In 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. Nearly 99 percent of its inhabitants voted to split from the north, ending more than two decades of strife and transforming South Sudan’s brand-new capital of Juba into a sea of jubilation.
In late August, the two leaders signed a peace deal to end the civil war.
A new report threatens to upend that uneasy peace, however, by exposing the sickening atrocities committed during the conflict.
The report, released Tuesday by the African Union, describes in graphic detail how government soldiers allegedly slaughtered civilians, gang-raped women, murdered children or forced them to fight, burned people alive and dumped victims into mass graves.
While some victims were suspected of supporting rebels, others were killed simply because they had the wrong kind of tribal facial scars, witnesses said.
The report’s most shocking claim, however, is that soldiers forced survivors to eat the charred bodies or drink the blood of their murdered friends and relatives.
“I have seen people being forced to eat other humans,” one person in a UN refugee camp told investigators. “Soldiers kill one of you and ask the other to eat the dead one.”
Although the crimes did not amount to genocide, according to the report’s authors, they did recall Africa’s most horrific moments.
“The stories and reports of the human toll of the violence and brutality have been heart-wrenching,” the report said. “All these accounts evoke the memories of some of the worst episodes of earlier human rights violations on the continent.”
The report marks a stunning slide into chaos and misery for South Sudan, a country propelled to independence by its abundant natural resources and a celebrity-driven international media campaign.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
For years, George Clooney and a gaggle of Hollywood’s biggest actors helped bring attention to Sudan’s simmering conflict. First, Clooney & Co. focused on the western region of Darfur. Then the actor turned his sights on Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. When Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, Clooney started advocating for the south’s independence.
“Clooney’s efforts revealed imagination and refreshing depth,” Alex Perry wrote in a 2014 Newsweek cover story. “His campaigning was also effective. But when I thought about it later, in some ways that only made it stranger. Because he was charming and handsome and famous and rich, Clooney had been able to help engineer the creation of a vast new country in a faraway land. The fabulousness of one of Hollywood’s leading men, normally used to sell movie tickets and watches and coffee, had changed millions of lives and the course of history.”
Whatever the actor’s influence, South Sudan’s campaign for statehood was vindicated on Jan. 30, 2011, when almost 99 percent of its inhabitants voted for independence. Sudan’s cowboy hat-toting vice president, Salva Kiir, became South Sudan’s first president.
“I’m very happy because today we have determined our destiny,” Anna Kaku told the Associated Press at a results ceremony led by Kiir. “We fought for so many years, and now we have done this peacefully.”
But Kiir’s own comments that day hinted at future difficulties.
“We are still moving forward,” Kiir said. “The struggle continues.”
South Sudan celebrated independence on July 9, 2011. Eighteen months later, the brand-new country was burning.
The conflict had little to do with the north, however. Instead, it sprang from within South Sudan. Long before it was its own country, South Sudan was seething with tension between various tribes, particularly the two largest: the Dinka and the Nuer. At first, statehood stirred hopes of collaboration. Kiir, a Dinka, appointed Nuer leader Riek Machar as his vice president.
But in July 2013, two years after independence, Kiir fired Machar, accusing him of attempting a coup. Tribal skirmishes quickly spread across the country as the Dinka-dominated army fought Nuer militias.
Unlike the country’s previous struggles, however, South Sudan’s civil war hasn’t become a cause célèbre. In fact, for most of the world, Tuesday’s African Union report is a first glimpse inside the conflict.
The glimpse is one of horror.
Citing survivors’ testimony as well as forensic evidence, the report describes “people being burnt in places of worship and hospitals, mass burials, women of all ages raped; both elderly and young, women described how they were brutally gang raped, and left unconscious and bleeding, people were not simply shot, they were subjected, for instance, to beatings before being compelled to jump into a lit fire.”
The report argues that the violence is far beyond anything that South Sudan has ever seen, and includes some of the worst atrocities witnessed in Africa since the Rwandan genocide.
“While conflict is not a new phenomenon to South Sudan, the majority of those the Commission met with, said that they have never seen the scale and nature of violations witnessed during this conflict,” the report says. “What makes it so much worse for them is the targeting of civilians, which they claim was never a central part of previous conflict.”
The report then proceeds to describe in graphic detail dozens of cases of alleged rape, murder and torture, most of them allegedly committed by Dinka soldiers against Nuer rebels, supporters and even neutral civilians.
