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(Nairobi) – Soldiers attacked civilians and civilian property in counterinsurgency operations in the south and west of Wau that began in June 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee into the bush or United Nations protection sites and other displacement sites in Wau.

Witnesses to attacks in June and July told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers have attacked and shot civilians, burned, destroyed or looted homes and property, and are occupying schools. Soldiers also looted a church and two health centers. Credible reports say fighting and attacks on civilians are continuing in the region.

“There may be a new peace deal in South Sudan, but government forces are committing new abuses against civilians,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This is the latest chapter in a long history of violence and impunity that has uprooted and traumatized hundreds of thousands of people in this part of the country.”

Starting on June 12, 2018, South Sudan’s army began an operation in rebel-held areas in Wad Alel and areas south and southwest of the city of Wau in an apparent effort to gain control of rebel territories before South Sudan’s warring parties signed a final peace deal. Despite a ‘Cessation of Hostilities’ agreement on June 27, the offensive continued in towns and villages in Biringi, Basselia, Mboro, Bagari, Farajalla, Ngisa, Ngo Dakalla and Wad Alel until late August. Clashes resumed in late September after South Sudan’s leaders signed the final peace agreement.

South Sudan’s government should ensure that their soldiers in the Western Bahr el Ghazal region immediately stop attacking civilians and civilian property, that humanitarian organizations have proper access to civilians in need, and that there is justice for the crimes committed, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch conducted 110 interviews between September 5 and 12 in Wau, including with 86 residents and people who fled recent fighting in areas outside the city.

The extent of the impact on civilians is unclear as clashes continue and the government has neither provided a civilian death toll, nor allowed access to the affected areas until late August. Government forces disrupted humanitarian access to the area and prevented human rights investigators from reaching the sites. But civilians in Wau who witnessed the attacks in June and July told Human Rights Watch they saw at least eight dead bodies of civilians.

A 42-year-old woman whose mother was shot by government soldiers in a July attack in Mboro, west of Wau, said: “I went back about five days later and saw bodies with my eyes. I saw a lot of burned and looted property. Even the church was looted of doors and windows.”

Witnesses also reported that rebels in Wad Alel during June and July forcibly recruited young men and looted civilian properties. One young man from Wad Alel said that rebels searching for “strong youth” took two of his friends by force.

Within the city of Wau, although security had improved due to the deployment of the National Security Service forces in late April 2017, Human Rights Watch found that government soldiers committed various crimes against civilians, including displaced people in Wau, preventing those sheltering at the UN, and other displacement sites from returning home. Women and girls sheltering in the UN protection site reported that soldiers outside the site had sexually harassed, assaulted, and even raped them.

One 23-year-old woman said soldiers attempted to rape her when she went to collect firewood and that she escaped only by lying about her ethnicity. “The soldiers took us to a bush and hung me up from a tree at Kor Malong. They tied my hands behind my back. They asked my tribe and I said my father is Dinka [although that’s not true] to get released. They said they would have raped me if I was not Dinka.”

Soldiers arbitrarily detained ethnic Fertit men suspected of being rebels in two military facilities, Grinti and Jebel Akhdar, without charge or access to legal assistance. Former detainees said that they were harshly beaten and otherwise tortured while in detention. This is similar to other patterns of arbitrary detention and torture of ethnic Fertit and Luo men in Wau that Human Rights watch documented in early 2016

A 23-year-old ethnic Balanda man was arrested in Wau and detained for three days in Grinti in August 2018 by government soldiers who accused him of being a rebel and beat him harshly. He told Human Rights Watch, “they were kicking me and punching me with their fists. They were beating me with a rubber pipe.”

Researchers also heard that three students, who were arrested in a government operation in July 2017 in Wau, have been forcibly disappeared. Researchers documented at least four cases of arbitrary detention of civilians by soldiers.

The National Security Service has also been implicated in crimes, including the torture and death of at least one man, for which there has been no accountability. An activist in Wau said: “A lot of credit goes to [them] for restoring security but their role should be limited to intelligence gathering as provided by the constitution. Police should take the lead [in maintaining law and order].”

“The town will not feel normal until soldiers and rebels stop abusing the civilians and provide genuine accountability for past crimes,” another activist said.

South Sudan’s leaders signed a “revitalized” final peace deal on September 12. However, no progress has been made in establishing the hybrid South Sudanese-African Union court envisioned in the original August 2015 deal. South Sudan has yet to sign a memorandum of understanding on the court or to pass domestic legislation for its creation. Given these long delays and little indication the government will act on its own, the AU should proceed unilaterally with key steps to establish the court, Human Rights Watch said.

