Sex­ual vi­o­lence hits “epic pro­por­tions”

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Sam Med­nick

mundri, south su­dan» Af­ter months of be­ing raped by her rebel cap­tors in the mid­dle of South Su­dan’s civil war, the young woman be­came preg­nant. Held in a muddy pit, some­times chained to other pris­on­ers, she later watched her hair fall out and her weight plum­met. But the child was a spark of life.

And so she named him Barack Obama, she ex­plains, now free. “I still have hope,” she says, ca­ress­ing the baby’s cheek with a fin­ger. “I just don’t even know where to start.”

The slen­der 23-year-old is one of thousands of rape vic­tims in South Su­dan’s three-year-old con­flict, which has cre­ated one of the world’s largest hu­man­i­tar­ian crises. Sex­ual vi­o­lence has reached “epic pro­por­tions,” says the U.N. Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Rights in South Su­dan.

Re­ported in­ci­dents of sex­ual or gen­der-based vi­o­lence rose 60 per­cent last year. Seventy per­cent of women shel­ter­ing in U.N. camps in the cap­i­tal, Juba, had been raped since the con­flict be­gan, ac­cord­ing to a U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian sur­vey con­ducted in De­cem­ber.

Mundri, a city of 47,000 peo­ple in Amadi state, has been called the epi­cen­ter of the prob­lem. Aid or­ga­ni­za­tions blame it on the re­cent in­crease in fight­ing here be­tween rebels and gov­ern­ment troops, the lat­est shift of the war in an al­ready dev­as­tated na­tion.

The young woman didn’t ex­pect to be­come em­broiled in South Su­dan’s con­flict.

“I just came back to visit my home and I lost my dreams,” she said in an in­ter­view ear­lier this month. “If I talk about it, I just cry.”

She had been vis­it­ing her fam­ily in the sum­mer of 2015, with plans to re­turn to school in Juba. She never made it back.

In­stead, she was ab­ducted by rebels loyal to an op­po­si­tion group call­ing it­self MTN, af­ter a pop­u­lar African tele­phone com­pany. Their catch phrase riffs on the com­pany’s slo­gan, taunt­ing: “We’re every­where you go.”

The rebels burst through the door of her mother’s hut, fir­ing their weapons and shout­ing, she said. They were search­ing for her un­cle, who’d been ac­cused of con­spir­ing with gov­ern­ment forces.

“They beat my grand­fa­ther and aunt and then said if they couldn’t find my un­cle they’ll take me in­stead,” she said. “I told them I’d rather die than go with them.”

But the rebels dragged her into the bush and brought her to their head­quar­ters, where she was charged, tried and con­victed for her un­cle’s “crimes.”

For the next 16 months, she was forced to live in large, muddy pits in­fested with snakes, she said. Sub­sist­ing on only veg­eta­bles, she wasted away.

“I’m not at­trac­tive any­more,” she says now, tug­ging at the waist­band of her baggy pants. Shift­ing around in a plas­tic chair out­side a cof­fee shop, she shyly ad­justed her head­scarf, cover­ing what lit­tle hair she has left.

She said she was re­leased in De­cem­ber be­cause she be­came ill.

“They told me to get medicine and then changed their minds and told me to leave and never come back,” she said.

Mundri has many such sto­ries. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent In­ter-Agency as­sess­ment by in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions fo­cused on gen­der-based vi­o­lence, 29 rape cases were re­ported in Mundri be­tween Au­gust and Oc­to­ber.

Lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions say the num­ber is likely dou­ble that, but most in­ci­dents go un­re­ported be­cause of stigma sur­round­ing rape.

“Re­al­is­ti­cally, it’s more like over 50 cases,” said James Laba­dia, founder of MAYA, a lo­cal aid or­ga­ni­za­tion that fo­cuses on women’s em­pow­er­ment. He has been work­ing with rape sur­vivors for sev­eral years but said things have never been so dire.

“The end of 2016 was the worst quar­ter I’ve ever seen,” he said.

The group re­ceived funds from the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment last year and Laba­dia plans to seek more, a pos­si­bil­ity which may be clouded by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed bud­get cuts.

Re­ports of rape and ab­duc­tion are ram­pant on both sides in Mundri, which is un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol while neigh­bor­ing vil­lages are held by the op­po­si­tion.

South Su­danese of­fi­cials in­sist they are tak­ing steps to counter sex­ual vi­o­lence.

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