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South Sudan: New Abuse of Civilians by Both Sides

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Women stand outside a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) site in Yei, in southern South Sudan. The formerly peaceful town of Yei was once a beacon of coexistence, but Yei is now a center of the country's renewed civil war.  © 2016 Justin Lynch/AP Photo
(Nairobi) – Government and rebel forces in and around South Sudan’s southern town of Yei have committed serious abuses against civilians in recent months, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses include killings, rapes, and arbitrary arrests by government forces and abductions by rebels. The abuses Human Rights Watch documented in Yei are just the latest example of attacks on civilians by both sides in the current conflict.
Fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces and rebels and attacks by both parties on civilians intensified in the country’s southern regions in the wake of clashes in the capital, Juba, in early July 2016. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the Greater Equatoria region in the south as a result.
“A proposal for a United Nations arms embargo is finally on the table after nearly three years of atrocities against civilians by armed groups in South Sudan,” said Daniel Bekele, senior director for Africa advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “Security Council members should urgently support the measure, which could help stem the attacks on civilians.”
Young girl walks down a dusty street in Yei

War has reached Yei, and South Sudan’s civil war has turned this once-peaceful town upside down.

In November, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, warned of a potential for genocide in South Sudan. On November 17, the United States delegation to the UN circulated a new resolution at the Security Council for an arms embargo on South Sudan and targeted sanctions on individuals named in a confidential annex.
Between October 19 and 26, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than 70 victims and witnesses in Yei, the capital of the newly created Yei River state, in Central Equatoria, about 150 kilometers south of the capital, Juba. Because of ongoing insecurity, researchers were unable to reach and assess areas outside of Yei, including Mugwo, Rubeke, and Mitika, on the road to Lasu, places where there have been further serious allegations of abuses. Researchers also met with government officials in Yei and aid agencies in Juba.  
South Sudan’s civil war has been marked by widespread attacks on civilians by government forces and members of the rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (the “IO”), since the conflict began in December 2013. A power-sharing agreement signed by leaders of both sides in August 2015 has been undermined by ongoing clashes and fighting in a number of previously stable areas.
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Yei residents told Human Rights Watch that grisly killings of civilians and the fear of arrests and fighting had prompted mass displacement from Yei and surrounding areas starting in July. While Yei remains in government hands, rebels appear to control most surrounding areas.
While the UN refugee agency maintains a presence in the town, the UN peacekeeping mission has only been able to conduct two patrols to Yei since reports of abuses emerged, largely because of government restrictions on UN movements in and out of Juba.
In one reported killing on August 23, unidentified attackers entered a house and killed a mother and her 4-year-old daughter with machetes, then dumped their bodies in a river. The 4-month-old baby was cut on the neck but survived. The killings took place in areas controlled by government forces but in this and some other cases, Human Rights Watch was unable to identify if the attackers were government forces or rebel fighters.
Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of arbitrary detentions of civilian men by government troops in military facilities in Yei, adding to an ongoing pattern of arbitrary detentions by the military in Juba, Yambio, and Wau. Credible sources in Yei said the detainees were tortured and held in deplorable conditions. At least two people were victims of enforced disappearances, with the authorities denying that they were being held and their whereabouts unknown. Enforced disappearances are strictly prohibited under all circumstances and may constitute a war crime.
A young girl walks down a dusty street in Yei, which has been left nearly empty since becoming the center of the country's renewed civil war. © 2016 AP 
Human Rights Watch researchers also found that rebels claiming affiliation with the opposition forces led by former Vice-President Riek Machar ambushed a convoy of cars carrying civilians fleeing Yei, killing mostly Dinka, who are from the same broad ethnic grouping as President Salva Kiir. “They started to shoot and I lay down,” an 11-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch about an October 8 attack on a convoy. “Others fell on top of me. One had been shot to the head.” The rebels then burned the lorry and their occupants, killing dozens inside.
Both government soldiers and rebel fighters have raped women and girls in Yei and areas surrounding the town since the conflict there intensified in mid-2016, according to victims, medical staff, nongovernmental organizations, and government officials. Opposition fighters also attacked Sudanese refugees from the Nuba mountains living in a camp south of Yei, and abducted at least nine women and their children.
Almost everyone Human Rights Watch interviewed described serious restrictions on civilians trying to move from Yei into surrounding areas, including to their farms, because of fear of government or armed opposition forces.
While international law does not prohibit the arrest or apprehension of civilians on broader security grounds in times of conflict, any detention is subject to strict due process, and failure to respect such procedural safeguards makes a detention arbitrary. In particular, anyone arrested should be informed of the reasons for arrest, taken promptly before a judge to be charged or released, and given an opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of the detention.
