Children and elderly burned alive. Women gang-raped. Civilians shot, run over with armored vehicles, or hanged from trees and rafters.
A new report by the rights group Amnesty International alleges that South Sudan’s government committed such atrocities earlier this year in a military campaign targeting the northern area once known as Unity state. The area, which borders Sudan, is an opposition stronghold.
The report, released Wednesday, contends the government offensive began in mid-April and continued for more than two months. During that period, President Salva Kiir and former vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar were in negotiations for a peace agreement that they signed Sept. 12. It aims to end nearly five years of armed conflict.
The alleged attacks “seem to have been carried out with an absolute intent to displace civilians” and to leave their villages “uninhabitable,” said Joanne Mariner, the report’s co-author and Amnesty’s senior crisis adviser. Amnesty’s research indicates systematic targeting of women and children, as well as widespread looting and destruction of property.
Mariner said the moves could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Major General Lul Ruai Koang, spokesman for the South Sudanese army, dismissed the report as a collection of “broad statements” that “do not carry water at all.”
Ruai noted that earlier this month, a military court in the capital city of Juba sentenced 10 soldiers to prison for raping foreign aid workers and murdering a local journalist in an attack two years ago.
He said it’s a clear example that South Sudan’s government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army do “not condone impunity, contrary to what is being alleged and contrary to what is being said on the global stage by Amnesty International and other international institutions.”
In July, the United Nations’ human rights office estimated the offensive left 232 civilians dead, more than 120 women and girls raped, and at least 31,000 people displaced. It urged the government to halt the attacks and bring its perpetrators to justice.
That month, Amnesty researchers interviewed some 100 civilians for the report titled “Anything That Was Breathing Was Killed.” The civilians blamed the alleged brutality on government soldiers and allied militia. Some reportedly were in uniform, though some interviewees said they witnessed attacks carried out by men in plainclothes.
The report describes incidents such as an elderly man burned alive in his house. One man said he found his wife hanged from a rafter in their house. A woman said her two young children were killed. One said she witnessed the rape of a 15-year-old boy.
Others spoke of fleeing their homes to hide in swamps where, they claim, government soldiers hunted for them, killing the less fortunate. Food was used as a weapon of war, Mariner said. Researchers saw deliberate destruction of food stocks and an effort to push civilians out.
The government and U.N. agencies declared a famine in Unity’s Leer and Mayendit counties in early 2017. In a joint press release, the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization described the famine as “man-made” and said years of violence — including an upsurge in 2016 — had devastated food production.
Mariner said the recurrence of violence in Unity state indicates a lack of accountability.
She complained of “similar aggressive campaigns in 2014 and 2015, and none of the known leaders in charge of those campaigns have been prosecuted. So, the really predictable result of that kind of impunity is continuing violence.”
Amnesty International published a 2016 report on South Sudan urging the international community to investigate four individuals it maintained had orchestrated war crimes and crimes against humanity. The rights group had written to South Sudan’s army chief at the time, but got no response.
This report originated in VOA’s English to Africa Service and its weekday radio program “South Sudan in Focus.”