South Sudan is the world’s newest nation and is bordered by six countries.
It is rich in oil, but decades of civil war has made it one of the least developed regions on earth. Only 15% of South Sudanese citizens own a mobile phone and there are very few tarmac roads in an area bigger than Spain and Portugal combined. Cattle are also central to life in South Sudan – a person’s wealth is measured by the size of their herd.
The conflict in South Sudan has witnessed brutal attacks on civilians mainly due to ethnicity. South Sudan’s conflict has been dominated by brutal attacks on civilians, usually cross ethnic violence. Starting with round-ups and a massacre of ethnic Nuer in Juba, the conflict has spiraled into a series of
revenge and counter-attacks on ethnic Dinka, Nuer, and other communities, plunging the country into a human rights and humanitarian crisis.
Fighting forces have killed thousands, along with the rapes and sexual violence, forcing 1.3 million people out of their homes. Thousands have run to hard-to-reach areas, where many face drastic food shortages. People have been unable to plant crops and the country faces famine.
About 86,000 people are still in crowded UN bases, but they don’t always provide safe haven for women and girls. Within the camps on these bases, overcrowding and poor lighting create conditions that can increase the risk of sexual violence. Reports of harassment have been increasing over the months.
Aid workers have reported cases of rape and sexual harassment immediately outside of the UN bases, where government security forces in the towns of Bentiu, Bor and Juba have continued to bully, arrest and shoot at displaced Nuer, even during periods of relative calm. Women leaving camps to collect firewood or grind their food have been subjected to sexual violence and harassment.
Rape and sexual violence
Tomping camp is a refugee camp – a vast, squalid sanctuary where thousands of South Sudanese now live cheek by jowl after a political fallout triggered a major military rebellion.
It has split the army in two and seen civilians targeted along ethnic lines.
Emily, not her real name, a 38-year-old mother of two lives here.
She is one of the few women in this fragile country who, despite the stigma of rape, has found the courage to speak out, in an interview for BBC Newsnight.
Emily says she was gang-raped by what she says were pro-government forces largely drawn from the Dinka community – and it happened right under the noses of UN peacekeepers.
She was among a group of women returning from a trip to town when they were ambushed by armed men in what seems to have had all the hallmarks of a highly organised, ethnically oriented attack.
She showed her injuries; bite marks on her chest and back, and deep, crooked scars from where she was beaten with a stick.
She explained, “They stopped us at the first tree and ordered us to put down our bags, then they took us to a second tree where they searched us, groped us and stole money and mobile phones. Then they led us to the third tree, where they raped us. Seven women were reportedly raped at the same spot that day.”
In Juba, the UN reported, three girls were gang-raped by soldiers who broke into their home. Opposition soldiers in Upper Nile captured women, held them for many days in a house, and raped them. The report documents a horrific case, among many others, in which soldiers and members of the Darfuri rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, raped women and then
urinated into the victims’ mouths.
UN agencies warn that 24,000 women are now at risk of sexual violence in South Sudan, with many women exposed after fleeing into the bush to escape soldiers and rebels.
Rape carries with it enormous stigma in South Sudan and has always been under-reported. Government forces and rebel groups have carried out varying degrees of rape and sexual violence and harassment of women in South Sudan.
Displacement has brought suffering of many kinds to South Sudan’s women and girls, and sexual assault only adds to their torment.
Violence and attacks including rape, vandalization of properties and killings have been dominant in South Sudan’s conflict.
Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy and now rebel leader, Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians’ political bases are often ethnic.
The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam. President Salva Kiir is a Dinka, but his former ally Riek Machar, now the rebel leader, is from the Nuer community. I guess that explains it all. Politics has led to the ethnic tribes considering themselves as rivals and leading to attacks and counter attacks on civilians by government and rebel forces.
After, many failed peace talks, the two sides of the South Sudan’s six months civil war have agreed in new talks in Ethiopia to end the civil war by forming a transitional government. I really hope the two parties respect the agreement and try to restore peace in the country that has been deeply scared by ethnic violence and attacks on civilians, displacement and suffering, poverty and hunger, rape and sexual violence and other gross forms of human rights abuses.