South Sudan - 2017
Since its outbreak in December 2013, the conflict had evolved beyond the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Despite the signing of the ARCSS in August 2015, the conflict spread and was no longer a single conflict, but a series of inter and intra-communal conflicts, reigniting and encompassing historical localised conflicts and contests over land, resources and power.
New armed groups, estimated at 40 by the end of 2017, continued to emerge, mainly as a result of the spread of the conflict to the Equatorias and the northern part of the Upper Nile. The fragile situation has been exacerbated by the creation of 28, and later 32 States along ethnic lines by Presidential Order. During 2017, a number of senior officers defected from the SPLA and the two factions of SPLA-IO to form and join these new groups. There are also a large number of other armed groups which are participating in the revitalization process.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict as it evolved to include different ethnic, political, and resource drivers. The incidents covered in this report reflect these different dynamics that are at play in each of the regions. Despite being multi-faceted, however, the conflict reveals consistent patterns.
Evidence shows that the SPLA launched attacks directed against the civilian population where no opposition armed forces have been present to justify a military attack, and has intentionally killed unarmed and fleeing civilians in the incidents investigated by the UN Commission. The consistent narrative that emerges from these attacks against civilians and intentional killings is that they have been undertaken in retaliation for battlefield losses or killings of SPLA soldiers by opposition forces, or because civilians have been perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition due to their ethnicity or their place of residence in an opposition controlled area.
The brutality of attacks against civilians has not been limited to direct attacks on their lives but importantly has also included the systematic looting and burning of villages, destroying people’s sense of security and ability to support and care for themselves. As a result, millions of citizens have been displaced, and thousands are sheltering in the bush, resulting in untold deaths from starvation, thirst, exposure, and lack of access to medical care. These deaths are a direct and foreseeable result of the conflict, and no less part of the war’s casualties than those shot, beheaded, burned in their tukuls, or strung up from a tree.
Historical grievances between the Shilluk and the Dinka Padang over claims to Malakal and other lands on the East Bank of the river Nile were reignited after Shilluk Major General Johnson Olony’s defection from the Government forces. In late January 2017, fighting to the east and south of Malakal was followed by a SPLA coordinated offensive on the West Bank of the White Nile. The SPLA worked its way up the West Bank, pushing the SPLA-IO/Agwelek northwards, and commonly resorting to mortar and artillery shelling of villages. In late April, the northward offensive along the West Bank resumed, reportedly with a massive reinforcement of approximately 5,000 SPLA and SPLA-IO (TD) soldiers. The SPLA offensive between January and May 2017 resulted in Government control of the entire stretch of the White Nile river from Malakal north to Renk.
As thousands of South Sudanese refugees continued to pour into Uganda to escape attacks from armed forces, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sounded the alarm. It said 15 February 2017 the dire situation had created the third largest largest refugee crisis after Syria and Afghanistan. Thousands of refugees streamed into Uganda since intense fighting broke out again in July 2016 following the collapse of a peace deal between the government and opposition forces. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, announced today that more than 1.5 million people have now been forced to flee the country and seek safety since conflict erupted in December 2013. With an extremely volatile security situation forcing more refugees to flee, the latest influx strained the capacity of transit and reception centres, which are too small for the growing number of arrivals.
Since January 2017, more than 52,000 refugees have been received in Uganda, with the majority crossing at border entry points such as Busia, the one Sidah and her family used, to find refuge. Many refugees are using informal entry points citing the presence of armed groups on the routes to the main border points. Thousands more made huge detours on foot to escape South Sudan, heading south through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, then east into Uganda for fear of attacks from armed forces present along the direct routes. Some report walking for more than a month before finally reaching safety.
The majority of the refugees were hosted by Uganda, where a total of some 698,000 had arrived. In less than six months, Uganda has more than tripled its population of South Sudanese refugees, hosting the largest share of the people who have fled their homes in the neighbouring country. Ethiopia is also hosting some 342,000, while more than 305,000 otthers are in Sudan and some 89,000 in Kenya, 68,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 4,900 in the Central African Republic.
The situation was further complicated when SPLA Deputy Chief of General Staff for Logistics, Thomas Cirillo, from Central Equatoria, resigned in February 2017, accusing the SPLA and Mathiang Anyoor of atrocities against civilians. General Cirillo founded the opposition group the “National Salvation Front” (NAS) in March 2017. A number of SPLAIO Generals in Central Equatoria subsequently defected and joined NAS. This was followed by the SPLA-IO targeting civilians, with mainly young men detained and tortured on suspicion of supporting NAS.
In the payam of Pajok, there were divisions between Dinkas and local populations which were exacerbated by the fighting in the region, where pre-existing local conflicts within the Acholi clans became part of the broader conflict. The Acholi-Pajok clan was seen as supportive of the SPLA-IO while the other Acholi clans supported the SPLA. Increasing SPLA-IO activity and SPLA crackdowns in neighbouring Magwi county, and the existence of an SPLA-IO base in the proximity of Pajok, led to growing insecurity. In the days prior to the April 2017 attack on Pajok, there was a significant increase in SPLA troop deployment in the area. Amidst rumours of an SPLA attack on the SPLA-IO base, some civilians fled, but many did not think the town itself would be attacked. On the morning of 3 April 2017, SPLA soldiers attacked the town of Pajok, killing a significant number of civilians and looting the town. Some soldiers followed the main road to Pajok while the others moved around to the east of Pajok towards the SPLA-IO base. For cultural reasons, Acholi women have reservations about speaking about being raped, due to stigma within the family and the community.
