A Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldier holds up a gun at a containment site outside Juba on April 14, 2016
A Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldier holds up a gun at a containment site outside Juba on April 14, 2016 © AFP/Getty Images

A new frontline conflict has turned vast regions of South Sudan into “treacherous killing fields”. The shocking result has been nearly a million people fleeing to Uganda in an attempt to find safety, shelter and food. 

Amnesty researchers have recently discovered that government and opposition forces have committed numerous violent crimes against civilians, amounting to serious human rights violations. Donatella Rovera, a Senior Crisis Response Adviser who has just returned from the region, said:

“The escalation of fighting in the Equatoria region has led to increased brutality against civilians. Men, women and children have been shot, hacked to death with machetes and burnt alive in their homes. Women and girls have been gang-raped and abducted.”

The conflict has been ravaging the area since 2013, when fighting broke out between members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) loyal to President Salva Kiir, and those loyal to then Vice-President Riek Machar. 

Massacres and deliberate murder 

During mid-2016 the conflict escalated considerably throwing civilians' lives into turmoil and imminent danger. Government and opposition forces forcefully descended upon Yei – a town of 300,000 that lies on a main trade route to Uganda and the DRC – committing an abundance of crimes, including deliberately and brutally killing civilians.   

In an incident on 16 May, government soldiers forcefully detained six men in Kudupi village, near the Ugandan border. Eight of these men were locked into a hut which was then set ablaze, followed by several shots fired into the burning structure. 

Six of the men died instantly, whilst two burnt to death. The remaining four were shot as they tried to escape. 

Rapes and gender-based violence on the increase

A similar attack occurred just two days later when five other local men were barbarically murdered. 

Joyce, a widower of one of the men explains: 

“This was the fifth time the village was attacked by the army. In the first four attacks, they had looted stuff but not killed anyone. They used to come, arrest people, torture them and steal things. They would also arrest young girls and rape them and then release them. [They raped] Susie, my husband’s niece, age 18, [in the village].”

Since the conflict has escalated, women face an even higher risk of sexual assault and rape, especially when they go out alone at night looking for ever-dwindling supplies of food. 

Mary, 23, told Amnesty: 

"The only way for women and girls to be safe is to be dead – there is no way to be safe so long as we are alive, this is how bad it is.”

Another woman explained how she was abducted twice by opposition forces, and held captive, along with other women for a month initially, and then a week on another occasion. She was repeatedly raped. She pleaded with soldiers who captured her that she had three children and that her husband had been shot by government forces. This was to no avail, and she eventually fled to Yei where she faces dire food shortages. 

Food as a weapon of war

Limited access to food is a serious problem. Government and opposition forces have cut all food supplies to certain areas and have systematically looted from markets and homes. On 22 June, the UN warned that food insecurity had reached unprecedented levels in parts of South Sudan. Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, said:

“It is a cruel tragedy of this war that South Sudan’s breadbasket – a region that a year ago could feed millions – has turned into treacherous killing fields that have forced close to a million to flee in search of safety.”

The tragic situation in South Sudan cannot go on. All parties to the conflict must rein in their fighters and immediately cease targeting civilians. Those on all sides responsible for atrocities must be brought to justice. Meanwhile, UN peacekeepers must live up to their responsibility to protect civilians from this ongoing onslaught.