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S.Sudan forces 'target civilians because they can'

Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth
July 5, 2017

According to a report by Amnesty International, South Sudan's ongoing atrocities have turned the country’s breadbasket into a killing field. Both government and opposition forces use food as a weapon of war.

Südsudan Frauen mit Säcke in Nimini village
Image: Reuters/S. Modola

In South Sudan's Equatoria region, government and opposition forces have committed war crimes and widespread human rights abuses against civilians. A new report by Amnesty International reveals that men, women and children have been shot, hacked to death with machetes and burned alive in their homes. Women and girls have been gang-raped, some after having been abducted. Homes, schools, medical facilities and humanitarian organizations' compounds have been looted, vandalized and burned down. Both government and opposition forces use food as a weapon of war. Such atrocities have already forcibly displaced close to a million people from their homes in a food-rich region which could feed millions but it has become a place where even the small percentage of inhabitants who remain are facing acute hunger and malnutrition. DW spoke to the report's author, Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International, about the findings.

DW: Within which period has all this happened?

Donatella Rover: This situation has been going on for the past year. The cases that I personally investigated tend to be more recent cases that happened in the last few months.

Your findings are not so new from what has already been reported. Is there any explanation as to why this is continuing?

When one looks at the whole South Sudan situation, this is one particular region where it was very peaceful, very different from other areas of the country where the conflict has been going on since 2013. So this is a new situation that has developed over the past year and it obviously has massive implications, because the conflict is affecting food production and food distribution. So, an area which is generally very food-rich has now become a place where people are starving. Why is it not stopping? The same applies to all the other areas, because basically those who are involved in the conflict, especially the government of President Salva Kiir on one hand and the rebel forces led by Riek Machar on the other hand, but also local armed opposition groups which are not necessarily operating exactly under the main SPLA opposition [has resulted in a situation where] at the moment neither side can win and neither side is losing. And so they are continuing to fight and couldn't care less about the fate of civilians, and that's the tragedy.

You say that the Equatoria region was certainly South Sudan's food basket. Is it possible to quantify the amount of food that actually came out of this region in the past, considering that the bigger part of Sudan has for a very long time been locked in conflict?

I can't tell you what exact amount of food was produced in the Equatoria region but it was traditionally the food production area of South Sudan where the land is fertile and where food was produced, not just for that region but also for other places in the country. Over a million people fled from the Equatoria region alone in the past year. They are continuing to flee to Uganda at the rate of 2,000 people per day crossing the border.

Donatella Rovera - Senior Crisis Response Adviser
Donatella Rovera says more pressure should be put on both South Sudan's government and rebel forcesImage: Amnesty International/M. Allan

You start your report with a very emotive statement: "If men are caught, they are killed; if women are caught they are raped." Why is this happening? Who is doing what in South Sudan? And why is this kind of anger directed at ordinary civilians?

The bulk of the abuses are being committed by government forces and their allied militias - the Mathiang Anyor militia.

However, the rebel fighters are also committing the same kind of abuses, although on a much smaller scale. Why are they targeting civilians? They are targeting civilians because they can. Because civilians have no way of defending themselves and each side is accusing civilians of being supportive of the other side. That's why men are rounded up, massacred, shot dead, hacked to death, locked up in huts and set on fire and women are very often gang raped, whether in their homes or when they go out to the rural areas trying to look for food. So this is the dilemma facing women, who in order to find even a small amount of food for their children have to expose themselves to the very real and likely danger of being caught and raped.

In addition to your report, so much is known about the conflict in South Sudan. Why is it so difficult to resolve it?

Some of it is known about the conflict in South Sudan, but it is actually a very under-reported conflict. Very few people around the world even know that Sudan is the biggest refugee crisis in the world in terms of how fast it grows. Why it is so difficult to solve is because both parties, government and opposition forces, are not being put under the kind of pressure that they should be put under by the international community. There are certainly more measures that the international community should take such as an arms embargo, targeted sanctions on specific individuals. None of that has been done until now. Nobody has been held accountable. So, those who are responsible for these unspeakable atrocities against civilians, until now have been able to enjoy impunity. Impunity is in large part what is fueling this conflict.

What hope is there for the country, especially the civilian population?

Well, there has to be hope and there is a lot that can and must be done. Obviously, it is for the players on the ground, the government and the opposition to rein in their fighters to stop their forces from committing these terrible atrocities. At the level of the international community, the African Union - the African Commission - is supposed to be setting up a hybrid court to bring to justice and hold accountable the perpetrators of war crimes in South Sudan.

Interview: Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth

Donatella Rovera is a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International