Dadaab, Kenya – Teresa* (not her real name) gathers her three children outside her shanty, which was provided by aid agencies in Dadaab, a sprawling refugee camp in Kenya where she has lived for six years.
The 33-year-old mother of three pulls out a plastic chair to sit on from a makeshift kitchen adjacent to her home.
She picks up her youngest, a baby, and puts him on her lap.
“My family was still in a celebratory mood. We had gained independence … and every dream we had was shattered before my eyes,” she said.
Together with her husband, she was struggling to raise a young family until December 2013, when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir fell out with Riek Machar, then vice president.
This led to a conflict between the country’s two main ethnic groups, which displaced about four million people, including Teresa and her children.
During her last days in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, she was sexually assaulted.
“We were hiding for days when the war broke out. It was December 17, 2013, when seven armed men in uniform forced their way into our house. Inside, they found my husband and his two brothers. They took them outside and shot them,” she said, tears balancing on her eyes.
“I tried to run out for safety with my children but they captured me and started raping me repeatedly. They took away my two children and I have never seen those kids since then.”
Teresa is among an escalating number of South Sudanese sexual violence survivors.
Organisations and aid agencies in the world’s youngest nation have documented some of the cases.
In February, the United Nations published a report saying girls as young as eight were among 175 cases of rape recorded between September and December 2018.
Its investigation was carried out after September 2018, when the last South Sudanese peace deal was signed.
“It is not the whole picture, but they found 175 women and girls who had been either raped, gang-raped or sexually assaulted or physically harmed in other ways.
“And 49 of those girls who were raped, were children,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In November 2018, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that “125 women and girls … were raped, beaten and brutalised in Rubkona county, northern South Sudan, in the 10 days between November 19 and 29, 2018”.
The seven men who sexually assaulted me were soldiers whom I did not know. They came from the government that was supposed to protect me. They raped me and killed my family members.
The organisation said this was high compared with the 104 cases reported in the previous 10 months.
However, the government was quick to deny these figures.
Awut Deng Acguil, the gender, child and social welfare minister, described the numbers as “unfounded and baseless”, adding that, “there are no facts found to verify the rape cases”.
But many survivors choose to remain silent.
It took two years for Teresa to report what she went through.
“I never wanted to report it because I was mentally tormented after that incident. Every time I see a group of men, I get re-traumatised. Images of the raid in our Juba home flashes in my mind. I don’t think I will ever move on from this,” she said.
Weak justice and stigma
In addition to the physical and mental trauma, survivors often risk being ostracised from their families and communities, said Wangechi Wachira, executive director of the Nairobi-based Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, an organisation that advocates for the rights of girls and women.
“Rape takes away someone’s dignity and causes a lot of anger and depression. Sometimes women blame themselves for what happened because of how societies frames this issue. This leads to high number of victims going silent,” said Wachira.
And there is usually little justice for survivors.
“I feel like justice cannot be done in my case. The seven men who sexually assaulted me were soldiers whom I did not know. They came from the government that was supposed to protect me. They raped me and killed my family members,” Teresa said.
According to Fatuma Ali, an associate professor of international relations at the United States International University-Africa, armed actors in South Sudan have systematically deployed sexual violence against civilians as a weapon.
“The devastating role of sexual and gender-based violence as a strategic weapon of war has positioned women and girls as a battlefield between the warring groups. This has led to the dichotomy between the protectors versus the protected hence ethnicising and feminising the war.
“This clearly shows that South Sudan has no capacity to stop these atrocities, leave alone give justice to its victims,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
Back in Dadaab, Teresa starts to feed her children; she depends on food rations to survive.
After the rape, she got pregnant. She gave birth in Kenya eight months later.
“I will never go back to South Sudan. I hope the free education my children get here will help their futures. I have told the UN and other aid agencies to never take me back to South Sudan.”