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Source: Radio Tamazuj

Human Rights Watch’s newly released report, ‘South Sudan’s New War: Abuses by Government and Opposition Forces,’ documents war crimes committed in South Sudan since last December.

The 92-page report is based largely on interviews with more than 400 survivors and witnesses. Below is the second of several excerpts of the report to be published by Radio Tamazuj. For readability, the extensive footnoting of the original report is removed, but otherwise the text of the report is reproduced verbatim.

This section of the report recounts events in the north-central Unity State.

Attacks on civilians in Bentiu, Unity State

The largely Nuer town of Bentiu, capital of oil-producing Unity State, has changed hands four times. Military offensives on the town by both opposition and government forces have been accompanied by targeting of civilians, often on the basis of their ethnicity. Attacks by government forces on Bentiu town and villages and towns in southern Unity state have also included massive burning and widespread pillage of civilian property.

On December 21 Gen. James Koang, the Nuer head of the SPLA’s Division 4, head-quartered in Rubkona, next to Bentiu town, declared his defection and announced he was taking control of Unity state as military governor. The defection followed a series of skirmishes between pro and anti-government soldiers in Division 4 in several SPLA barracks in Unity state, including fighting in the Division 4 headquarters in Rubkona on the evening of 19 December.

Government forces, together with fighters from the Sudanese rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), recaptured the town on January 10, 2014. JEM had been stationed in Bentiu since 2012. Following the government attack and recapture of the town JEM were frequently seen patrolling in Bentiu and Rubkona and conducted attacks with government forces into Guit and southern Unity in January and February 2014. Most of Koang’s forces left the town ahead of the government attack, after blowing up the weapons and ammunition store in Rubkona Division 4 HQ.

Government forces then moved east and south of the town in the following weeks into places controlled by opposition forces and surrounding areas, conducting attacks on towns and villages, including burning villages and attacking civilians who were repeatedly forced to flee from village to village ahead of government attacks.

Opposition forces successfully re-took Bentiu town on April 14 and 15, 2014. During this attack, opposition forces killed at least 200 civilians who had gathered in a mosque and in a hospital for safety. Radio Bentiu was used in this period to incite ethnic-based killings.

The government recaptured Bentiu on May 8.

Killings of Dinka in Unity State by armed Nuer in late December 2013

Dinka soldiers, including those who were disarmed and so no longer a legitimate military target under the laws of war, were allegedly targeted and killed by Nuer soldiers during a complex series of skirmishes between pro and anti-government forces in and around barracks in Unity state. On the evening of December 19, fighting erupted between Koang’s defecting troops and government loyalists in the tank unit in the Rubkona Division 4 HQ. Nuer soldiers then went to the house of one of the tank unit soldiers, and shot and killed two wives and three young children of one of the tank drivers. Two of his other children were also shot and injured.

Armed Nuer civilians and members of security forces targeted Dinka civilians in Unity state, during the first week of the crisis. Several sources told Human Rights Watch that around 40 Dinka villagers were killed in the village of Lele in Pariang County, near the beginning of the conflict, including one soldier who arrived on the scene soon after the alleged killings by Nuer soldiers. Two Dinka staff at a base owned by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company oil consortium described to Human Rights Watch how Nuer day laborers turned on Dinka staff and killed at least six men using batons and machetes on the night of December 16. Both witnesses said Nuer police on the base saw the violence and did not intervene.

Nuer soldiers killed four Dinka and one Nuer on the road between the Tharjath airport in the oil-producing area and Bentiu town on December 17. Fighting broke out in the main office of the Sudd Petroleum Operating Company in Tharjath as police and national security officers split along ethnic lines.

Armed Nuer also killed Dinka civilians in Bentiu and Rubkona in reprisal for the killings of Nuer in Juba. A government administrator was killed, according to a relative, and two others injured when a mix of Nuer police and wildlife personnel attacked a house in Bentiu on December 19.

