Rape stands out starkly in S. Sudan war known for brutality

Even around 'safe' UN camps, females who forage for food and firewood are targeted by lurking soldiers. 'You cannot change the actions of an illiterate army by the stroke of a pen,' says rebel spokesman.

Matthew Abbott/AP
Many people are forced to sleep outside due to over crowding in Bentiu IDP camp, South Sudan Friday, July 4, 2014. Preventable diseases and severe malnutrition are causing an alarming number of deaths among the estimates 45,000 people taking refuge at a UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan according to a recent MSF report. The report show that at least three children under 5 years old are dying per day, most from preventable diseases.

Every day, hundreds of women living at the United Nations base in Bentiu risk rape so they can feed their children.

Some 40,000 people shelter here from South Sudan's civil war, and there is not enough food or charcoal. The women of this camp have taken on the job of foraging for firewood and vegetables outside the perimeter – since men in the camp have been shot on sight by lurking local soldiers who suspect them of being militants.

But leaving the compound means the women walk into the same zone of conflict. While some UN workers are pushing to get simple food and firewood delivered, they also point out that donor aid is lagging. .

"They can rape me or kill me," says 'Anne,' who sells home-brewed alcohol to the soldiers outside, earning about $5 each time that she uses to buy milk and soup packets for her three children.  "But my children don't have good food to eat so I have to go out."

South Sudan's civil war is a conflict now known for its brutality against civilians; the toll on women stands out especially. A detailed UN human rights report released in May accuses both the government and the rebels of horrific sexual crimes against women. And the areas in and around the UN's supposed safe havens themselves are not immune from the predatory behavior.

"The scale and ferocity of the sexual violence against South Sudanese women that we are witnessing in the current conflict has not been seen since some of the darkest atrocities of the [previous] civil war, pre-2005," says Lydia Stone, a senior adviser to South Sudan's Ministry of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare. "Rape and sexual assault are being used on a mass scale as a weapon of war."

A frightening morning ritual

Each morning, Janet,  the mother of six in her mid-twenties, climbs the earth berm around the base, wades through a waste-water moat, and heads into the forest to search for fuel.

"When young women go out, they rape you," Janet says, while sitting in a grass thatch hut with two other women.  "We as young women fear going out of the camp."

If she sees a soldier, she lies low in the grass.  If a soldier sees her, there is little she can do.

"They say 'we'll shoot you if we don't rape you,' " Janet says, pressing a finger to her forehead.  "When they find you are three women like this, they take you one by one, and if you make any sound they beat you."

A woman at Janet's left juggles a three-month-old boy in her lap.  "If I say I have a small baby and I'm still breastfeeding, they still rape you," she says.

"They" – in the case Janet refers to – are government soldiers loyal to South Sudan's president Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka.

President Kiir's political power games with his former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer and now the rebel leader, helped spark the current civil war that openly broke out last December.

Mr. Kiir's troops currently control Bentiu, but they do not have a monopoly on violence against women.

Each of the four times Bentiu has switched hands during the conflict, there have been incidents of targeted rapes based on ethnicity. The most infamous was in April when a rebel commander urged his men by radio broadcast to rape Dinka women as revenge for earlier crimes against the Nuer.

Although Anne is Nuer, she says her customers, who are pro-government soldiers, do not trouble her because she knows them well by now. But other soldiers hide in abandoned buildings and harass her along her commute. She says the men demand that she speak Dinka and accuse her of being a rebel spy. Her hands shake as she describes a recent incident when she watched soldiers beat a woman for failing a language test.

Blaming the women for assaults

That Anne and the two other women are willing to speak about rape and abuse to a male outsider is a sign of how bad things have become for women in South Sudan where there is deep stigma about admitting sexual violence.

Women fear they will be blamed for assaults, and admitting rape may affect a girl's ability to marry. Usually, few women come forward at all, and even fewer seek medical care after an attack.

"If they have not killed you, you just come back and you don't report to anyone," Anne says.  "You cannot tell anybody, even your family. It's just our culture. We Nuer, we cannot talk about rape.  It can bring fighting. You stay quiet."

Yet groups responding to sexual violence in Bentiu have managed to document a sharp increase in rape cases since April.

"We had focus groups of over 100 women and in every focus group rape was consistently mentioned as the most pressing fear among women here, especially when they're leaving the camp to collect firewood," says Sinead Murray of the International Rescue Committee, the NGO agency coordinating sexual violence response in Bentiu (a previous version of this story incorrectly identified Ms. Murray's employer).

Government forces, called the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), have a strict code of conduct prohibiting violence against civilians, and soldiers who rape face the death penalty.  In recent years the international community has invested heavily in reforming the SPLA.

But the fractured military remains little more than a collection of militias than a disciplined fighting force, especially during this war.

"There's no rule of law, soldiers are not in the barracks, they're just roaming around doing whatever they want," a senior UN official in the Bentiu base told the Monitor.  "It's a recipe for pain for civilians."

Army spokesman Philip Aguer told the Monitor he has not heard any accusations of sexual violence committed by government troops during this conflict, but rebel spokesman Mabior Garang Mabior conceded that crimes are taking place.

"It would be foolish to deny that this would happen, and there is nothing to defend it," he says.  "It is a phenomenon you have when you have illiterate soldiers and give them guns."

Mr. Mabior says the state of both the rebel and government armies means there's not much anyone can do during wartime.

"You cannot change the actions of an illiterate army by the stroke of a pen."

Even inside the camp, women and girls don't feel safe going to poorly lit latrines at night. With most husbands on the front lines, dead, or separated in the war, a sheet across a hut doorway is often women's only protection against rape from fellow camp residents.

There's little women can do to protect themselves, Ms. Murray says. Traveling in groups, for example, doesn't reduce the likelihood of an attack; it just means someone can run back to ask for help.

Efforts to map worst zones, escort women

The UN is mapping areas outside the base where people are most vulnerable so they can focus peacekeeping patrols toward protecting women. They are also considering escorting women to collect firewood, but peacekeepers are already stretched protecting the base of 40,000 people.

Anne says that if aid agencies could provide jobs or money inside the camp, women wouldn't need to leave the base to begin. Murray seconds
this approach, saying agencies should provide residents with firewood, charcoal, or fuel efficient stoves so women don't have to search outside.

That requires more money. Yet with high-profile crises like Syria and Gaza ongoing, South Sudan's $1.8 billion aid appeal has received less than half its target for months.

"Across the South Sudan crisis we're struggling to get enough resources to fund the crisis response plan," Murray says. "Providing firewood or charcoal would be another chunky amount of funding that's required."

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