“With an endless cycle of violence and new atrocities against civilians occurring every day, ensuring justice for abuses is essential to reestablish rule of law and stability in the western region,” Henry said. “South Sudan’s authorities should act quickly to carry out the agreement with the African Union to establish the hybrid court.”

A Volatile Region

The Western Bahr el Ghazal region, particularly Wau and areas to its west and south, has been volatile since December 2015, with skirmishes between government and rebels loosely affiliated with Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition.

The fighting has exacerbated ethnic divisions among its three main ethnic groups – the Dinka, Fertit and Luo. Ambushes by mostly Fertit rebel forces on primarily Dinka government forces have often led to government and Dinka retaliation against Fertit or Luo civilians who they believe support the rebels.

Fighting reached the city of Wau in February and June 2016, forcing more than 36,000 civilians to flee to churches, humanitarian compounds, and the UN base, which still shelters tens of thousands of civilians. In 2017, Human Rights Watch found government soldiers and allied Dinka youth killed at least 16 ethnic Fertit and Luo civilians as collective punishment. UN investigators also documented the targeted killings of at least 29 ethnic Fertit and Luo civilians and the displacement of more than 22,000 people by government forces and allied youth in these ethnically motivated attacks.

In June 2018, the government opened a major offensive in areas under rebel control to the south and southwest of Wau, in an apparent effort to expel the rebels and increase the government’s territory ahead of the peace deal. The offensive was led by the newly appointed SPLA 5th Division commander, Major General Kiir Kiir Kiir, who previously commanded the 6th Division in Yambio and had replaced General Stephen Buay Rolnyang, who defected from the SPLA in May.

Despite the peace agreement being signed on September 12, there have been clashes between government and rebel forces in the greater Bagari area. On September 24, rebels reportedly attacked a military convoy escorting 200 internally displaced people to Mboro. Media reports indicate that on October 3 and 4, government soldiers attacked Ngoku, burning the main market and displacing dozens of civilians.

Although Human Rights Watch could not conduct on site investigations where abuses occurred, researchers assessed the credibility of the information provided by interviewees by interviewing several witnesses to the events. The extent of the impact of the ongoing fighting on civilian populations in the affected areas is unknown.

The towns and villages in Ngo-Dakalla, Farajallah Ngiza, Gedi, Gitan, Bazia, Tirga and Bo bridge remain under rebel control and Mboro, Biringi, Ngo Bagari, Ngoku and Wad Alel are under government control. The government is encouraging local authorities and displaced people to return to areas under their control. Sources on the ground report to Human Rights Watch that fighting is ongoing and that several displaced households continue to arrive in Wau.

Attack on Wad Alel

Government forces attacked in Wad Alel, an ethnically Luo town 38 kilometers southeast of Wau, on the morning of June 12. Most residents, frightened and fearing reprisals from government forces if they took the town, fled to the bush or Hai Masna – a displacement site on the outskirts of Wau town.

Fighting let up by June 19, and government forces encouraged civilians, who had sought shelter in the bush near town, to return to their homes. Those who returned found soldiers burning unoccupied homes and looting, including sorghum, groundnuts, chickens, goats, bicycles, and a clinic of its drugs and supplies. The soldiers harassed residents, detaining and beating up youth, accusing them of being rebels, looting and burning unoccupied homes, and forcibly recruiting young men, witnesses said.

“We stayed in the town until July,” a 29-year-old woman said. “The soldiers would come during the day to loot, and the rebels would come at night to recruit.”

A 22-year-old student said: “Rebels attacked…and looted in July…The rebels were saying, ‘We need strong youth.’ They took youths by force…They looted food, but they did not burn things. I cannot go back because [rebel] soldiers will recruit me or beat me and there is no food there.”

Human Rights Watch heard two accounts of soldiers raping women. A 39-year-old mother of eight said she was raped in July: “the soldier asked for directions…to the barracks. I showed him the route. [He] said what I need is not the route, but you. [I said] you are like my son how can you think of such a thing. He cocked his gun and he said if you resist, I will shoot you. I tried to run but he grabbed me, my children were still in the farm, so he took me by force.”

Despite South Sudan’s endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration committing them to refrain from using schools for military purposes, government soldiers are occupying the school in a largely empty Wad Alel.

Attacks in Mboro

The town of Mboro, in Basilia county, is a largely Fertit area, and a rebel stronghold. Government soldiers from Wau attacked Mboro on June 24, then took control of the town on June 30, occupying the main clinic and at least one school as their base.

“Government soldiers attacked, and we fled to the bush,” said a 25-year-old woman who fled Mboro to Wau with 28 others after the first attack. “[They] burned our homes. This was in June. They came with vehicles, surrounded the house and started shooting…A lot of people were shot. We could not count how many soldiers.”