One woman said Nuer members of the wildlife service beat her aunt so badly on the night of December 20 that she later died. Another man said four people were killed in his house after he fled an attack by Nuer policemen. A senior pro-government official said that around 70 Dinka civilians had been killed in in the town. As most Dinka had fled to the two Dinka counties of Unity state, Human Rights Watch was unable to ascertain the full extent of the killings.

It is probable that action taken by the government and army officials, including Koang who may not have had complete control of the town in the days following his defection, and UNMISS, to transport Dinka to the UNMISS base helped restrict the number of deaths.

Markets, shops and the offices of numerous international organizations were heavily looted by defecting soldiers, as well as by police and civilians. Traders, including from Sudan and Ethiopia, who fled to the UNMISS camp for safety during violence between pro and anti-government soldiers between December 17 – 20, told Human Rights Watch that their properties had been looted by Nuer defectors.

Looting, destruction, and attacks on civilians by govt forces in Jan. and Feb. 2014

On January 10, 2014, government forces and JEM forces entered Rubkona and then Bentiu. The government recaptured the town the same day after battling remnants of Division 4 forces loyal to Koang, who mostly left the town as the government forces approached.

Large scale damage, including extensive burning in Bentiu and especially in Rubkona took place during the government recapture of the towns by government forces together with JEM fighters. Most civilians fled their homes ahead of the arrival of these forces. Those who remained were targeted during the attack.

The government attack included massive destruction of civilian property. Almost the entirety of Rubkona market and neighborhoods around the market and across the main road were burned to the ground during the attack, leaving only blackened structures. Large areas in Bentiu town were also burned, including major markets on either side of the main road. 

As the government and JEM forces first entered Rubkona on January 10, 2014, along a road running past the UNMISS base, as many as 2,000 Dinka sheltering in the base, including some soldiers who had fled there after Koang’s defection, jumped over the fence and joined the attacking forces. Witnesses watching from the UNMISS base described how some men from this group then viciously beat civilians living next to the base and burned numerous huts. Two witnesses saw some of these men being given weapons including machetes by the attacking forces.

At least five people were killed in attacks outside the UNMISS base, including an old woman who was burned in her hut. “They came, pushed me in and then set my house on fire,” said another old woman who still had extensive burns on her face and arms when she spoke to Human Rights Watch. “They were singing in Dinka when they came up to me. When they saw that I had (traditional scarification) marks they identified me as Nuer.” UN officials and aid workers said that after the Dinka joined the melee many of them later returned to the camp during the following days, heavily laden with looted materials.

Civilians who attempted to flee to the UNMISS base on the day of the government attack were shot and killed as the forces moved towards Bentiu through Rubkona. In the aftermath of the attack, around 30 civilian bodies were found on the road between the UNMISS base and Bentiu.

Other civilians fled to swampy areas where government soldiers shot at them in their hiding places, according to witnesses. “I saw three people shot … in the head and chest. On the second day of hiding they decided to walk out and then they were shot,” said one man, a tailor, who hid among reeds for three days without food or water. Another man who hid nearby in a river said soldiers burned the rushes to better see those hiding. “If you got out you would be killed, if the grass (rushes) moved they shot at you,” he said. He saw soldiers shoot one boy as he fled and later saw the bodies of two children and a woman shot in the river.

A young man, around 18 years old, described being shot in his left thigh by government soldiers as he ran. An old man with a bullet wound, interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the UNMISS camp also said he had been shot by government soldiers during the attack. A cattle herder said he saw SPLA and JEM soldiers moving through Kalibalik market in Bentiu shooting at and chasing civilians. While searching for his children after the initial attack, he saw eight bodies in two of many burned houses. A government worker said his 19-year-old nephew was killed on January 10 during the government attack and his body left in the Kalibalik neighborhood of Bentiu.

Many witnesses told Human Rights Watch they had seen or heard of bodies left in various neighborhoods in Bentiu following the recapture of the town.

