South Sudanese government forces and rebels systematically targeted civilians in their homes and places of refuge during the country’s five-month-old conflict, Amnesty International said.
Fighters allied with President Salva Kiir and his rival Riek Machar attacked civilians in towns and villages as well as in hospitals, churches, mosques and United Nations bases, the London-based advocacy group said today in a report. Amnesty researchers visiting South Sudan in March gathered evidence of “dozens” of mass graves, including five containing 530 bodies, and heard testimonies of gang-rape and mass killings.
“Forces on both sides have shown total disregard for the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Michelle Kagari, Amnesty’s deputy director for Africa, said in a statement. Those “responsible for perpetrating, ordering or acquiescing to such grave abuses, some which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, must be held accountable,” she said.
Conflict erupted in the world’s newest nation on Dec. 15 with Kiir accusing Machar of plotting a coup, a charge Machar denies. Violence has left thousands of people dead and forced more than a million to flee their homes, according to the UN.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer said government forces “have strict orders and code of conduct” and would arrest any perpetrators suspected of abuse. A spokesman for the insurgents, Yohanis Musa Pouk, denied they targeted civilians.
Machar and Kiir are scheduled to meet in Ethiopia tomorrow for peace talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said May 6 that the U.S. is imposing sanctions on two military leaders, one from each side, who were involved in violence against civilians.
South Sudan’s fighting has “taken on a markedly ethnic dimension,” Amnesty said, with government forces including members of Kiir’s Dinka community pitted against rebels mostly comprising people from Machar’s Nuer group. Amnesty’s research found civilians had been targeted on the basis of their ethnicity.
In the capital, Juba, in December, soldiers went house-to-house looking for Nuer men, with many killed in or near their homes, Amnesty said, citing eyewitnesses.
One witness said he was seized by government forces and held with at least 300 others in overcrowded rooms at an army barracks. When detainees opened windows for air, soldiers fired into the room. Only 12 people in his room survived, he said.
Civilians were also killed in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, including 18 Dinka women whose bodies were found beside a cathedral after government forces recaptured the town from rebels on Jan. 18. Remains of 15 men and women were found in Bor hospital, many of whom had been shot in their beds, Amnesty said. Another 31 were found near the main market where civilians may have sought refuge when rebels attacked.
Another witness spoke of a 10-year-old girl raped by 10 men in Gandor, Unity state, while one woman said she was among 18 raped by government soldiers. Seven women who resisted rape were killed, she said.
South Sudan’s government has started “multiple investigations” into the violence yet none have produced “concrete results,” Amnesty said in the report.
Amnesty’s findings show the “unimaginable suffering of so many defenseless civilians unable to escape the growing spiral of violence,” Kagari said. “Civilians have been massacred in the very places where they sought refuge.”