South Sudan’s government should ensure security and freedom of movement, including for access by aid agencies to civilians in need of assistance in Yei, and the delivery of essential and emergency medicines to Yei City Hospital, including for emergency post- rape care. South Sudan’s government should also support women’s rights groups and others to raise awareness about the importance of emergency post-rape care, including psychosocial support, Human Rights Watch said.
UN Security Council members should support the US proposal for an arms embargo and targeted sanctions. Security Council members should also press for progress on establishing the African Union (AU) hybrid court for South Sudan to investigate and prosecute people responsible for war crimes and other serious violations of the laws of war during the conflict.
“This horrendous conflict has had a devastating impact on South Sudanese civilians and it is worsening in large part because no one has suffered any consequence for committing grave crimes,” Bekele said. “The UN, the African Union, and key governments need to urgently support an arms embargo and other measures, such as individual sanctions and the AU hybrid court, to hold those responsible for international crimes to account.”
A Spreading Conflict
In July 2016, just two months after Riek Machar, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (IO), resumed his role as first vice-president in a transitional national unity government planned under the August 2015 peace agreement, his forces and government soldiers fought in the capital, Juba. Serious human rights violations marked the fighting. Government forces killed civilians and raped women perceived to belong to Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
Opposition troops fled Juba in the wake of the fighting, and President Kiir appointed Taban Deng Gai, another opposition movement figure, to replace Machar as first vice-president. In September, Machar called for a return to war.
Although clashes between government forces and Machar’s forces, or other armed groups claiming an affiliation to the rebel movement, have taken place in various parts of the southern Equatoria region since early 2015, there was a notable increase in fighting following the July 2016 events.
Yei residents told Human Rights Watch researchers that the government deployed additional forces, mostly Dinka, to Yei in April, triggering increased tensions between local residents and the troops. In May, soldiers at a checkpoint shot a Slovak nun who had worked in Yei for more than five years as she returned from taking a woman in labor to a maternity hospital in the outskirts of town. She died days later from her wounds, causing an outcry against the soldiers among Yei residents. Many civilians said that the soldiers’ misconduct had led to an increase in the number of young men joining rebels in the bush.
Conditions in Yei, including access to basic supplies such as food, are increasingly difficult. Yei Civil Hospital has faced medicine shortages because of slow government deliveries. When Human Rights Watch researchers were in Yei, the hospital had an extreme shortage of basic medicines, including antibiotics and anti-malarial prophylactics.
Abuses Against Civilians by Government Forces
Government troops have arbitrarily arrested and detained scores of civilians, subjecting them to inhumane treatment for prolonged periods of time. Human Rights Watch identified two cases of enforced disappearances by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) military intelligence. Soldiers also killed and raped civilians, and the army forcefully displaced thousands of civilians from certain areas in Yei, shooting threateningly in the air and the bushes, then looting homes and belongings.
Human Rights Watch researchers documented a dozen killings inside of Yei. In most cases, relatives and witnesses said they believed the army was responsible. Human Rights Watch received allegations of many other cases of killings outside of Yei, but was unable to verify them because of movement restrictions and the lack of security.
In an incident on July 13, following an ambush of a government military convoy by rebels in Mitika, south of Yei, soldiers returning to town joined by some Dinka civilians killed four local civilians. Soldiers shot one victim, a shop owner in the Dar es-Salam market, in front of his friends: “They shouted ‘You are a traitor!’ and shot him in the head. His name was Roman,” a witness said.
In September, soldiers shot dead a displaced man who was returning home to pick up cassava roots for food in the Sopiri neighborhood of Yei – then occupied by the army. Witnesses said soldiers then dressed his body in a military uniform and pretended he was a rebel. When his wife came to pick up the body, soldiers beat her.
In early October, soldiers shot another displaced man with a mental health condition in the chest as he returned home to collect corn in the Dem neighborhood of Yei – also occupied by the army. Witnesses said that the man had surprised soldiers looting civilian property, shouting “Here are the looters!”
During the night of October 14, unidentified gunmen presumed to be soldiers shot an army veteran from Yei named Simon Mulle in his shop. Mulle was known to be openly critical of government abuses. A relative said that Mulle had been summoned to the military barracks a week before he was killed and ordered to cease his criticisms.
The same weekend, the bound and mutilated body of another civilian killed in unclear circumstances was found alongside the Yei-Kaya road, in a government controlled area.
In mid-November, seven charred bodies were found in a mud house in the outskirts of Yei, in a government-controlled area. Media reports said that gunmen abducted the farmers, including women, as they returned to their village from the market in Yei. A survivor told journalists that they were asked whether they were rebels, then taken to a hut and shot. The gunmen set fire to the house.
Arbitrary Arrests, Detention, Torture
Human Rights Watch also documented dozens of arbitrary arrests and detention and torture of civilians in Yei since May by government forces, especially army military intelligence and South Sudan’s national security service.
Researchers received consistent reports that at least three detainees died in the Yei military barracks due to malnutrition and sustained beatings by soldiers. A number of detainees were also reported to have disappeared from their cells after they were detained and may have been executed by soldiers.