Attacks on civilians by government forces in other parts of Unity State

Thousands of residents from Rubkona and Bentiu fled southwards in the days ahead of the January government recapture of the towns. Those who fled into Guit County, south of Bentiu, told terrifying stories of having to flee village after village with little food or access to water as the pro-government forces chased remnants of Koang’s Division 4 soldiers, often burning villages in the fighting.

Civilians who fled Bentiu at the same time as Koang’s Division 4 soldiers complained that the defected Division 4 soldiers forcibly took food and money from them. Three witnesses said that they would have been safer had the Division 4 soldiers not fled with them. “When I said please don’t run with us, they slapped me in the face,” one woman who ran from Bentiu to Guit recalled.

By February 1, 2014, government troops had control of the town of Leer, in the south of Unity state and Riek’s home county, after fighting opposition forces in Koch and Mirmir, to the north. Opposition forces had already retreated from Leer after heavily looting the town, witnesses said. Upon entering Leer, the government soldiers and JEM forces burned much of the town, including the Leer hospital. Government forces burned other villages around Leer, seemingly especially those on either side of the Mirmir-Leer town road, in the following days.

Fighting between the government and opposition forces took place in many places across Unity state in February and March. However numerous witnesses described how government forces, including “torabora”, or Darfuri rebels, usually described as JEM, attacked towns and villages, burned and pillaged even when there were no opposition forces present. A woman who ran to Nguek village, some seven kilometers from Leer described seeing it being burned by government forces. She ran to a village called Piliny which was burned the following day. Another woman said that in February 2014 JEM attacked Tuochriek village, where she was staying, four times, taking vehicles and attacking civilians, shooting dead one young man. “There were no (opposition) soldiers staying with us,” she said.

Mirmir town, north of Leer town, was also looted by JEM and parts of it burned, according to witnesses. A village called Gap, about 45 kilometers east of Leer town, was also attacked numerous times by the government and JEM forces. One woman who fled there from the attack in Leer said:

“They took beds, sorghum, goats. They were shooting with big guns from cars, some were on foot shooting at civilians. Two of my relatives were killed. Gap was all burned. All that remains is four luak (large huts).”

A woman who had run to a village called Both near Leer described how JEM and government soldiers beat her until she revealed where her stored sorghum was hidden. “They took 6 bags of sorghum. It would have been enough for my family until the next harvest,” she said. A man who fled Leer to the village of Beer, about 28 kilometers north-east from Leer town, described an attack in early February: “Darfur rebels and the SPLA soldiers attacked us … they arrived shooting at us … the gunfire was intense”.

People in Mayendit county, southwest of Leer, also witnessed attacks, particularly in the area of Rubkuay a town along the road between Leer and Mirmir. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch starting in February, and as late as April, that they saw government forces who they described as “torabora,” [common name for Darfur rebels] enter into Rubkuay in vehicles, shooting in the air and at people, looting animals and forcing people to flee to surrounding bush.

Other witnesses named numerous other villages especially in Leer but also in Mayendit county where government and JEM attacks also took place. In almost every case, survivors said soldiers had taken foods and other property and in many cases the forces shot at civilians hiding in the bush and burned houses and other buildings. 

Human Rights Watch heard several reports of women being raped by government and JEM forces. A woman said her sister was gang raped by seven soldiers from both forces in Gandor village (also partly burned and pillaged by the forces), about 30 kilometers north of Leer town in February.

Another woman who ran from Leer to a nearby village called Dhorgoni said her sister-in-law was raped there by six JEM soldiers in mid-February. Another woman was raped in Liep near Adok port, Leer county, by “Dinka” soldiers, according to relatives. Community leaders said Leer, Geer, Gandor and Pilliny were all locations where rapes occurred, but Human Rights Watch could not verify these claims.

Civilians were forced to run to swampy areas where they suffered extreme shortages of food. These locations were shelled by government tanks and shot by government soldiers, especially in locations near Adok port. Many people who remained in the bush for months lived off of water lilies and livestock or fish. In early June, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed new arrivals to the Bentiu UNMISS compound who had spent three to five months in hiding, and had become visibly emaciated.

