Su­dan’s men of dis­hon­our

Lesotho Times - - Africa - Alas­tair Leit­head

LEER — The rules of war were bro­ken long ago in South Su­dan, but the re­cent spate of vi­o­lence against civil­ians has in­tro­duced a new level of bar­bar­ity.

Both gov­ern­ment and rebel troops have been ac­cused of atroc­i­ties in 21 months of war, but in the past few months, the ac­counts from those who es­caped the vi­o­lence are hor­ri­fy­ing.

They tell of women and girls be­ing raped or ab­ducted, fam­i­lies be­ing burned alive in their homes — and at least one case of a child be­ing hanged from a tree.

The aban­doned farms and fields, the torched huts, and the com­plete lack of cat­tle in Leer, Unity State, are ev­i­dence of what ap­pears to have been a scorched earth pol­icy of de­struc­tion.

Leer is the home­town of rebel leader Reik Machar and was a strong­hold for the mil­i­tary forces that backed him when the army split.

Now it is vir­tu­ally empty, as tens of thou­sands of peo­ple have scat­tered into the marshes of the Nile flood plains and into an over­crowded United Na­tions camp.

The de­struc­tion is ev­i­dent from the air - ac­cess on the ground for jour­nal­ists has been lim­ited.

The story of what hap­pened has to be pieced to­gether from the ac­counts of those forced from their homes, and it is tes­ti­mony to a ter­ri­fy­ing cam­paign of vi­o­lence.

“They spared no-one, nei­ther a child, an old man nor an old woman,” Nyakuoth Manyal told me as she sat un­der a small, home-made shel­ter of wooden sticks and tar­pau­lin.

“They killed ev­ery­one. There was no-one left in the vil­lage,” she said, as some of the chil­dren she had brought to the UN camp in Ben­tiu lay next to her lis­ten­ing.

They had spent weeks liv­ing un­der a tree, but a short­age of food forced them to walk for days to the UN camp they had heard about.

“They took away the cat­tle, and girls over 15 to make their wives. It was some Dinka and some Nuer who did it.”

Th­ese are the two big­gest eth­nic groups in South Su­dan, rep­re­sented by the po­lit­i­cal foes who sparked this civil war: Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir who is Dinka, and former vice-pres­i­dent turned rebel leader Riek Machar who is Nuer.

In De­cem­ber 2013, vi­o­lent clashes in the cap­i­tal Juba soon spread across the coun­try, spark­ing divi­sion in the army largely along eth­nic lines, with the ma­jor­ity of rebel forces be­ing Nuer.

The gov­ern­ment says it was an at­tempted coup, the rebels say it was a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated at­tack on a ri­val po­lit­i­cal group.

There’s no in­de­pen­dent clar­i­fi­ca­tion of what sparked the fight­ing, but there’s no doubt mil­lions have been dis­placed and mil­lions more are suf­fer­ing sick­ness and hunger.

An in­ef­fec­tive cease­fire and an in­ter­na­tion­ally bro­kered peace agree­ment flawed by reser­va­tions and ob­jec­tions is do­ing lit­tle to re­solve the cri­sis.

The ev­i­dence from Unity State sug­gests so­ci­ety is un­rav­el­ling and with it the chances of peace and sta­bil­ity re­turn­ing any time soon to the world’s youngest coun­try.

Nyaguar Nhial said she and her fam­ily fled the fight­ing into the marshes, spend­ing their days up to their necks in wa­ter with the chil- dren float­ing on reed mats.

“Still the sol­diers would be fir­ing into the wa­ter,” she said, de­scrib­ing how they would wait un­til af­ter dark be­fore go­ing ven­tur­ing out onto high ground to sleep and then slip­ping back into the wa­ter be­fore first light.

They spent two months liv­ing like this be­fore hunger took its toll and they came to the camp for help.

“On the first day the sol­diers ar­rived in the vil­lage they shot at ev­ery­one, spar­ing no­body,” said an­other woman, breast-feed­ing next to her, and who did not want to give her name.

“They didn’t even spare the girls - rap­ing them, force­fully, so there was noth­ing they could do.”

They said some of the at­tack­ers were wear­ing mil­i­tary uni­forms, oth­ers not, and re­peated the claim this was not just Dinka killing Nuer, but this was be­com­ing an in­traeth­nic con­flict of Nuer killing Nuer.

Eth­nic vi­o­lence is rarely clear-cut, and the Bul-nuer clan, and their armed youth mili­tia, have been blamed for join­ing gov­ern­ment troops on an of­fen­sive into the rebel strong­hold in Unity State.

South Su­dan has cat­tle-rustling cul­ture and their re­ward ap­pears to have been the cat­tle, now ab­sent from Leer, but present in large num­bers in Bul-nuer ter­ri­tory.

While vi­o­lence is not un­usual, well-de­fined lines have now been well and truly crossed, and tra­di­tion­ally safe places for women and chil­dren to shel­ter have been oblit­er­ated by the war.

“Their cop­ing mech­a­nisms have not helped them this time around,” said David Lit­tle­john-car­illo, who leads the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross mis­sion in Unity State.

“It’s a deadly over­lap: con­tin­ued fight­ing fu­elled by lo­cal ri­valry, a po­lit­i­cal split on the na­tional level with a large amount of weapons and am­mu­ni­tion, and the weather fac­tor.” There is usu­ally a lull in fight­ing dur­ing the rainy sea­son where dif­fer­ences are set­tled, but there has been less rain this year which is bad for both crops and peace-mak­ing.

Clans that were once al­lies are now turn­ing on each other, as ac­count­abil­ity ap­pears to count for lit­tle - and lev­els of so­ci­ety from politi­cian to pas­toral­ist are dis­in­te­grat­ing.

Ev­ery re­cent ar­rival at the Ben­tiu UN camp has a ter­ri­ble story to tell - that is why they have come.

That is also why the camp has tripled in size in a few months and is now dan­ger­ously over­crowded with an epi­demic of malaria and chil­dren dy­ing of mal­nu­tri­tion.

A South Su­danese woman work­ing for Unicef, the United Na­tions chil­dren’s fund, who didn’t want to be named, has been col­lect­ing tes­ti­mony from some of those ar­riv­ing at the camp.

What she found echoes the events de­scribed in re­ports by the UN, Hu­man Rights Watch, and a leaked Africa Union re­port into atroc­i­ties.

“There were many chil­dren killed. They wit­nessed many women killed and they saw with their own eyes, in the ar­eas where they lived, many girls and women raped, and some ab­ducted — they took them with the cat­tle,” she said.

“Ac­cord­ing to the tes­ti­mony of one fam­ily they saw four chil­dren killed — three shot by guns and one not killed in a nor­mal way, but hanged un­til the child died.”

The pres­i­den­tial spokesman for South Su­dan, Ateny Wek Ateny, de­nied gov­ern­ment troops had car­ried out atroc­i­ties but said an in­ves­ti­ga­tion was go­ing on.

“We will not leave any stone un­turned and we will bring those peo­ple to the books,” he said, if there is ev­i­dence atroc­i­ties were car­ried out.

“It is atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by South Su­danese against South Su­danese, so they are in the ju­ris­dic­tion of our laws.”

Nyal, in Unity State, is one of the last re­main­ing ar­eas held by rebel forces.

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