Credible sources consistently said that soldiers or armed Dinka men dressed in civilian clothes would pick up male civilians at checkpoints, in the market, or at their homes, and hand them over to military intelligence at the Yei army barracks. In at least some cases, the men were arbitrarily detained during army sweeps through neighborhoods, apparently for no reason other than being there at that time.
Human Rights Watch learned from a witness that government soldiers arrested at least one wounded patient at the hospital, and in another case a patient’s relative, generating fear among the medical staff and patients.
Interviews with more than a dozen sources indicated a pattern of abuse by members of military intelligence and other military officers. Following their arrests, many victims were beaten and, in some cases, tortured, usually many times. As the security forces beat the detainees, typically throughout the detention period, the security forces accused the detainees of collaboration with the opposition or questioned them about the whereabouts and command structure of the rebels.
Security forces held the detainees in cramped cells, in many cases too crowded to lie down or even sit, and provided little water and food. Some detainees said they were given no food for days, even up to a week. The victims were unable to bathe, or were only allowed to bathe once or twice during stays that lasted many weeks or even, in some cases, longer than five months.
Soldiers prevented detainees’ relatives from bringing them food and, in some cases, physically abused the relatives, Human Rights Watch found. Women were especially badly treated. In two cases, female relatives who brought food were forced onto their hands and knees, beaten, and verbally humiliated. Soldiers chased others away. Security force extortion of family members appears to have been common. Some families paid thousands of South Sudanese pounds to see their imprisoned relatives or to try to secure marginally better treatment for them.
None of those detained by the military intelligence at the Yei army barracks was officially charged or brought before a court. Sources told Human Rights Watch that scores of civilians continue to be arbitrarily detained at the Yei military barracks.
Under international humanitarian law, anyone taken into custody during an armed conflict must be protected from “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” International human rights law similarly prohibits torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of a detainee in any circumstance.
Everyone deprived of liberty must be provided with adequate food, water, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Detainees are entitled to judicial review of the legality of their detention, and all the rights to a fair trial, including the right to be tried and convicted for a criminal offense only by a court of law.
On May 4, 2015, South Sudan acceded to the Convention against Torture and its additional protocol. The government should ensure that the convention’s standards and obligations are fully enforced.
Enforced Disappearances
Researchers documented two cases of enforced disappearances by government forces in Yei.
Witnesses spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity due to concerns for their security. They said that after their relatives were arrested, family members went to the barracks, where they were told that their relative was not in army custody. They said that they contacted police and local authorities, who also claimed that they did not know the men’s whereabouts. In one case, family members of the victim had received no news from their relative since early August.
Under international law, an “enforced disappearance” occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by state officials or their agents, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances are prohibited at all times, and may constitute war crimes that must be investigated and prosecuted.
Rape, Other Sexual Violence
Human Rights Watch documented two cases of rape by SPLA soldiers. In another incident, two girls were raped by armed men they believed to be SPLA soldiers who were not in uniform. All four rapes took place during the week Human Rights Watch spent in Yei. Human Rights Watch also collected several credible reports of other incidents of rape by SPLA soldiers in Yei.
All of the victims interviewed were able to get emergency post-rape care and emergency medicines are available in Yei. However, religious and health officials and nongovernmental groups said that because of the stigma surrounding rape, and fear of repercussions of reporting, only a small proportion of victims are reporting rapes.
In one case Human Rights Watch documented, a SPLA soldier raped an 18-year-old woman in her home at about 1 p.m. on October 25, while three other soldiers waited outside. The soldiers also looted her home, she said, after tying up three of her relatives.
On the evening of October 23, armed men who were not wearing uniforms, but were believed to be soldiers, forced two girls aged 14 and 15 years to walk with them to a nearby forest, then raped them. “They took us a short distance away from the house and raped us in the bush, in the teak trees,” one of the girls said. “We were raped at the same time. Blood came out of me and I felt a lot of pain.” The victims said that the rapists spoke the Dinka language, as do most of the SPLA soldiers who have a large presence in the neighborhood.
A business woman who runs a restaurant in the Yei market said that uniformed government soldiers looted her property during the night of October 21 and that during the attack, one soldier raped a pregnant woman with a mental health condition who had been at the restaurant during the raid.
Service providers also told Human Rights Watch about several other credible reports of rapes by government forces. For example, soldiers at a government checkpoint were accused of raping a woman who was trying to bring her sick baby into Yei for medical care.
A local nongovernmental group trained more than 30 people in Yei, mostly health officials, in emergency post-rape care early in 2016. However, because of the lack of security, only 17 of them remain in the town.