In its resolution 31/20, the Human Rights Council established the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan for a period of one year. The Commission submitted its first report A/HRC/34/63 on 6 March 2017. By resolution 34/25 the Council extended the mandate until 31 March 2018 and requested the Commission to: continue monitoring the human rights situation in South Sudan; make recommendations to prevent its further deterioration and provide reporting and guidance on transitional justice and reconciliation.
Regular armed clashes continued to occur in the Wau area after the June 2016 events. In early April 2017, there was a considerable reinforcement of SPLA forces in Wau. On 8 April, the SPLA mounted a new offensive against SPLA-IO forces who were in control of the Bazia area to the south and west of Wau. In the course of this operation, on 9 April, an SPLA convoy was ambushed in which two high-ranking SPLA officers and three soldiers were killed. One of the officers was the brother of the Governor of Rumbek. This incident appears to have been the specific catalyst for the subsequent outbreak of violence against non-Dinka civilians in Wau town, which began overnight on 9-10 April 2017.
The south-eastern part of Upper Nile State, bordering Ethiopia, has been under SPLAIO (RM) control since the conflict began in late 2013, with the SPLA-IO (RM) main headquarters located in the border town of Pagak. By many accounts, the Pagak Offensive to “liberate” the area from the SPLA-IO (RM), coupled with the reconfiguration of the Northern Upper Nile State on 6 July 2017, was an attempt to safeguard the Palouch oil fields, and their associated economic benefits, among the Dinka community. In June 2017, the SPLA launched a sophisticated operation to dislodge the SPLA-IO (RM) from Pagak through Guelguk, Mathiang and Maiwut, which lie northeast of Pagak. SPLA forces utilized heavy artillery bombardment to attack numerous towns and villages along the line of advance.
The SPLA, both factions of the SPLA-IO, as well as the armed groups that support the parties to the conflict have committed serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations throughout the country. These have included deliberately targeting civilian populations and individual civilians, including on the basis of their ethnic identity and perceived political affiliations and by means of killings, abductions, rape and sexual violence, as well as the destruction of villages.
Further violations include attacks against civilian objects, and humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping personnel; arbitrary arrest and detention; looting and pillaging; and conscripting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces. The Commission has also found reasonable grounds to believe that these violations and alleged crimes have directly resulted in the massive displacement of the civilian population of South Sudan.
One witness (Witness 333) recounted returning from seeking shelter in the bush to find that his mother had been blinded by SPLA soldiers who gouged her eyes out with spears as she unsuccessfully tried to defend her 17 year-old daughter from being raped by fourteen soldiers. Seventeen SPLA soldiers then raped the man’s blind mother, while his father was found beheaded with his castrated penis stuffed in his mouth.
The initial peace deal planned for elections in August 2018 – a date seen as unfeasible by many observers. On 10 August 2017 South Sudan president, Salva Kiir vowed not to accept any new peace talks with holdout opposition, accusing his opponents of putting personal ambitions above common interests. "Most of the issues in the agreement have been implemented. The government has been formed, the transitional national legislative assembly has been reconstituted, the membership of the constitutional review committee is complete. The members are working with the ministry of justice and all the stakeholders to gather and incorporate what they are doing in the constitution”, said the South Sudanese leader.
On 14 August 2017 South Sudan president urged the hold out armed and political opposition groups to stop the fighting and to prepare themselves to take part in the general elections after the end of the transitional period. He further asked the communities to reconcile and embark on peaceful sensitization campaign to bring people together in the area. Kiir took the opportunity to call the whole South Sudanese to embrace peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and unity, stressing that because of these needs he launched the national dialogue process which should allow them to chart together their future.
On 19 December 2017 a member of South Sudan’s national dialogue committee has expectedly admitted that the war-torn nation had “collapsed”, citing the displacements, destruction of properties and deaths of innocent civilians due to the country’s ongoing conflict. Aldo Ajou Deng Akuey, also a member of the Dinka council of elders, said the country was at the point where people are suffering and called on political leaders to come together instead of continuing to make procrastination without breaking the sufferings.
The United Nations warned that holding the elections in 2018 could risk worsening the civil war in the country. Following the Government’s stated intent to hold elections within the timeline outlined in the peace agreement, on 9 September 2017, the National Elections Commission announced the start of the pre-election period. This announcement stands in contradiction to the evaluation of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission of 27 September 2017, that credible elections would not be feasible at the end of the current transition period because of mass displacement, severe food insecurity and lack of institutional and constitutional infrastructure. Similar concerns had also been raised by civil society organizations.
The implementation of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (peace agreement) remained minimal by the end of 2017. Concurrently, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) consulted with representatives from all parties to the peace agreement, armed opposition and other stakeholder groups, in preparation for its convening of a high - level revitalization forum.
Given the apparent unwillingness of the parties to renounce further military advances, despite repeated calls by the region and international community to do so, more violence and upheaval is to be expected with the imminent start of the dry season and as various political struggles are triggered by a push to end the transition in 2018 and hold elections. Further hostilities and political discord will only bring more human suffering.
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