Government soldiers carried out extensive abuses against civilians during counter-insurgency operations in South Sudan between December 2018 and March 2019 in Yei River state, Human Rights Watch said.
The soldiers shot at civilians, looted extensively, burned homes and crops, and chased thousands of residents from their villages. Human Rights Watch also documented accounts of rape and sexual violence by soldiers.
“Civilians are being targeted, killed, and raped, as government operations try to root out rebels in Yei River state,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All parties need to put a stop to the crimes against civilians and ensure accountability, while the government should help people regain their homes and livelihoods.”
Between March 14 and 21, Human Rights Watch interviewed 72 displaced people in Yei River state who witnessed the government operations in various locations in Mukaya and Otogo counties. Researchers also spoke with ceasefire monitors, aid workers, UN staff, and state government officials including the governor of Yei River State.
South Sudan’s leaders signed a “revitalized” peace agreement in September based on a collapsed 2015 peace deal, but the conflict continued, primarily in Yei River state, where the National Salvation Front (NAS), an armed group formed in March 2017 by former Deputy Chief of Staff Thomas Cirillo, continues to fight the government forces. Parties to the peace deal were to form a Transitional Government of National Unity on May 12, but that has been postponed to November 12.
While government soldiers were responsible for most of the abuses in the recent operations, rebel groups have over the past two years also attacked civilians and prevented aid workers from reaching civilians in need, Human Rights Watch found. Both National Salvation Front and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) under former Vice President Riek Machar abducted dozens of civilians in and around Yei in October and December, credible sources said.
In response to NAS attacks on their positions, starting in December, government forces began operations against the groups in parts of Yei, Lujulo, Morobo, Mukaya, Otogo, and Mugwo counties. The operations caused approximately 9,000 people to flee to the town of Yei and another 5,000 to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In early March, operations displaced approximately 1,400 more people into Yei, according to officials of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
In most cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch, rebels had already left the areas before government forces arrived or tactically withdrew during the operations. They said that soldiers surrounded and entered villages in search of rebels, attacked civilians, detaining some, shot in the air or at animals, then proceeded to loot property, destroy and burn homes, and to force everyone to flee.
“They were randomly shelling,” said a 60-year-old man from Morsak in Otego county. “It started on January 30 at 5 p.m. and the next morning they came into the villages with guns shooting at civilians. […] We have 120 households there and they were mostly looted and burned, even the food items.”
A 50-year-old farmer, who witnessed an early March attack on another village in Otogo county, said that soldiers burned crops and looted clothes, bikes, and motorbikes “[They] are now are selling some of our things in the market,” he said.
Several older people and people with disabilities were not able to flee. Nicholas Taban Dario, chief of Pisak village in Otogo county, said that during attacks on the area in March, at least five older people and people with disabilities were left behind, including a blind woman in her 60s and a blind man in his 70s.
Families were also separated during the skirmishes. “After I ran from the shelling, I went to look for my parents at home,” said a 14-year-old boy from Morsak. “Some soldiers were there, they found me and two of them started beating me with a stick on my back and shoulders. I ran away from them and they ran after me shooting at me.” He said he escaped to Yei on foot but did not know where his parents were.
Yei River state authorities have denied the scale of displacement. County commissions have pressed displaced people to return home immediately and discouraged aid agencies from providing services to them in town. However, thousands of people remain displaced in Yei, unwilling to risk moving back to their villages and face more fighting and abuse.
Government officials also denied the extent of the violations or the need for justice. The Yei River state governor said that soldiers were “sometimes undisciplined” but that the crimes were not government policy. In late March, weeks after meeting with Human Rights Watch, the governor publicly called on the soldiers to stop harassing civilians. “I want good relationship with the civilians and the bad things done by you [soldiers] must come to an end,” he said. “I want protection and respect for the civilians.”
The government of South Sudan has yet to address accountability, including by making progress in establishing an African Union hybrid court envisioned in the 2015 and 2018 “revitalized” peace deal. The hybrid court would be an important forum to provide justice for the most serious abuses committed in the conflict. South Sudanese authorities should immediately proceed with endorsing an outstanding memorandum of understanding on the court with the African Union Commission. The government’s inaction and long delays meanwhile provide ample grounds for the AU Commission to proceed unilaterally with establishing the court, Human Rights Watch said.
Authorities should go a step further and ensure all displaced people in need have access to humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch said.
“While the situation now in Yei may be calm, abuses against civilians have not been addressed,” said Henry. “Authorities should acknowledge the scope of the abuses inflicted on civilians, enable justice for victims, and prioritize getting aid to those in need.”