by the newly-deployed Dinka soldiers. On April 9, researchers visiting Wau hospital saw the body of a man whom witnesses had seen soldiers shoot dead, in apparent retaliation for the killing of a soldier earlier that day by civilians. Shortly after the man was killed, the soldiers also killed two brothers and wounded their sister, again in retaliation, witnesses said.

On February 18, government forces retreating from combat with rebels outside of Wau fired indiscriminately on civilians in mostly Fertit neighbourhoods, killing at least two men in front of a police station, including a Fertit policeman. Later that day, near the same police post, witnesses said a soldier executed three young Fertit men on the basis of their ethnicity.

Soldiers have also unlawfully detained scores of Fertit men for up to five months, without charge or access to legal assistance, in two facilities, one of them within Wau’s main military barrack, behind the commander’s office. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they saw inmates die in detention.

With all eyes on the new national unity government in Juba, government soldiers have been literally getting away with murder in the country’s western regions.

Daniel Bekele

Africa director

At least eight former detainees said they were kept in cramped cells and forced to sleep next to a latrine, exposing them to various skin parasites. Most said they were beaten with electric wires or rubber tubes, often while their arms were tightly tied behind their backs for hours; others reported being given electric shocks.

“There’s a machine they connect you to and it makes your body shiver,” recalled a 25-year-old man who was detained for more than three months after he was accused of milling grain for rebels in his village. “It has electricity. They took me to the machine and put the wires on me.”

The soldiers also attacked civilians and committed abuses during operations outside of Wau in December in the villages of Moimoi, Ngumba, and Khorkanda, among others. Witnesses said soldiers attacked, burned, and looted houses and killed civilians, including two elderly women who had been unable to flee before the troops arrived.

The soldiers are under the command of Chief of General Staff Paul Malong and two other senior officers - Lieutenant General Jok Riak and Major General Attayib Gatluak Taitai – all of whom also held positions of command over troops who conducted a brutal offensive in Unity state last year.

Since late 2015, local authorities, including the governor of the newly created Wau state, Elias Waya Nyipuoch, and community leaders have been reporting the spate of abuses to the army and other national government officials. While the three commanders would have known about the reported abuses since at least that time, they took no steps to investigate them or to prevent further abuses.

However, in March, President Salva Kiir sent a fact-finding commission composed of high-ranking officials on a week-long mission to Wau. The commission met with victims and witnesses and with the army, and sought to reconcile communities, according to a member who spoke to Human Rights Watch. But it has yet to submit its findings to President Kiir and the abuses have continued.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch dated May 5, the SPLA categorically denied the findings that Human Rights Watch had presented in a meeting – specifically, allegations of indiscriminate killings of civilians, arbitrary arrests or looting and destruction of property.

South Sudan’s top army commanders need to rein in their forces, thoroughly investigate abuses and ensure that those responsible for abusing civilians are fairly held to account.

Daniel Bekele

Africa director

In early May, following months of complaints by community leaders and local authorities and a condemnation of the crimes by United Nations peacekeeping mission, UNMISS, South Sudan’s army moved the soldiers out of positions in and around Wau town, residents reported. However, beyond establishing the fact-finding commission, the SPLA and other government authorities have failed to criminally investigate or prosecute the alleged crimes.

The new national unity government should ask the African Union (AU) to promptly establish the hybrid tribunal envisioned in the August 2015 peace agreement to try serious crimes in South Sudan. National authorities should also investigate and fairly prosecute human rights violations. The UN peacekeeping mission should also report publicly on the abuses and the government’s response.

“South Sudan’s top army commanders need to rein in their forces, thoroughly investigate abuses and ensure that those responsible for abusing civilians are fairly held to account,” Bekele said. “They should know that they too could face international and criminal sanctions if they don’t take concrete action in accordance with the law.”

For more details, please see below.

Conflict Dynamics in Western Bahr el-Ghazal

Decades-old tensions between the Fertit, a collection of local ethnic groups, and the Dinka, cattle-herders who have migrated to Wau from neighbouring areas in search of grazing land, flared anew in late 2012, following a decision by then-governor Rizik Zakaria to move Wau county’s administrative headquarters outside of Wau. Many Fertit felt that they had not been consulted and that the move would marginalize them.