Forced Displacement
Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on September 11, government forces entered the Dem, Sopiri, and Lutaya neighborhoods of Yei, shooting in the air and the bushes and ordering civilians to leave the areas. Soldiers then looted homes. One displaced resident said:

“I was in church and when I came out, one of the soldiers told me ‘What are you doing here, this place is only for rebels.’ He told me I had to leave. Then they looted the area completely. No one can go back to Dem now, the women are afraid of being raped and the men are afraid of being killed by the soldiers.”

Another former resident said that rebels had come to the neighborhoods to tell people in churches they should leave the area. “They came for two weeks before the SPLA came and they warned us that we should leave the area because they wanted to fight the SPLA,” she said. “When the SPLA came, we were chased out. I saw them shooting in the air scaring people and breaking houses, they took two of my goats.”

The laws of war prohibit the forcible displacement of civilians except for their own security or for imperative military reasons.

Rebel Abuses Against Civilians
Rebels belonging to ethnic groups populating the Greater Equatoria region and operating around Yei appeared to have targeted civilians of Dinka and Nuba ethnicity on the basis of their perceived affiliation to the government.

Attacks on Civilian Convoys
Rebels have increasingly been accused of targeting Dinka civilians, especially along the main roads leading to Juba from the Equatorias. On October 8, rebels operating north of Yei attacked a civilian convoy transporting mostly Dinka civilians from Yei to Juba. More than two dozen civilians were killed.

“It was a surprise attack,” said the truck driver. “They had AK-47 and a RPG. They only attacked my truck. We were in the middle of the convoy. I was transporting about 70 people, most of them were women and children.”

A survivor said that her 8-year-old son was killed in the attack: “I was standing in the middle of the truck when they started to shoot. Some around me died. My son Victor was among them. I didn’t see at first but a wounded woman with a 4-month baby saw him dead first and said ‘Be strong.’ She died later.”

A wounded 13-year-old boy, with three bullets in his body, said his brother died during the attack. Once the attackers stopped shooting, all survivors who were interviewed said the rebels lit the truck on fire.

“There was a woman – her name was Nyalam – and she died inside the truck with her 1-month baby. She was my co-wife,” said a 29-year-old grieving mother who survived the attack. “There was also Nyankim, my 12-year-old niece, Agwer, my 5-year-old son, and Adhiu my 3-year-old son. They all died.”

