After government troops overran his camp in June, opposition fighter John Tap fled to his village. But when he arrived, it was burned to ashes. Three of his children were dead.
Realizing he could not survive there, he gathered his remaining family and sought shelter at a United Nations base in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state. He joined around 76,000 civilians, as of the most recent count in April.
“The whole village was destroyed. No shelter, no grain, they had taken it all,” says Mr. Tap, whose name has been changed. “Every family is coming [to the UN] because they don’t have anything to eat.”
Rebels are on the run in Unity, an oil-rich state where South Sudan’s 18-month civil war has burned hottest as its oil reserves make it a prize for either side. But unlike the past, when defeated rebels could easily melt back into their communities, they now find their villages empty.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SLPA) is accused of starving out tens of thousands of civilians in order to depopulate the armed opposition’s base. This campaign marks a new and potentially more lethal strategy in a conflict already replete with horrific atrocities committed by both sides. Survivors at the UN camp point to systematic and deliberate destruction of their villages, grain stocks, and cattle.
“The suffering it has caused civilians is just absolutely outrageous. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. Their houses have been burned. Food has been burned in their houses. An astounding amount of cattle has been stolen,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Skye Wheeler, speaking to the Monitor in Bentiu last week. “The end game is to make it impossible for the [armed opposition] to exist.”
The SPLA has denied any such strategy. But in Bentiu, the impact is apparent: some 500 people arrive daily at the UN camp, one of several in South Sudan providing shelter to civilians. Last week the state’s deputy governor declared victory over the opposition at a small ceremony in Bentiu.
Yet any success by government forces may be pyrrhic. By allegedly attacking civilians and their food sources on such a massive scale, the government may trigger famine in highly contested territories. And that, say peace activists, would further divide the two warring factions and potentially seed a more protracted conflict.
Livelihoods at risk
The government’s campaign has used two main tactics, according to interviews with survivors and human rights researchers. First are outright attacks on civilians as documented in a UN human rights report released last week that accuses the government of gang-raping women, murdering children, and burning people alive in their huts.
But it’s the second tactic that appears to be the bedrock of the campaign: mass looting of cattle, and destruction of grain stocks. Livestock and small-scale agriculture are the basis for livelihoods of nearly all civilians in Unity, despite its oil reserves. There are about twice as many cows as people; cows are both sustenance and an asset during hard times.
Destruction of such food sources is a direct aim at people’s livelihoods, says Nywao Dieu, a single mother of six waiting at the UN camp to register. “People live on cattle and grain, and the cattle are taken and the grain is burned,” she says.
Since the SPLA-led offensive began in late April, 28,000 people like Ms. Dieu have arrived at the base, according to UN figures through mid-June. Thousands are arriving each week, and new arrivals all speak of similar attacks on their villages.
“There’s a very clear pattern that we’ve picked up of village after village being attacked in the same way,” says Ms. Wheeler, the human rights researcher. Yet these 28,000 are a fraction of the more than 100,000 people that the UN says have been displaced by the SPLA attacks. Most are living in swamps with little food or humanitarian relief, which is restricted by bureaucracy and violence.
The ultimate outcome of the campaign may be famine. The USAID-funded Famine Early Warnings Systems Network predicted last week that starvation is “likely” in parts of southern Unity.
South Sudan’s military spokesperson Col. Philip Aguer denied using a depopulation strategy. “What you are saying is a strategy that has been used by Khartoum and Janjawid,” he said from Juba, referring to the government of Sudan and its notorious cavalry which is accused of committing crimes against humanity in Darfur.
What is indisputable is that the offensive has ripped apart Unity’s communities. The fighting has pitted different clans of the Nuer tribe against each other, with the SPLA arming a pro-government faction to fight those aligned with the rebels.
“This is a terrible mistake,” says local peace activist Reverend James Ninrew. He believes the government was dangerously short-sighted in arming militias and pitting them against rebels.
“Even if peace comes, whenever these [rebel-aligned] communities get an opportunity of getting arms they are feeling like they want to get revenge.”