Women of South Sudan: Broken bodies, shattered dreams
Victims of abuse and rape during the South Sudanese civil war tell their stories of broken dreams and a stolen future.
South Sudan’s peace agreement, signed in August, was meant to end a 21-month-old civil war that has left thousands dead and many more displaced in the wake of the country’s historic declaration of independence in 2011.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes after experiencing horrible crimes. Last month, a previously secret report by the African Union was finally made public. It contains shocking details of human rights abuses in South Sudan, committed not only by government troops but by opposition militia as well.
Our people were killed. Our husbands were killed. I was beaten up. The forces abducted women and girls and kids were suffering. We were not aware things were going to get bad. We are civilians and we thought the government would only fight with the opposition. So we stayed in our village and I even planted the garden.... They viewed us as enemies, not civilians from the country.
It paints a grim picture of what is happening in the country.
South Sudan separated from Sudan in 2011 to become the world’s youngest nation. But despite independence, the country was divided against itself, and after just two years, in December 2013, it descended into civil war when disagreements between the president and the vice president led to fighting among government soldiers in the capital, Juba.
The violence spread across the country, leaving thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
It is a complex war with many groups, and their loyalties not always clear cut. But on one side are armed men belonging mainly to the Nuer tribe, close to former vice president Riek Machar. And on the other side are troops belonging mostly, but not exclusively, to the Dinka tribe loyal to President Salva Kiir.
The main parties reached a negotiated settlement in August, but fighting is still ongoing in parts of the country.
Anna is a member of the Nuer tribe who fled her home and now lives in a UN camp. Her husband and her six-year-old stepson were killed and her daughter raped.
“The government forces came at around nine in the morning and started chasing some men and some soldiers. The women stayed with the children. We thought they would not do anything to us because we had nothing. After the government forces chased the men, they came back and beat up the women…,” Anna says.
“My daughter was raped. My house was burned by the forces. This happened in front of my eyes. After that we escaped and we decided to come to UNMISS [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] for protection. If we died on the way, then it would be better.”
Many seek protection, and in the displacement camp in Bentiu the population has doubled this year to about 124,000. There is not enough shelter, food or water to keep up with demand.
Mary is 24, has two children and does not know whether her husband is dead or alive. She moved from the north back to South Sudan when the country gained independence and was looking forward to building the new nation. But soon the fighting started and forced her to flee home.
She was raped and beaten by soldiers when she and other women left the UN displacement camp to collect firewood.
“Before the fighting not a lot of people were raped. We didn’t know, we didn’t even hear about it. But we started hearing about it after the fighting started. Now it’s common. You don’t go out. If you leave the UN camp, problems happen…. I thought they would kill us…. this is slow killing because you can’t stand yourself after this, but they didn’t shoot us. They leave you as good as dead,” Mary says.
The African Union collected testimonies and forensic evidence that it says back up allegations of human rights abuse in South Sudan. It says civilians were raped, killed, dismembered, and even forced to drink human blood and eat human flesh. It also compiled a list of people who it says should be investigated for instigating or carrying out the crimes.
Ateny Wek Ateny, the spokesman for President Salva Kiir, when confronted with the women’s allegations, told Al Jazeera it was “a total lie”. He says “most of the these stories are made-up stories.”
So does peace still have a chance in South Sudan?
Talk to Al Jazeera In the Field goes deep inside the country to find out the truth about a failed state, a country letting its people slip into despair. We meet South Sudanese women and listen to their stories of broken dreams and a stolen future.
Editor’s note: The names of the women have been changed for security reasons.
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