Reliving the rape camps of South Sudan’s civil war

Government forces are accused of stealing women and girls for sex slavery during the bloody two-year conflict.

South Sudan
This women from Bentiu, capital of Unity state, said she wishes to die after all 12 of her children were killed [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]

Bentiu, South Sudan Nyagai desperately wants her two girls to come home from a camp where relentless rape, starvation, and sickness pervades. 

Her third daughter, 17, was released by fighters after a month when she lost control of her bowels from being raped so much, and her captors “saw she was going to die”.

“She said that many, many, many men raped her and when she came back she had to go to hospital,” said Nyagai, whose name has been changed to protect her from reprisals, along with other victims quoted in this story.

Her three daughters are among what analysts say are thousands of women and girls in South Sudan’s Unity state that government soldiers and allied militias have abducted for sex slavery during a brutal civil war that started in 2013.

The fighting officially ended on paper last month, but the pain remains for survivors.

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Nyagai’s daughter returned so emotionally broken that she left the relative safety of a UN camp where 118,000 people in Unity state are sheltering from the war and headed to the family’s destroyed village in Rubkona county.

The names of abductees and their horror stories that Al Jazeera collected during dozens of interviews are too many to convey. Fighters took “too many to count” of “the most beautiful women”, villagers said. They stalked “the young unmarried girls” through the bush, chased, tackled and dragged them away.

Then there are the names of those killed for refusing or not being able to withstand more gang rape, or those who wouldn’t show raiders where the cattle were. Others were shot for simply not being good enough as sex slaves, survivors said, with the elderly thrown into huts lit on fire to be burned alive.

In the new arrivals section of Bentiu's UN base, which now houses 118,000 people, tales of sex assault abound [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
In the new arrivals section of Bentiu’s UN base, which now houses 118,000 people, tales of sex assault abound [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]

During interviews Al Jazeera conducted with former abductees and close relatives, it emerged that the abduction, trade, and enslavement of women was calculated and organised.

A military analyst in Bentiu – who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals – estimated that “thousands of women” and girls had been abducted and taken to military bases or cattle camps to become “wives or slaves”.

Nyawut, from Koch county, said soldiers who came to her village in May “needed only the young girls. They killed the young boys”, taking a girl and six women with them.

Older women taken to Mayom and Koch counties were often forced to carry stolen property from emptied villages by day, and have sex with multiple men at night. Girls, meanwhile, were generally assigned one “husband”.

Girls as young as 12 “were shared out among the soldiers, but the older ones of us were kept in the cattle camp”, tied to each other in groups of about 25 and to a post, said Sarah, a 38-year-old mother of five.

“They would beat me with a big, heavy stick when I said: ‘Please let one guy deal with me, don’t come all of you.’ I had to accept all these men to line up, usually 10 a night.” 


Women who resisted the rapes were shot. During one porter trip, Sarah decided to risk sudden death over a lifetime of rape and escaped. “I begged them to set me free, but they said, ‘Bear in mind, we brought you here to die.'”

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In October, UN special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura declared Bentiu the worst situation she’d seen in 30 years, with toddler rape victims and radio broadcasts rallying men to rape women and girls based on ethnicity.

During the April-September fighting at least 1,000 civilians were killed, 1,300 women and girls were raped, and 1,600 women and children were abducted in Leer, Mayendit, and Koch counties, according to a recent report by charities working on civilian protection.

In Nyaldiu, a former rebel stronghold in Rubkona county, 15-year-old Nyaruop told Al Jazeera that youth from Mayom county – some wearing army uniforms – surrounded the village and opened fire.

She ran but looked back, and saw two girls she recognised being tackled to the ground and dragged off. The gunmen later caught up with Nyaruop and her two brothers who had gone to a cattle camp to hide the family’s wealth – the only currency in oil-rich but dirt poor Unity state.

“They were saying these were the cows of the rebels … and they called themselves the people belonging to the government,” Nyaruop told Al Jazeera.

The UN base in Bentiu in South Sudan's Unity state [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera] 
The UN base in Bentiu in South Sudan’s Unity state [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera] 

When Nyaruop’s brothers argued with them, the men said they had “a simple solution” and cocked their guns. They pushed her away as she pleaded with them to take the cows and go.

“They shot my brothers. When I got up their bodies were shaking and covered with blood,” she said.

Nyaruop met two girls who were taken and escaped during water-fetching chores.

“They told me they were taken up to a place where there were a lot of girls. They were selecting the most beautiful ones to take as wives to take to Mayom to produce children for them,” she said.

In just three weeks in May, the UN children’s agency documented 129 killings among a litany of abuses against children in Unity state.

Unity’s acting governor, Stephen Taker, dismissed numerous reports by international aid and rights groups as “rumours” and “incomplete”. 

Taker denied allegations of attacks and the abduction of women and girls. “They accuse the government for nothing. It’s not true,” he told Al Jazeera from his office, comprising a plastic table and three satellite phones under a tree Bentiu. 

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Nyagai’s hopes to get her two other daughters back were boosted after three nieces escaped and reached the UN camp. But like her 17-year-old daughter, they came and went.

“They were different, not like before,” she said, struggling to express how the girls had become strangers to their own mothers. 

 Sexual violence in South Sudan

Source: Al Jazeera