Amnesty International confirms atrocity in war-torn country’s Unity State as UN calls for greater global focus on “one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world”
An estimated 60 men and boys were herded into shipping containers where they were left to suffocate because they were suspected of ties to the South Sudanese rebellion, a report by Amnesty International suggests.
The report cites witness reports by 42 people who described how they heard the detainees screaming in panic, banging on the walls and begging for help before they gradually fell silent.
It highlights one of the most barbaric episodes in what the UN described as “one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world”.
The conflict between forces aligned to President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar, whom he accused of plotting to oust him, has resulted in between 50,000 and 300,000 deaths.
Around 2.3 million people have been forced from their homes and 15,000 children recruited as soldiers.
An African Union report published last year suggested that the scale and rapid spread of the atrocities was unlikely to have happened without prior planning.
This week, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights called for global attention to shift to South Sudan where he said a government-sanctioned “scorched earth policy” had seen unimaginable and widespread atrocitiesincluding civilians suspected of supporting the opposition, including children, being burned alive, suffocated in shipping containers, hanged from trees and cut to pieces.
Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein highlighted rape being used as “an instrument of terror and weapon of war”, with militias fighting alongside soldiers from the South Sudanese armed forces being allowed to abuse and pillage as payment for their services.
The UN estimated that in five months last year, from April to September 2015, the UN recorded more than 1,300 reports of rape in just one of South Sudan’s ten states, oil-rich Unity.
Amnesty International investigated one report of mass deaths in a shipping container in the grounds of a Catholic church in Leer Town, Unity State in October last year.
The group said that over three days, dozens of people suspected of links to the rebels were detained by soldiers and had their hands tied behind their backs before being forced into windowless containers. After those inside had died, they were removed and buried in a mass grave, the report said.
One witness who was present when the container was open told the researchers: “We could see the people inside and they were not alive. They had fallen over one another and on to the floor. There were so many people.”
In August, amid international pressure and the threat of sanctions, Mr Kiir and Mr Machar agreed to a ceasefire and to establish a Transitional Government of National Unity.
Mr Machar has still not returned to the capital Juba to take up the vice presidency and no cabinet has been established.
Berouk Mesfin, a senior researcher with the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, said while the violence had decreased, it had not stopped. “I think they have realised that no one side will win this,” he said. “We must keep fingers crossed that it will not flare up again but these two men are really not interested in their citizens’ and so there are no guarantees.”
Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, said South Sudan watchers were “extremely pessimistic” about long-term prospects for peace.
“The government of national unity is not going anywhere, there is too much bad blood for these two to ever work together,” he said.
Meanwhile the UN children’s agency Unicef warned a $128 million funding gap for the young population of the “forgotten crisis” meant millions would miss out on lifesaving vaccines, the chance to return to school or be reunited with their families.