South Sudan says it is taking seriously allegations by the United Nations that South Sudanese soldiers committed atrocities against women and girls. A government spokesperson said an investigation is under way after a report by the U.N. mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) found that soldiers raped and burned women and girls alive.
Interviews with 115 victims and eyewitnesses depict a brutal campaign carried out by South Sudanese military members in Unity state, located to the north and where much of the heavy fighting takes place. Brutal attacks against civilians have been reported since the inception of the civil war in December 2013. The UNMISS investigation shows it is getting worse.
“Conflict-related sexual violence has marred the conflict since its beginning, but reports of rape have increased during the current wave of fighting, particularly in Unity and Upper Nile,” according to the report.
In the past 18 months, more than 172 women and girls were abducted in Unity state. More than 79 women were sexually abused over the same period of time. Some cases involved gang rapes. At least 67 civilians have been killed in the state and roughly 40 people still missing. Boys are continue to face capture and forced military service.
The testimonies speak to the brutality of the attacks. One woman told UNMISS investigators that she was dragged out of her home and gang raped with her neighbor as her 3-year-old watched. When the soldiers were finished, they taunted the women. Witnesses described at least nine cases where the women were burned alive in their homes after they were raped by a group of soldiers.
“Revealing the truth of what happened offers the best hope for ensuring accountability for such terrible violence and ending the cycle of impunity that allows these abuses to continue,” the secretary-general’s special representative, Ellen Margrethe Løj, who also heads the U.N. Mission, wrote in a news release.
A week later, South Sudan’s government at least admits that it is aware of the accusations and looking into the problem.
“We have read the report and these egregious acts could only have been carried out by egregious individuals. Our army punishes with impunity any acts that deviate from the normal conducts of war,” South Sudan’s military spokesman Philip Aguer said in a statement reported by Agence France-Presse. “Our army was created to protect our women and children, ensure their safety and their dignity. If in fact the U.N. report is accurate, then the few individuals responsible for these heinous crimes have brought shame to the SPLA and that will not be tolerated.”
However, Aguer’s statement is at odds with President Salva Kiir’s office. Spokesman Ateng Wek Ateng told the BBC that an investigation would take place, but “he did not believe that troops would commit atrocities against their own people.” Further, the report says the spokesperson for South Sudan’s army “repeatedly dismissed claims” that soldiers committed human rights violations.
Løj wants “unfettered access” in South Sudan to continue investigating the reported crimes. A separate report from UNICEF published earlier in June said boys were castrated and girls raped as a result of the fighting. More than 129 children were killed in a three-week period in May, according to UNICEF.
“The details of the worsening violence against children are unspeakable, but we must speak of them,” said UNICEF head Anthony Lake recently, in a statement responding to the news. “In the name of humanity and common decency this violence against the innocent must stop.”