In December 2012, security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting the move, leading to eight deaths. Other civilians, both Dinka and Fertit, were killed in revenge attacks following the protests. Authorities arrested scores of people, and sentenced dozens to prison for various crimes following trials that were marred by due process concerns. Authorities did not investigate or prosecute security forces for the protester killings.

The wider conflict in South Sudan, which began in December 2013, further polarized communities in Wau along ethnic and political lines. On April 24, 2014, Nuer and Dinka soldiers and trainees clashed at the SPLA barracks in Mapel, 60 kilometers east of Wau. Following these clashes, a group of Nuer defectors fled to ethnic Fertit areas of Western Bahr el Ghazal, witnesses and UN staff reported, strengthening perceptions of the Fertit as anti-government.

By early 2015, opposition forces including Nuer and Fertit armed groups established a presence in Western Bahr el Ghazal. In May and June, they attacked the towns of Bazia and Farajallah, south and southwest of Wau, residents reported, then clashed repeatedly with the government forces into early 2016, despite the signing of the peace agreement in August 2015.

As in Western Equatoria, South Sudan’s army has conducted heavy-handed military operations to root out rebels while at the same time denying opposition forces were formally present in the area. Opposition forces in both regions have claimed to have official cantonment sites as defined in the security arrangements under the August peace agreement. On November 24, 2015, Fertit activists published a petition denouncing arrests, crimes and abuses by SPLA in Wau. Thirteen people who signed were arrested by national security authorities, then released a few days later after apologizing for the petition.

In December, Major General Attayib Gatluak “Taitai,” the commander who oversaw a bloody government offensive in Unity state in 2015, was appointed as head of the SPLA Division 5, in charge of Wau state. Local authorities told Human Rights Watch that the army’s chief of general staff, Paul Malong Awan, deployed additional troops to the area under Taitai’s command from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap states shortly after his appointment.

Local authorities and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the new troops as especially abusive.

Attacks on Civilians Outside of Wau

Displaced people from the towns of Moimoi, Ngumba, Khorkanda, and Busseri to the south of Wau, told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers whom they identified as “new forces” came to their villages in late December and began looting and burning their houses, and killing some of their relatives.

The operations targeted areas south and west of Wau where the government suspected rebels were operating. Non-governmental organizations and international actors in the area reported that the rebels had a base at Mvokongo, about 60 kilometers into the bush southwest of Wau.

One witness from Moimoi, a 63-year-old man, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers deployed between Moimoi and Busseri arrested four young men in his village, accusing them of being rebels: “On December 25, after people came out of the church, they arrested four youths. They said [the youths] were rebels, but in fact they were students.” The following days, soldiers beat villagers demanding to know the whereabouts of the rebels, burned hundreds of houses, and killed at least five people.

In Khorkanda and Ngumba, smaller villages south of Moimoi, witnesses said soldiers also killed civilians and looted and burned several dozen houses in December and January. UNMISS staff, among others, confirmed they had seen evidence of SPLA operations around this area at this time, although they did not witness the actions of the soldiers in the villages.

A 64-year-old man from Khorkanda, a smaller village near Moimoi, said that most of the villagers fled when soldiers arrived, but that an elderly woman he called his grandmother was too old to flee and was found dead when the villagers returned: “When the situation calmed down in the evening, we returned and saw that she had been beaten to death next to a tree. Her head was crushed.” When he went back to his house two days later to pick-up remaining food with his 11-year-old son, soldiers shot at them: “As we fled, they shot my son and he died. I could hear him cry behind me but I couldn’t stop running.”

During the same period a group of about 30 soldiers entered the village of Ngumba, a short distance from Khorkanda, and looted and burned the village. “They collected our things and burned our houses,” said a 42-year-old man. “Those who resisted or could not move were killed. My grandmother tried to flee and was shot just outside the hut.”

Soldiers also attacked civilians in villages west of Wau. A 55-year-old woman said that soldiers came to her village, Gwalengbo B, in March 2016 and shot her 60-year-old husband in the stomach and her 29-year-old son in the neck: “We were at home and then we heard shooting and we hit the ground and crawled away when a group of soldiers came in. There was no reason for them to target us.”

