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South Sudanese troops raped and killed hundreds in recent attacks, UN investigation finds

Juba, South Sudan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Seven years ago this week, South Sudan celebrated independence from its northern neighbor after a decades-long struggle that left at least 2 million dead. But there were no festivities organized by the government in the capital of Juba on the anniversary Monday.

South Sudan has been embroiled in conflict for most of the time it's been free from Sudan, and a new report released by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner's office Tuesday further implicated government troops in horrific atrocities against civilians there.

In its investigation, the U.N. found that government forces and those aligned with them killed at least 232 civilians and raped 120 women and girls in a recent spate of attacks on opposition-held villages, in what may amount to war crimes, the U.N. said. Dozens of those killed - including children, the disabled and the elderly - were burned alive. At least one of the gang rape victims was as young as 6. Opposition troops were also responsible for killing a number of civilians, and the investigation identified three individuals who the report says bear the "greatest responsibility" for the violent incidents the U.N. documented.

"Why do these forces not just kill each other if killing is what they want . . . why do they have to kill innocent children and helpless civilians, including disabled elders?" said one 60-year-old woman quoted in the report.

The atrocities the U.N. described in its Tuesday report are largely consistent with earlier U.N., African Union and media reports that have detailed crimes committed by both government and opposition troops since conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013. But Payton Knopf, a former U.S. diplomat who now works at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Washington Post that this latest investigation offers key indications that the conflict is continuing "unabated."

Knopf said that for years, there has been debate over whether violence in South Sudan is "command and control versus anarchic chaos."

"Time and again, credible and methodical investigations continue to find unequivocally there is command and control," he said Tuesday. "This is not a situation of marauding youth going on. They're doing it at the direction of leadership on both sides, and mainly the government."

Peace agreements intended to end the civil war, which is rooted in a rivalry between President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group, and then-Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, have largely failed, including one that briefly returned Machar to Juba in 2016.

In recent years, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 4 million others have been displaced, many of whom have fled to neighboring countries.

In June, Machar and Kiir traveled to Addis Ababa to meet face-to-face for the first time in two years, in what some observers hoped would mark a turning point in the conflict and offer hope to civilians that peace would be restored. But little, if any, progress was made. This week, South Sudanese opposition groups rejected a power-sharing proposal that was discussed over the weekend in Uganda. Some observers see the recent meetings as further proof that Kiir and Machar remain incapable of working together.

"[W]hy does anyone believe that the people who are most responsible for this are going to be part of the solution?" Knopf said. "That remains one of the foundational premises of the current approach to the peace process, and it's a premise that has shown itself untrue."

The U.N. report said that South Sudanese government forces and associated groups adopted a "scorched-earth strategy." It urged officials in Juba to investigate the allegations and hold perpetrators accountable, and recommended that if the government is "unwilling or unable," the yet-to-be-established hybrid court outlined in the 2015 peace agreement should step in.

Jon Temin, director of sub-Saharan Africa programs at Freedom House, said the court "should absolutely be a priority."

"For sure Riek Machar has a huge amount of blood on his hands," said Jon Temin, director of sub-Saharan Africa programs at Freedom House, who this week released a report on U.S. involvement in South Sudan ahead of and during the civil war. But he added that "the [South Sudanese] government is the government and there is a heightened responsibility on a government to behave appropriately, and this government has done anything but."

Gordon Buay, charge d'affaires at the South Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., told The Washington Post in a phone call Tuesday that there has been a "misunderstanding" in the report.

"There might have been things committed by militias but not exactly regular forces," he said, adding that civilians often have trouble distinguishing between various armed groups and official government troops.

One woman, who told U.N. researchers that she was still bleeding from childbirth when she was assaulted, said she did not fight back against the soldier who raped her because she feared she would be killed. "I kept quiet and did not resist as I saw other women being shot dead for refusing to have sex with the soldiers and youth," the U.N. report quotes her as saying.

Another 75-year-old woman told the U.N. that she "lost everything."

"I have no hope for my future. I am surviving by eating roots," she says in the report. "It would have been better if they would have killed me."

This article was written by Siobhán O'Grady, a reporter for The Washington Post.