Attacks on civilians in Bentiu town by opposition forces, mid-April 2014

Opposition forces captured Bentiu on April 15. During the attacks opposition forces carried out large scale killings of civilians, including Sudanese Darfuris in gruesome reprisal for JEM’s role in Unity state. UNMISS reported that opposition forces used the local radio station, Radio Bentiu, to broadcast hate speech, inciting killing and rape. UNMISS reported that hundreds of people were killed, including as many as 200 people seeking shelter in a mosque.

Although many people fled to UNMISS, the Governor reportedly reassured people that the situation was under control and government soldiers stopped many civilians in Bentiu on April 14, 2014, from moving to the UN base or fleeing the town ahead of the attack. Thousands of townspeople sought refuge in the mosque, hospital, churches, and NGOs in town. Starting at around 6 a.m. the following day opposition forces began their attack, with heavy shooting in the town, and met little resistance from government forces that had already retreated. Some of the worst violence took place in the mosque and hospital.

A Dafuri man who was in the mosque during the attack, which lasted until mid-afternoon, told Human Rights Watch that groups of opposition soldiers began arriving at the mosque at around 11 a.m. Dressed in uniforms and civilian clothes, these forces shot and killed some people outside the mosque, as hundreds of others sought shelter in the building. They then demanded money and mobile phones from those inside the mosque, and allowed some Ethiopian nationals to leave the site. The Darfuri survivor said hundreds of people were then shot inside the mosque:

There were about 12 windows and doors and they stuck their guns in sometimes breaking the glass to do so. […] At around 1:30 p.m. they began shooting the guns. […] I heard people around me scream that they had been shot. [… ] [One man] next to me was shot in the head and his brain came out in front of me.

According to the witness, after the massacre other opposition forces, apparently higher ranking, arrived and took control of the mosque, telling survivors, including the injured, to wait under a tree. They then transported some of them to the hospital and, with help from about a dozen survivors, removed the bodies from the mosque and during the night buried them at a location about 50km away. Human Rights Watch could not corroborate this account.

A Nuer civil servant in the government, who was home in the Dar el Salam neighborhood during the fighting, told Human Rights Watch that he walked around town, alongside rebel soldiers and visited the mosque area after the killings.

“I went to the Kalibalik area and I saw many bodies at the roundabout and at the mosque and on the road,” he recalled.

He also witnessed soldiers killing civilians elsewhere in town: “I was moving around with soldiers. I saw them killing people in the market. One commander told me civilians could move but I saw them killing.”

A 22-year-old cook from Sudan told Human Rights Watch she saw 15 bodies outside the mosque “dumped in a pile”. Gen. James Koang who arrived in Bentiu town around midday on April 14 after his forces had recaptured the town told Human Rights Watch in June that people, including civilians, had been killed in the hospital in an attack by opposition forces, described below, but that the number of people killed in the mosque had been greatly exaggerated and that they were from the JEM force and not civilians, although he admitted that they were not armed.

He added that his efforts to try and investigate these events further had been made impossible by ongoing conflict.

On April 14 and 15, 2014, hundreds of civilians went to the Bentiu hospital for safety together with injured government soldiers and at least two JEM combatants seeking sanctuary or treatment.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch how groups of opposition soldiers entered the compound, asked for JEM combatants, and executed Darfuris. A doctor at the scene said at least 18 people were killed in total at the hospital.

He said: “At 9 or 10 a.m. the opposition [forces] came to the hospital… they said don’t be afraid we are looking for government. We saw 10 come and kill three Darfuris in the compound. They entered the hospital and, still firing, killed 2 more.”

In the lead up to and following the attack, the population seeking refuge in the UNMISS base in Bentiu surged to more than 25,000, with 10,000 arriving in one day. On April 16, UNMISS transported more than 150 Darfuris from the hospital. These individuals, plus wounded opposition fighters, were brought to the UNMISS base and treated for injuries. UNMISS later transferred more than 100 Darfuris to JEM commanders, who transported them out of Bentiu town.

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