One hot Tuesday afternoon last January, about 10 South Sudanese government soldiers came to Elizabeth’s village, Romoji, in Kajo Keji county, near the Ugandan border. Many of the farming villages in her area have become the front lines of South Sudan’s four-year civil war.
“The soldiers came close to the house around 4:00 pm,” said Elizabeth, a tall, slender woman in her thirties. “I was cooking at home when my son told me that soldiers had come. My husband Kristofer went outside the house to check. They shot him.”
When her two sons, aged 10 and 5, went out to check on their father, the soldiers shot them dead too. Elizabeth (not her real name), ran from her home, hearing soldiers firing their guns. One soldier chased her and caught her. He was tall, like the rest of them. He did not speak to her, but threatened her with a knife and twisted her arm, breaking it. Elizabeth believes he wanted to kill her, though she’s not sure what stopped him. “Maybe they let me go because they had already killed 3 people,” she says.
Despite a 2015 peace agreement, fighting between South Sudan’s government and rebel forces has spread to the country’s southern Greater Equatorias region, which had been somewhat insulated from the war until late 2015 when it began to spread.
As in elsewhere in South Sudan, the fighting split communities down ethnic lines – with mostly Dinka government troops and armed militia targeting the mostly non-Dinka communities they suspected of supporting the rebels.
The violence and abuses – largely committed by government forces during counter-insurgency operations in western parts of the country and in the southern Equatorias region – have displaced hundreds of thousands in the last year alone, mostly to Uganda, which now hosts almost a million South Sudanese.
Since the conflict started in December 2013, igniting in Juba and spreading north, more than 2 million people fled to neighboring countries with another 2 million displaced internally, making South Sudan the largest humanitarian disaster in Africa today.
Soon after this attack, Elizabeth’s mother and her 3 remaining children fled to Uganda. Elizabeth told Human Rights Watch how she hid in a riverbed nearby for four days, drinking water with one hand because her other arm was broken. She said she ate soil to survive. When she came out of hiding, her village was abandoned. She managed to find transport with assistance from the UN, and came to Uganda, where she now lives with her family as a refugee.
Elizabeth’s past torments her and her future hangs in the balance. In May 2017, when Human Rights Watch spoke with Elizabeth, she could not stop crying. Five months later, she is clearly still traumatized – not just psychologically but physically: her arm hangs limp by her side and it is difficult for her to find a way to care for her family. She worries about finding food and does not sleep at night, she says.
When she pauses in her story, Elizabeth stares listlessly into the horizon. “My husband was a farmer, why did they kill him? With one arm, how do I care for the children and my mother? I want to commit suicide,” she says.
Although the camp offers some security, no one truly feels safe. Family members who dare to venture across the border to collect food from home face further attacks. Elizabeth walks back to her tent to prepare an evening meal for her children, a task she used to enjoy, but now struggles to perform.