At least 38,000 people have been registered by aid organizations as having been displaced by fighting and abuses in predominantly Fertit areas southwest of Wau.

Killing, Rape, Looting in Wau

Wau residents, including local and state authorities, told Human Rights Watch that abuses increased inside the town after the new soldiers deployed, particularly in areas near checkpoints leading west and south out of town, but also in Fertit areas inside town.

They described repeated harassment, looting and assaults, including killings and rapes. Many were forced to flee their homes to other parts of town. Several Fertit neighborhoods remained largely empty with some burned out houses when Human Rights Watch visited in April.

A young teacher living in the Hai Khamsin neighborhood, near a checkpoint, said that soldiers came to his house on March 21, beat him and looted his belongings, forcing him to relocate to another part of town: “They came in and put my face down to the ground. They took my money and my phone. I told them that I am a teacher but they would not listen. They said I was a rebel…”

In another example, soldiers looted homes near the Lokoloko area near a checkpoint after their commander told residents to leave in February. “Then they started to loot the doors and zinc roofs,” said a 40-year-old woman. “We saw that. Now our house is occupied by two soldiers.”

Soldiers shot and killed town residents on several occasions. On April 9, in an incident that highlighted tensions between the military and civilians, soldiers shot dead a Jur moto-taxi driver and two Fertit brothers and wounded their sister. The attacks were apparently in retaliation against residents in the Jebel Khair area after a group killed a drunken soldier during a dispute between the soldier and a local bar owner.

The wounded woman said that she confronted the soldiers, asking why they killed her brothers. “They replied: ‘You are lucky that you are woman,’ and they shot me in the leg.”

On March 24, the burned remains of a motorcycle taxi driver, hands tied behind his back, were found behind the Catholic church. Witnesses said the men who killed him had detained him in a compound near the church occupied by soldiers, though researchers could not confirm whether the men were soldiers.

Human Rights Watch also heard several allegations of rapes by soldiers in recent months.

Three soldiers raped a 60-year-old woman in April just outside of Wau, while her nephew was forced to watch, the woman’s niece said: “The soldiers asked the nephew if it was good or bad what they were doing to the auntie and he was forced to say it was good. They took turns raping her and then left and she had to struggle to get to the main road.”

In another case, a father told Human Rights Watch that five soldiers raped his 28-year-old daughter, who was two-months pregnant, in the Hai Kosti neighborhood on New Year’s Eve: “They took her to a compound and raped her. Her boyfriend, who is the father of the baby, was with her. He was badly beaten.” After the family reported the case to the police and the woman received medical care, soldiers at a nearby checkpoint detained both her and her father for several hours, and declared that there had been no rape, the father said.

February Violence in Wau

In mid-February 2016, soldiers killed at least a dozen civilians and injured several others amid violence between Dinka and Fertit communities in Wau and clashes outside of town.

On February 14, new army reinforcements came into the town from neighboring states. On February 17, in response to the ambush of a supply pick-up truck on the road to Bazia, soldiers moved out of town toward the west, local residents said.

In the village of Natabo, west of Wau, a 36-year-old man said that soldiers had killed his young brother and a friend on February 17:

“Five or six land-cruisers and a tank arrived and they began a house-to-house search. My mother and younger sister escaped, but my brother and his friend were in another hut. The soldiers found them and shot them dead. A woman saw the soldiers kill them and shouted, ‘Why do you kill them?’ They replied: ‘We’re looking for young men.’”

On February 18, groups of Dinka youths armed with machetes and sticks moved from the Souq Jow market to the Hai Kalvario and Hai Falata areas of Wau, near the western exit of the city, following reports that four Dinka had been found dead. There, the Dinka youths clashed with Fertit youths.

That evening, as the soldiers returned to Wau from their western offensive, they began torching houses near the Lokoloko checkpoint and then intervened in the fighting, on behalf of their fellow Dinka, witnesses said.

They said the soldiers fired indiscriminately on civilians in predominantly Fertit neighborhoods and killed several civilians. In one incident in Hai Kalvario, they opened fire in a street and killed at least two men and injured two others next to a police station.