Rape and Sexual Violence
On at least two occasions in September, rebels entered the Lasu refugee camp, south of Yei. There, they raped two Nuba women and abducted nine women and their children. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

A witness to one of the abductions said they pointed guns at him and gathered men, women, and children in his compound: “There were maybe 150 people in my compound. They did not take any man but abducted four women that afternoon, including one from my compound with her three children. We have no idea where they are.”

In October, Nuba community leaders said, rebels raped a 26-year-old female Nuba student in Goli, 30 kilometers west of Yei.

Human Rights Watch also heard from credible sources that in late September, rebel fighters abducted three women in Ombassi, 20 kilometers from Yei. Two are still missing but one escaped after three weeks with the rebels and was then detained for by police in Yei for three days in mid-October for questioning.

Sources who were told of the rapes said that women and girls raped in rebel areas were apparently unable, or too fearful of both sides, to cross lines to get medical care in Yei, though no such care is available outside the town. Many health facilities in rebel-controlled areas, including those that could have provided emergency post-rape care, were closed because of the lack of security or have been looted or otherwise vandalized.

Abuses of Sudanese Refugees
Refugees who fled from conflict in the Nuba mountains area of Southern Kordofan state in Sudan have been in the Yei area since 2011. Church and aid workers said that, following the increase in tensions in the Yei area, local people accused the Nuba refugees of taking up weapons and supporting the South Sudan government.

In August 2016, rebels ambushed a convoy of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, carrying 15 metric tons of food destined for the Lasu refugee camp, 46 kilometers southwest of Yei, which has about 2,000 mostly Nuba refugees and 8,000 Congolese refugees. In August and September, witnesses said that dozens of rebels entered the camp, wearing a mixture of civilian clothes and military fatigues, and looted the premises, including the clinic.

Aid groups have not provided any food to the camp residents since June 2016 due to lack of security, and the camp has since disbanded, with refugees fleeing to the bush and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Arbitrary Restrictions on Freedom of Movement by Both Sides
In armed conflict, civilian movement may be restricted on security grounds or for imperative military reasons. However, some restrictions may also be arbitrary, and in some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch the restrictions by both government and rebel forces appear to have been arbitrary. For example, in some cases, both SPLA forces and IO forces have stopped civilians in such a way as to unjustifiably obstruct access to health care and food.

Human Rights Watch was told that the Yei River state governor, David Lokonga, had publicly instructed civilians not to move outside the city limits. Researchers found a widespread perception by local civilians that the army would arrest or shoot at them if they traveled beyond two or three kilometers from the center of town.

Six women independently told Human Rights Watch that soldiers had chased them or their family members away when they tried to gather in areas around Yei, forcing them back into town.

In two cases, people were stopped by soldiers at checkpoints while trying to enter Yei for medical care. Soldiers beat one man in September when he tried to come into town for brucellosis medicines.

Fear of arrests and harassment at army checkpoints has led local civilians to use bush roads to get in and out of town. In one case in October, a pregnant woman from a nearby village delivered in the bush as she tried to get to the Yei Civil Hospital. Service providers told Human Rights Watch that when she finally reached the hospital, two days later, the baby had died.

Some of the government forces’ restrictions may also be discriminatory. Researchers visiting Yei mid-October saw hundreds of Dinka civilians leaving town for Juba in army trucks, assisted by SPLA soldiers. Civilians from Yei told researchers that people from the Dinka ethnic group were the only ones allowed to travel with the army convoys.

The rebels have also stopped civilians from moving freely into Yei. In the village of Goli, 30 kilometers west, rebels have prevented roughly 300 students from leaving the compound of their school since late September. The only remaining doctor of the Yei Harvester’s Hospital for Women and Children is also stranded in Goli, leaving the hospital unable to provide medical care to women during childbirth.

Rebels have also prevented civilians from returning to Yei with food, accusing those who do of feeding the Dinka. A 29-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that rebel fighters called her “the wife of Dinka … [who wants to] feed the soldiers in Yei” and stopped her in September while she was bringing sweet potatoes from her farm in Lupapa, two miles out of town, back to Yei. Another 23-year-old business woman said rebel fighters stopped her from bringing food into Yei from nearby Sokah.

Both the general lack of security and arbitrary restrictions on movement by fighters on both sides have meant that government and church officials, health workers, and members of aid groups have been unable to reach some victims of abuse who live in areas under rebel control.



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