Sudan 15-08-2007 Pic 03 A main street in Khartoum, capital city of Sudan, where development is slow. Picture and Yazeed Kamaldien

Life for women was dismal in peace time; now, with ethnicised sexual violence, it's unbearable, writes Mercedes Sayagues

The UN and the AU are not known for blunt criticism of their member governments. But, unusually, in two recent reports, they are not waffling about the atrocities perpetrated on women in South Sudan since conflict erupted in December 2013.

AU, October 2015: “Acts of murder, rape and sexual violence, torture and other inhumane acts of comparable gravity committed by both sides to the conflict may amount to violations of international humanitarian law.”

UN, March 2015: “Documented forms of sexual violence include rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, abduction, castration, forced nudity and forced abortion could amount to crimes against humanity.”

This is a sample of atrocities documented by the AU, UN, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Here are other examples:

* Burning women and girls alive in their tukuls or huts in Upper Nile state (UN).

* Forcing a woman to close her hand over red-hot burning coals to extract information about the whereabouts of rebels and cattle (AU).

* Shooting 10 women, one of them pregnant, in the vagina for resisting rape (AU).

* Extreme cruelty, mutilation of corpses, forcing people to drink blood of those killed and eat burnt human flesh (AU).

* Pregnant women being cut open and women raped using wooden sticks or plastic bottles (AI).

* Recruitment of 12 000 child soldiers; boys castrated and left to die; 8-year-old girls gang-raped (Unicef).

* Killing 18 women at St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral compound in Bor (AI).

* Hospitals, churches and aid compounds attacked and looted, humanitarian workers and patients murdered (UN).

So much hope was pinned on South Sudan, the world’s newest country, at independence in July 2011. Just 18 months later, it sunk into a vicious civil war, worse than the two waged against Sudan.

While South Sudan has spent 42 out of the past 60 years at war, observers agree that the latest conflict was the most brutal against civilians, especially women.

The number of reported cases of violence against women rose five-fold, says the UN. Women are raped or attacked when collecting firewood and water. From April to September this year, in just three counties of Unity state, an estimated 1 300 women and girls were raped and 1 600 women and children abducted.

Life for South Sudanese women was already dismal in peace time. High rates of maternal mortality, fertility, early marriage and early pregnancy, coupled with low levels of girls’ education, make South Sudan one of the world’s worst places to be born a woman.

It is a highly patriarchal and polygamous society with pervasive gender violence. The notion of rape is tenuous because women are perceived as a husband’s property after the bride price of cattle is paid. A woman who is raped is often blamed for it or considered guilty of adultery.

A feature of the recent conflict was the ethnicised targeting of women through sexual violence.

“For the first time, we are seeing rape as a weapon of war within South Sudan,” Hilde Johnson, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan between 2011 and 2014, told the AU fact-finding team.

A top UN peacekeeper interviewed by the AU attributed the gratuitous viciousness to the desire for revenge: “Every action is done with a vengeance to send a message, to humiliate, to settle a score. It is now a cycle.”

With towns and territory changing hands swiftly, the cycles of looting, destruction and revenge get closer and fiercer.

Why is society unravelling?

Professor Mahmood Mamdani, one of Africa’s top intellectuals, was part of the AU team and wrote a 60-page separate opinion analysing the root causes of the conflict.

Is South Sudan a failed state? Mamdani argues it was never a state to begin with. It lacked a judiciary, a working bureaucracy and, crucially, a state’s foundation: a political compact, a national project. It had a common enemy (Sudan) but no common future.

“The state called South Sudan exists more as a juridical fiction than as an institutional reality,” writes Mamdani.

Part, he says, is the fault of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It entrenched armed power and the rule of gun, leading to the militarisation of society. The political order it created was “a dictatorship of all armed parties”.

As the army absorbed rebel troops and tribal militias, it became a “collection of separate armies all drinking from the same borehole”. Commanders became governors and businessmen. Never mind that many were illiterate, like the deputy commander, Paulino Matip.

In his new book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, researcher Alex de Waal writes that at independence, the South Sudanese armed forces numbered about 230 000 troops, 90 000 police and 745 generals. Eighty percent of its budget went to pay salaries and allowances. Corruption was huge.

De Waal describes how South Sudanese rulers spent most of the resources buying allegiances to cement political control instead of improving health, education and roads.

The UN estimated that in the 2014 government budget up to 40 percent went to defence, 20 percent to infrastructure, less than 6 percent to education and 4 percent to health.

Poverty deepened, the politics of exclusion prevailed, and people felt increasingly marginalised and powerless. As armed groups and communities turned against each other, the civil war was no longer political but about ethnic identities, revenge and power-land-and-cattle grabbing.

The country was awash with jobless youth and guns, resulting in tribal militias such as the feared White Army, named after the cow dung ash used to smear their bodies.

Motivated by ancient grievances, a desire for revenge, plunder and cattle raiding, militias are vaguely aligned with the government or the rebels but are basically uncontrollable.

In early December, clashes between the Arrow Boys militia and the South Sudanese army forced 4 000 people to flee from Western Equatorial province into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The peace agreement signed in August contains transitional justice mechanisms such as truth and reconciliation commissions and a special hybrid criminal court. Surprisingly, both warring sides accepted these provisions.

In October, 54 commanders of rebel leader Riak Machar pledged to stop conflict-related sexual violence, co-operate with investigations and protect victims and witnesses.

The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, welcomed their pledge as “encouraging”.

The next step should be to quickly boost medical and psychological services for survivors of sexual violence, woefully inadequate both inside South Sudan and in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

African Union goes for a genuine African solution

Besides documenting violations of international humanitarian law in South Sudan, the AU report presented in October suggests a way forward for healing, reconciliation, accountability and institutional reform.

Its premise is that healing requires ending impunity. Previous amnesties left conflicts unresolved and impunity entrenched, feeding cycles of mass violence and revenge.Given the polemic around the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the AU team avoids the ICC.

Instead, it proposes what Amnesty International calls a “genuine African accountability solution”.

This would be a special hybrid criminal court to hold high-ranking perpetrators accountable, operating under AU guidance and with UN support, and involving South Sudanese judges and lawyers as well as international experts.

It would be led, resourced and owned by Africa.Criminal jurisdiction over senior officials individually responsible for war crimes or gross human rights violations would be the responsibility of the African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights. The AU has a list of offenders but is keeping it secret to avoid undermining the fragile peace.

At community level, customary justice, which has retributive and restorative elements, can help, along the lines of Rwanda’s gacaca courts. A national reparation fund should be established for victims of rights abuses and to help refugees resettle.

There is no time to lose, urges Ken Scott, an AI consultant and former ICC prosecutor, in an open letter. Investigations on the ground must start quickly before evidence is lost, victims move and memories fade. Otherwise, says Scott, the AU report may remain just “shocking words on paper”.

The numbers

* Conflict forces 2.3 million people to flee their homes.

* 1.65 million are internally displaced.

* 650 000 flee across borders to Ethiopia (226 000), Sudan (198 000), Uganda (172 000) and Kenya (49 000).

* South Sudan hosts 266 000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan. – UNHCR

* Mercedes Sayagues is a Knight International Journalism Fellow