One survivor recalled: “I was walking near a police station. When I crossed the road, I saw a group of about 25 soldiers shooting at people. I was trying to cross the road to get to safety, and I was shot at. The soldiers searched all the bodies. […] I pretended they had killed me. One soldier took my wallet. Others looted the police station.”

That evening, another group of soldiers killed three other young men in the same neighborhood after demanding to know their ethnicity. The father of two of the boys said that a soldier approached his sons to verify whether they were Fertit. “Then the soldier whistled and two other soldiers came. One of them immediately shot my sons and their friend dead,” he said.

During and following these events, soldiers entered both main hospitals in Wau, looking for patients with gunshot wounds whom they accused of being rebels, local officials and hospital staff said. On February 18, the soldiers forcibly removed two wounded men and took them to military detention, despite protests by the senior medical staff and the deputy governor, Major General Andrea Dominic. The army then detained the deputy governor, reportedly on orders from Malong, the chief of general staff, accusing the deputy governor of supporting the rebels. He remains in detention in Juba.

Harassment of medical staff has continued, and soldiers beat a staff member. Since the February events, staff began to refuse to spend the nights at the hospital for security reasons, leaving the patients on their own.

Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances

Government soldiers have targeted ethnic Fertit males for arbitrary detention, holding scores of men in military barracks without charge, often for long periods.

Based on interviews with eight former detainees and the relative of a current detainee, soldiers engaged in clear patterns of abuse, arresting men based on their ethnicity and holding them either at the Jebel Akhdar or Grinti military detention facilities.

Most of the detainees said they were arrested in the street or at their home, badly beaten, and then held under the pretext that they are rebels or rebel supporters. Some were released only after relatives or friends paid large sums of money to the soldiers. None were charged with any criminal offense.

The military should not detain civilians. International and South Sudanese laws require providing anyone detained with access to counsel, medical and family visits, and either charging them promptly with a criminal offense or releasing them – within 24 hours under South Sudan law. The SPLA in its May 5 letter to Human Rights Watch denied that any civilians were in military custody, claiming that all detainees were either captured “prisoners of war” or unlawful combatants, all of whom were registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The former detainees reported dire conditions of detention, beatings and torture, and deaths of other detainees.

A 30-year-old man who came to Wau in October 2015 to sell sorghum and charcoal said that three plain-clothes Dinka men arrested him and took him to Jebel Akhdar, a military intelligence detention center. There, he was harshly beaten for three days:

“Upon arrival, they forced me into a grain bag and beat me with their gun butts and boots. The second and third days, they tied me by my wrists and ankles to two poles and lashed me. They wanted me to confess that I was a rebel. I said no and they increased the beating.”  

After two weeks at Jebel Akhdar, sleeping in an overcrowded cell, the man was transferred to the Grinti barracks, where he was beaten and tortured for four months.

He said he saw fellow detainees die: “Whenever the ICRC or government officials would come to visit Grinti, they would hide some of us for days in the administrative store. Once, five detainees died of exhaustion and thirst in there. They left their bodies with us in the store for two days.”

Several former detainees at Grinti said that at night they or others were blindfolded and individually taken to a separate room within the barracks compound. There, they would be beaten or given electric shocks.

A 21-year-old moto-taxi driver said he was asked by a soldier to drive him to Grinti on March 24. When they arrived at the barracks, the soldier accused him of being a rebel and detained him. He said he was held for four days and tortured, then released without charge: “At night, they blindfolded me and took me to a room. For an hour, they beat me with a stick and rubber and asked me about the rebels.” The soldiers did not return his motorbike.

A 42-year-old man who spent two months in detention at Grinti said that soldiers gave him a choice between a beating or electric shocks. “They said to me, ‘Are you chai bi laban ow chai saa'da?’ [Are you tea with milk or plain tea?]. I learned later that tea with milk means to be electrocuted and plain tea is beating.”

Another former detainee said he was tied to a chair after a beating, and given electric shocks: “They would take off my shirt and put sticks on my groin for 2 or 3 seconds and I would bend and shiver on the chair. Then they would ask me questions.” A 43-year-old teacher who was also detained said: “The other prisoners said I was lucky because when they arrested me, the electricity machine was broken.”