“When the Government killed Nuers, they killed women, young children, girls, when they found old women they would put them in a charcoal and they burn them together,” survivors told African Union investigators in Leer County, Unity State. “They also abducted women when they were evacuated from there and took them along with them. Also when they arrived here and found a blind person, they would tie the blind person with grass and set that blind person on fire and then laugh at that.”
One survivor, a 23-year-old from Bentiu near the border with Sudan, told investigators how he watched his neighbors die from between the twigs of a grass fence. “The deceased were all slashed with machetes after being made to kneel down, the father first, then the children being forcefully grabbed from the arms of the mother and all killed,” the report summarized. “The witness described the little toddler children being killed by the wringing of their necks.”
The report also describes widespread allegations of rape by government soldiers. One woman described being called out of her hut by soldiers, one of whom grabbed her aunt only to be startled by nearby opposition forces. “So the government soldier shot my aunty because he did not have time to rape her,” the woman said.
As the conflict spiraled out of control over the past two years, it tore apart families as well as communities.
“Two women, 20-year-old and 24-year-old Nuer women refugees in Reception Centre, both described how they had been married to Dinka men (soldiers) who had been killed in the fighting,” the report states. “The 20-year-old described how her brother had killed her husband as an act of revenge for the lost lives of his Nuer friends and relatives. Her brother had threatened to kill her if she attempted to take any action against him. She was now living in fear of her husband’s Dinka relatives who had demanded she hand over her children to them.
“The 24-year old showed wounds of the stabbing she endured at the hands of her brother in law who had attempted to take her children away from her,” the report continues.
“Killing was just going on, no military fighting,” recounted one politician. “It was just killing of civilians taking place in town.”
The politician described how suspected Nuers were identified by their facial scars, and then killed.
“Everybody with scars like this man was to be killed,” the politician said. “If he does not have any scars on his face like me and him they will ask him to speak Dinka language. If you don’t speak Dinka language you assure them that you are not a Dinka and you are shot down. Even the Dinkas who had the scars were also killed because they thought they were Nuer. Many Dinkas have the same facial scars.”
“[T]here was no family that did not get somebody killed,” the politician said. “My family lost five university students. They were found in the house murdered with high machine guns killed because they were Nuers… Everybody who is still alive now is because he ran to the [United Nations] compound in Juba.”
The most startling claim in the report is that Dinka soldiers forced their prisoners to eat human flesh or drink human blood.
“For us here as women we are suffering, because after they rape you, they push your Adam’s apple/ strangle you and you die,” one woman told the commission. “They force you to eat the flesh of the dead people. It has never happened before, to make your enemies eat human flesh.”
Although she escaped the soldiers by hiding in a bathroom, the woman said other survivors told her “that they had been made to eat the flesh of the dead people. They were told that you always say Dinkas eat people, so now you eat.”
The report explains that “certain Dinkas are traditionally cannibalistic” but the custom is criticized by other tribes. By allegedly forcing their Nuer prisoners to eat their dead, the Dinka soldiers were reportedly enacting a sick revenge.
“The Commission also heard evidence that some of the people who had been gathered were compelled to eat human flesh while others were forced to drink human blood belonging to a victim who had been slaughtered and his blood collected on a plate,” the report says, noting that a man who was allegedly forced to eat his fellow tribesman’s remains had “lost his mind” as a result.
Despite the ethnic violence described in the report, its authors argue that there is no evidence of genocide in South Sudan. They also redacted the names of specific politicians and military commanders they considered responsible.
The report did recommend, however, that an “Africa led, Africa owned, Africa resourced” court be established to prosecute those responsible.
The report was supposed to have been released earlier this year, but was held back to allow Kiir and Machar to sign a peace accord. The president and his former deputy met in late August and agreed to halt the 20 months of bloodshed.
But the report’s release could spell trouble for that fragile agreement.
First, the atrocities recounted in its pages could spark new conflicts. And if any Dinka leaders are prosecuted as a result of the report, then that, too, could inflame tensions.
Just as worryingly, the report portrays relations between Nuers and Dinkas, particularly president Kiir, as deeply damaged.
“Nothing can make us see Salva Kiir as a good person,” one woman said in the report. “Even Bashir when he divided the country, he did not do those things to us.”
But the report also captured faint glimmers of hope.
“Different communities are connected. Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, Bari cannot be differentiated,” said a man who had been driven from his home by the conflict and was living in the UN camp.
“The crisis is political. They put a knife into what bound us, turned the crisis from political to ethnic,” he said, holding a copy of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” J.M. Coetzee’s fable of hatred, violence and fear in South Africa.
“This war is more dangerous than the war with the North,” the man said. “This is a war between brothers.”