The United Nations is supposed to be sheltering civilians in South Sudan. But as the civil war looks set to resume, government soldiers victimize women every day.
On July 8 fighting broke out between government soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which is loyal to President Salva Kiir, and the forces of rebel leader Riek Machar, who was dismissed as vice president on Monday.
According to multiple interviews conducted by The Daily Beast, soon after the fighting began, government soldiers began to rape civilians living in UN “protection of civilians sites” while they were traveling to collect food. According to community leaders from one section of the UN camp that holds 15,000 people, some 100 women were raped or reported missing on a single day—July 18.
The UN blocked access to journalists for two weeks after the fighting began in Juba, and when reporters finally were able to visit the camp women described being gang-raped while United Nations peacekeepers were in full view.
UN peacekeepers in South Sudan are mandated to use force to protect civilians, but once the women are outside the camps, that mandate seems to be annulled or ignored.
“I tried to run to the UN gate and passed some of the shops, but when I almost reached I was captured,” said Mary. “I was less than 100 meters away and I saw the [private security guards], and even the UN police at the main gate.”
Five soldiers chasing Mary grabbed her cellphone and started beating her. Mary tried to run away, but the soldiers caught up with her and dragged her to the side of the road. Four out of the five soldiers then raped her.
If the UN “find a person being raped, they should intervene,” she said. “Two vehicles passed me while I was being raped near the UN compound and they didn’t say anything,”
Many civilians living in this camp fled there for protection years ago when the last civil war began in December 2013. That war killed tens of thousands and took on ethnic undertones—many Dinka supported Kiir, and many Nuer supported Machar. Around 29,000 people in total live in this camp, and most are part of the Nuer tribe.
The SPLA “view me as the people of Dr. Riek Machar, and that’s why I was raped,” said Mary. “I am not viewed as South Sudanese.”
Just three months after Kiir and Machar formed a unity government to put their warring past behind them, things have gone disastrously wrong.
At least 500 people died in the initial fighting, much of it centered around this UN complex. One man inside the camp showed The Daily Beast the frame of what is likely the projectile from an RPG-7, an anti-tank weapon, that destroyed his home and killed one child.
“You can assume that we were targeted,” said Shantal Persaud, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan spokesperson.
Every woman that The Daily Beast interviewed said that the lack of food in the camp continues to force them to make the dangerous trek to the market and risk being raped. Most men refuse to travel, saying it’s not their role to collect food.
The low food supply is a direct result of the fighting. The UN was unable to move freely in the days after the shooting started because government soldiers blocked them, and a planned food distribution was delayed for roughly 10 days. A UN agency warehouse with millions of dollars of food was looted by otherwise unidentified “armed gunmen.” Food supplies to Juba have also been delayed because rebel forces aligned with Machar have cut off some land routes to the capital.
The World Food Program started to distribute food on July 22, but civilians who fled to the camp during the recent fighting have still not received rations because the UN has not yet registered them. And even those women who have received food still make the dangerous journey to buy food at the market.
The women “want to stock food because they are not sure what will happen next,” said a field monitor with WFP who was helping to distribute food to women with children. “The WFP food was looted, so in case the same thing happens they have nowhere to go.”
Most of the rapes happen along a stretch of road that is roughly one mile long, which leads to the UN compound. The winding, uphill journey begins at a taxi stand—drivers don’t dare go farther for fear of the government soldiers lurking ahead.
Hordes of women wearing colorful dresses walk on the edge of the road balancing bags of food on their head. SPLA soldiers zip back and forth in pickup trucks or sit lazily under trees. The Daily Beast saw one soldier start to beat a woman on this stretch.
The stomach-churning journey comes to an end among a series of shops and homes at a place called, simply, “Checkpoint,” which is immediately outside the UN base. It was here that a girl we’ll call Sara, who is 15 years old, was gang-raped by six soldiers on July 18.
Two soldiers grabbed Sara out of a pack of women, and took her to “a small house inside Checkpoint.” There, four more soldiers waited. “That’s where I was raped,” she said, and all six took part.
Persaud, the UN spokesperson for South Sudan, said that the mission has reinforced protection for women as they travel to collect firewood, another vulnerable trek.
These latest incidents come after earlier reports of UN peacekeepers failing to use force to protect civilians. An investigation by The Daily Beast found that peacekeepers fled their posts when government soldiers attacked a UN base in Malakal.
It’s unclear if government soldiers rape women because of their ethnicity.
Elizabeth, whose name we’ve changed, says she is not sure if the government soldiers raped her because she lives in the UN camp, or “because they just wanted to do it.”
“If you were a Nuer, we would have killed you,” a government soldier said to Elizabeth after he and others raped her. “They asked me, ‘Why are you staying in the [UN] compound? Everyone in the compound deserves what we have done to you.’”
The UN peacekeepers “who were up [in the guard tower] could see me when they were raping me.”
Nobody came to her rescue, she said.