In another case, two men in their 20s said they had been arrested on January 1, 2016, and detained in Grinti for 11 days. Their detention appears linked to an incident in which a soldier was harassed and then raped during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

One of the men said: “Upon arrival, we were lashed with electric wire and they beat us with their boots. My friend was bleeding. They slapped me so hard that I could not hear for several days.” For the first two days, he said, like many other detainees, he was forced to sleep in the cell’s latrine quarter. Though not necessarily politically motivated, their detention underscores the military’s practice of abusing and torturing detainees.

In March, following pressure by the governor and a visit to Grinti by the national fact-finding commission, a number of detainees were released, but only after their relatives paid up to 1500 South Sudanese pounds (about US $60 at present exchange rates) to soldiers to secure their release. Despite SPLA denials that it was detaining civilians, Human Rights Watch, based on its research and witness accounts, believes that a number of civilians remained in arbitrary detention in Grinti as of mid-April.

Human Rights Watch also documented at least six cases of enforced disappearance. In one case, a 30-year-old engineer, Michaelangelo Mangu, was forcibly disappeared after SPLA arrested him in February in Hai Khamsin. “We looked for him everywhere, with the security, the governor, and we have had no luck,” a colleague of his said. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Another man said that three of his cousins were arrested at the Lokoloko checkpoint on February 21 as they made their way back to Wau on motorbikes: “They were initially detained by the side of the road. We went to the commissioner of Wau and opened a case with police and went to the mayor and the governor ... Until now we have received no feedback. Some people think they were killed on the day of their arrest.” They remain unaccounted for, he said.

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 detainee’s whereabouts or fate. Enforced disappearances constitute a serious crime under international law and are prohibited under any circumstance. They may also constitute a crime against humanity, as well as a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Among the rights an enforced disappearance may violate are those to life, liberty, and security of the person, including protection from torture and other ill-treatment.

Criminal and Command Responsibility

The headquarters of the SPLA’s Sector 1 and Division 5 are in the Grinti military barracks north of the town.

Sector 1 is commanded by Lt General Gabriel Jok Riak, who has been under UN sanctions since July 2015 for breaches of the cessation of hostilities agreement and obstructing international organizations from accessing affected areas. The sector oversees the 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions. Division 5 is deployed to operate in Wau and Lol, Western Bahr el-Ghazal’s two newly created states, and to defend the country’s northwestern border with Sudan.

In December, Malong, the chief of general staff, appointed Major General Taitai, as Division 5 commander. Prior to his appointment, Taitai oversaw an extremely abusive government scorched-earth offensive in Unity state and turned a blind eye to the use and recruitment of child soldiers as Division 4 commander.

At the same time, the army also deployed new forces to Wau from the neighboring states of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap. Several people interviewed, including two former SPLA officers, said those units consisted largely of Dinka, who were untrained, dressed in ragtag fatigues and especially aggressive. The SPLA’s spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that the new soldiers in Wau were drawn from the SPLA Division 3, headquartered in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and commanded by Major General Santino Deng Wol – also under UN sanction since July 2015, for breach of the cessation of hostilities agreement and violations of international humanitarian law.

The soldiers did not respond to requests by the governor of the newly created Wau state, Eyias Waya Nyipuoch, to allow aid groups access to affected areas. Most of his complaints to commanders about their abuses also remained unanswered. In early January, Governor Nyipuoch began to publicly denounce the abuses, established a state-level investigation, and reported findings to the national government. In March, the national government sent a fact-finding commission that included high-level military and civilian officials to Wau. It has yet to release its findings.

State officials have also made Major General Taitai the Division 5 commander and Malong the chief of general staff, aware of the serious allegations of misconduct, crimes and abuses by government forces. In April, during the Human Rights Watch visit, Malong was personally overseeing a military operation including the use of attack helicopters in the Wau area. The SPLA Act of 2009 provides that the chief of general staff is responsible for “the development of operational plans, deployment of forces and command of the SPLA on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief,” as well as for “convening a General Court Martial, when appropriate.”

International humanitarian law requires army commanders who know or had reason to know of abuses and crimes about to be or committed by their subordinates to take preventive or reparative actions. Failure to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or punish abuses carried out by troops under their effective control can leave commanders criminally responsible for the acts of their subordinates.