Casualties of war in the world’s newest country

New Statesman
Bentiu, South Sudan

Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty
Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

There were no wounds on Nyachan’s body. She demonstrated how she was tied up – arms pulled back, elbows bent sharply towards her spine – but the rope marks had faded. Government soldiers had abducted Nyachan from her village in Unity State in South Sudan in mid-April and marched her to a military camp. For two months she was held captive: forced to work by day, bound and raped by night. Eventually Nyachan (not her real name) escaped on foot to a UN base outside the state capital, Bentiu, where she was reunited with her five children, and where we met a couple of months later.

Nyachan’s story seemed extreme at first, but later commonplace. Every woman and girl I spoke with in Bentiu, where 120,000 displaced people were gathered, had her own subtly different horror story, but there were common threads. Many, like Nyachan, had been abducted, tied up and gang-raped over days or months in camps run by government soldiers and their allied militias. The discovery of this particular war crime was new, but already human rights investigators had documented appalling atrocities – children, especially boys, mutilated and killed; people burned alive in their huts; elderly women hanged from trees – during a government offensive this year.

How did South Sudan come to this, just four years after independence from Sudan to the north? Something had always unified South Sudan, whether the decades-long civil war against the common enemy in Khartoum, or the shared goal of secession and self-rule that followed a 2005 peace deal. But independence in July 2011 unchained South Sudan’s political elite. On the night of 15 December 2013 President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, and his sacked deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, went to war. It began in the capital, Juba, and quickly spread as the two men rallied their mostly tribal supporters to the cause of winning power.

As in other countries where armed liberation movements have become governments, control of the ruling party equals control of the state, its wealth and patronage. The rivalry between Kiir and Machar in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement dates back to the civil war with the north. The unschooled Kiir is a wily bush-war tactician; Machar – with his Bradford University PhD – a slippery operator. Both are veterans of conflict, their actions freighted with historical violence and resentment. Since the resumption of war, tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2.3 million forced from their homes. Some 4.6 million need food aid.

The African Union convened a commission of inquiry into abuses committed in the early stages of the war, but then buried its findings. Finally published last week, the report mentioned massacres and mass graves, specially trained tribal militias, deliberate attacks on civilians, forced cannibalism, rape and mutilation. But a call for Kiir and Machar to be barred from politics, contained in a previous leaked version of the report, was dropped. A wobbly peace deal brokered by regional states in August includes the creation of a “hybrid” war crimes court – a model that has proved effective in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone – but leaves Kiir as president and reinstals Machar as deputy.

The starkest division in the country is between Dinkas and Nuers, but the splits are multilayered and there have been atrocities on all sides. In Unity State it is a Bul-Nuer militia, allied to the government and backed by the army, that is accused of perpetrating the worst of the crimes against civilians who, because of their membership of a different Nuer clan, were regarded as rebels.

One woman I met – who had disguised her sons, aged five and two, as girls so they would not be killed on the walk to safety at the UN base – did not hide her hatred of the Bul-Nuer. “They are worried,” she said. “They know all the Nuers in all the counties of Unity State will come together and want revenge for what they did.”

“I voted for separation. Now it’s like I voted to suffer for the rest of my life,” Toulgol said.