New beginning: Eliuda Aligo becomes excited as his bus arrives at Imvepi centre from where he will be settled with his uncle’s family. Picture: JAMES OATWAY
New beginning: Eliuda Aligo becomes excited as his bus arrives at Imvepi centre from where he will be settled with his uncle’s family. Picture: JAMES OATWAY

In August 2016, seven soldiers arrived at a funeral in the Lainya area in South Sudan between the capital, Juba, and the southwestern town of Yei.

The soldiers roughed up the mourners, demanding that they admit that the deceased was a rebel combatant.

When one of the mourners protested that he was an old man who had died of natural causes, the soldiers took him and a woman into the bush. They raped the woman in front of him and shot her before turning their guns on him. He told the story before dying of stomach wounds.

This harrowing account is but one of dozens related in a UN report on human rights abuses in South Sudan released in May.

It covers abuses only between July 2016 and January 2017 in and around the town of Yei, 150km southwest of Juba. But it provides a vivid account of what is causing the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, with 1.8-million people fleeing to six neighbouring countries.

 UN investigators documented 114 killings at the hands of government forces after interviewing 54 sources during four field missions. Hundreds more were injured.

The documented cases are likely to be a fraction of atrocities committed as investigators were severely hampered in carrying out their work, the report says.

The authorities often prevented UN investigators from moving more than 5km outside Yei and denied them access to detention centres in military barracks and other holding facilities.

The team also discovered that mobile networks were down on two trips to Yei and mysteriously resumed when they returned to Juba, which "severely hindered [their] ability to meet relevant interlocutors".

Documented cases include attacks on funerals, indiscriminate shelling of civilians and sexual violence against women and girls. The abuses were often committed "in front of the victims’ families and with a shocking degree of brutality", the report says.

Investigators verified multiple reports of government troops and allied militia "summarily executing civilians on suspicion of supporting the opposition or in revenge attacks". Detainees were subjected to torture and some executed. Cases of gang rape, including a victim who was pregnant at the time, and instances of victims being killed afterwards, were recorded.

Attacks in civilian areas and refugee settlements usually included the torching of huts.

Investigators found that both parties targeted civilians based on ethnicity. In November 2016, the UN special adviser on preventing genocide, Adama Dieng, warned "the signs are all there for the spread of this ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians that could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it".

The army has dismissed accusations that it targeted civilians as baseless, accusing the UN of bias by failing to take into account that rebel commanders armed and mobilised youths to fight government forces.

The UN report says rebel groups are also guilty of human rights abuses, but investigators were denied access to areas in which they operated.

• Produced with assistance from Unicef.

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