She said her 58-year-old father, a chief from Fongo, and her 30-year-old brother, a farmer, were killed in the first attack when they attempted to flee.

A woman in her 50s said that three of her male neighbors, who she said were farmers, were killed and that she did not know where her father was: “My father is old. He is blind, I don’t know where he ran, he is old and has white hair. He might be killed or lost.”

After the first attack, civilians fled into the bush and forests near the town but returned after several days. Several witnesses who returned found that civilians had been killed, and homes looted and described seeing soldiers looting and destroying homes. One farmer said: “We saw soldiers burning homes, taking the plastic sheeting off the roofs. Soldiers were in SPLA uniform. I saw them taking things, I had just hidden 250-300m away in the bush. There was no order in what they did. They just came and took things.”

A 25-year-old man from Mboro said: “On 24 June, I ran to the side of the river with all other civilians to hide. People came back two or three days later. By the 26th we came back to the village. When we arrived, we found houses were destroyed, the roofing was gone, the doors broken. Harvest and produce were taken from granaries. They also burned some food.”

Several witnesses said when they returned to the village, they saw the charred remains of an old woman named Pataki, who had been unable to run away. Her nephew in Wau confirmed that he had been told of her death and burial from recently arrived civilians.

Several witnesses said the soldiers had arrested a farmer, Mabruk Luiz, and allegedly were holding him in Grinti in Wau. Researchers could not independently confirm his or other detentions.

Abuses in Wau

The government deployed National Security Service forces in late April 2017, due to the violence of April 8 to 10, where ethnic Fertit and Luo civilians were targeted by Dinka soldiers and allied youth. Their active patrols with the police have improved the security situation, and some displaced communities have returned to their homes. However, significant parts of Wau, especially areas that were heavily affected by the fighting in 2016 and 2017, remain abandoned and desolate. Researchers observed large uninhabited areas with overgrown vegetation and abandoned buildings with missing doors and roofing.

Civilians in Wau, including those living within the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) protection of civilians site, described ongoing abuses by government soldiers, ethnic hostility, and crimes preventing them from returning home.

Civilians living in the UNMISS site, particularly women, described harassment, assaults, arbitrary detention, and attempted rape by government soldiers. Women and girls there expressed great fear of sexual assault and rape by soldiers.

In a case confirmed by various witnesses, a 23-year-old described how two soldiers threatened to rape her when she went to collect firewood. “The soldiers took us to a bush and hung me up from a tree at Kor Malong. They tied my hands behind my back. They asked my tribe and I said my father is Dinka (although that’s not true) to get released. They said they would have raped me if I was not Dinka.”

Researchers documented at least four cases of arbitrary detention of civilians by soldiers.

One ethnic Balanda man, detained for three days in Grinti in August 2018, said he was accused of being a rebel and harshly beaten by government soldiers, “They were kicking me and punching me with their fists. They were beating me with a rubber pipe. They said you are with the rebels, say the truth. I said no, I am not. They were whipping me. And saying you are a rebel.”

He said he was detained with 14 other civilians, all ethnic Fertit and Luo men. His friend, a 43-year-old ethnic Balanda man, was arrested when he came to visit him and remains in detention in Grinti: “They said if you have come to check on him then you know what work he does and why we have arrested him…he was put in a cell…they also started beating him. I could hear his cries.”

A 65-year-old trader from the Ndogo ethnic group was arrested in Souk Jouw on June 15 on accusations of being a rebel. He was released on August 21 after a judge and the peacekeepers’ human rights division intervened.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to a 42-year-old woman whose three sons, all students, were arrested by government soldiers during an operation in July 2017 in Baasalia Jedid and appear to be victims of enforced disappearance. She appealed to various authorities, including a commission of inquiry led by Health Minister Riek Gai Kok, to find out their status and whereabouts, but has been unable to get information.

Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities deprive an individual of their liberty and then refuse to acknowledge doing so or to provide information about the detainee's whereabouts or fate. Enforced disappearances constitute a serious crime under international law and are prohibited under any circumstance.

Interference with Humanitarian Aid Deliveries

Both sides have interfered with delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to populations in need. In May, rebels detained aid workers from three organizations that visited the Bagari area for two days and released them after insisting they sign a memorandum of understanding with the rebel group. When the aid workers returned to Wau, government security officials detained the groups on suspicion of working for the rebels but released them the same day.

In June, the governor closed access to areas affected by military operations, calling them “disarmament campaigns against criminals in Bagari, Mboro, and Bisselia.”

In late August, authorities opened the area to aid groups and the UN, allowing visits to Bagari and Farajalla on August 28, and a UN patrol to Mboro on August 30. Renewed clashes in late September and early October again interrupted efforts to deliver aid.  

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