NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In South Sudan, unimaginable atrocities are being committed, from pro-government gunmen killing women by forcing large wooden sticks inside their vaginas to soldiers shooting dead civilians detained in their barracks, Amnesty International said on Thursday.
The human rights group also warned that famine would be "inevitable" if fighting prevents farmers from planting their fields this month to ensure a harvest at the end of the year.
"Civilians have been systematically targeted in towns and villages, in their homes, as well as in churches, mosques, hospitals and even U.N. compounds where they had sought refuge," Amnesty said in a statement, calling for those responsible to be held accountable.
Amnesty researchers interviewed more than 100 people in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal in March, mostly in U.N. bases where some 80,000 people are sheltering, for the report ‘Nowhere Safe: Civilians under attack in South Sudan’.
Thousands have died and one million been displaced since the conflict began in December, after fighting broke out in the presidential guard and quickly spread across the country.
A ceasefire deal struck in January swiftly fell apart, with each side blaming the other for fighting that has exacerbated deep-rooted tensions between President Salva Kiir's Dinka people and the Nuer tribe of his sacked deputy president, Riek Machar.
'RAPED UNTIL THE BABY CAME OUT'
One woman recounted how government soldiers made her watch as they forced large wooden sticks inside the vaginas of seven women who resisted the men's attempts to have sex with them. The seven women died.
"I wanted to live, so I allowed them to rape me," she said. "I was three months pregnant but because I was raped by so many men, the baby came out. If I had refused those people, they would have killed me. Nine men raped me."
Amnesty interviewed six survivors of the attack in Unity State, who said more than a dozen women were raped by up to 14 men.
In the capital Juba, one woman said she and nine other women were taken from her home and raped by soldiers. She was raped by 15 men. Again, sticks were shoved up several women's vaginas, causing extensive bleeding that she believed killed them.
In Unity State, one woman said her 10-year-old sister-in-law was raped by 10 soldiers.
PRETENDING TO BE DEAD
Many civilians have been killed because of their ethnicity, leading to revenge attacks, Amnesty said.
"We are seeing a lot more of these reprisal killings happening. The violence is spiralling," Amnesty's deputy director for Africa, Michelle Kagari, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
One man described how he was rounded up by soldiers in Juba and held with 300 other men in an overcrowded army barracks room.
"It was so hot and we had no water. At about 7-8pm we opened the windows to get some air. When we did so, soldiers fired into our room from the windows," Amnesty quoted him as saying.
"Survivors lay among the dead, pretending to be also dead. The soldiers fired from the windows at anything that moved. We were 12 survivors."
Researchers found dozens of mass graves, including five in Bor containing 530 bodies.
They also heard accounts of nuns having their throats slashed, people being burned alive, children drowning while fleeing and corpses with their eyes gouged out.
Without an injection of aid and a ceasefire to allow farming to restart, worse is yet to come, Amnesty said.
"If people do not plant within this rainy season, famine is inevitable," Kagari said.
People hiding in the bush have no means to feed themselves. Markets have been burned down and truck drivers are afraid to carry goods.
The rains have begun, which will make two-thirds of the country inaccessible by road.
The United Nations has said that 50,000 children could die of malnutrition if aid is not scaled up and that 3.7 million people face hunger. It estimates that the number of severe acute malnourished children under five – who will die without emergency treatment – has doubled since January to 222,700.
Health workers can only reach two thirds of the 336 outpatient therapeutic feeding sites where they were working before the conflict broke out, the United Nations said, and more than 20 clinics have been attacked or destroyed.
Humanitarians have been repeatedly attacked by both sides, with at least three aid workers killed, Amnesty said.
"There has been deliberate obstruction of delivery of humanitarian aid which by itself is a war crime," Kagari said.
On Wednesday, the government said it had ordered its forces to respect the United Nations' call for a month of tranquility to allow civilians to move freely but that it would respond if attacked by the rebels.
Kiir and Machar are due to hold face-to-face talks in Ethiopia on Friday.
"There is no commitment by any party to the conflict to cease hostilities right now," Kagari said.