London - Women in South Sudan have suffered unprecedented levels of sexual violence in the last two years, including abduction, rape, forced marriage and murder as civilians became targets of merciless ethnic warfare, the head of the Red Cross mission there has said.
“We went to one village to distribute aid and (our teams) were told they had been attacked some days earlier and 90 women had been abducted. After several days only about 60 of them came back,” said Franz Rauchenstein, the outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation.
The latest turbulent chapter in South Sudan's four years of independence erupted in December 2013, after a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, revived tensions between Kiir's Dinka and Machar's Nuer people.
The tensions led to a civil war that has threatened to spill over into the wider East African region, despite successive ceasefires.
Rauchenstein, 53, who began his posting in April 2014, said he had been shocked by the intensity of the looting and violence that have put traditional livestock herding at risk and driven millions to the brink of starvation in the drought-prone region.
“Civilians have been directly targeted. The people are collateral damage of the attacks. Houses are burned, properties destroyed and so the people are literally running for their lives,” Rauchenstein said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London.
“What is new in this conflict is that women have been attacked while they have been seeking refuge on the islands,” said Rauchenstein, referring to the remote hideouts in swamps where traumatised civilians hide during attacks.
“Those who are abducted may be forcefully married, enslaved or killed,” Rauchenstein said.
Both parties to the conflict have committed violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses, including mass killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, Amnesty International reported in August.
Human rights groups have also pointed to cases of gang rape, of pregnant women being cut open and of women being raped using wooden sticks or plastic bottles.
The ICRC, a neutral actor in conflict zones, has not commented on who is to blame, preferring to train the warring sides in humanitarian law, urging them to halt attacks on civilian populations to allow aid distribution to continue.
“The danger is that when you gather 1 000 families for a food distribution, people move with their cattle. This risks attracting the warring parties, so it's a race against time - we have to ensure we are not adding to the problem,” said Rauchenstein, who has also led ICRC missions to Liberia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“After a (cattle) raid we have asked the population 'were we to blame?' and they said no, the looters would have come anyway.”
Reaching civilians is hampered by the way feared rebel factions, such as the White Army - made up largely of Nuer youths who dust their bodies with ash - merge with the communities, farming by day and fighting by night, aid workers have reported.
Rebel spokesmen have denied in the past that the White Army was controlled by Machar.
Kiir and Machar signed an internationally brokered peace accord in August, in a bid to end the violence, with Machar due to become First Vice President as part of the deal, but it has not halted the atrocities.
In the nothern town of Leer, in oil-producing Unity State, armed robberies forced the ICRC and medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend activities earlier this week.
“It is lucky nothing happened to our team,” said Rauchenstein.
He said the crisis had affected his staff in other areas too.
“In May, two of our staff were hiding with their families in the swamps. When we finally managed to evacuate them in July they were totally emaciated and must have lost 10 kilogrammes. It was very shocking,” Rauchenstein said.
Gathering testimony from victims is difficult, with women fearing they will be stigmatised if they admit to being raped, said Rauchenstein, who has now completed his South Sudan mission.
“The challenge is to get women to come to sexual violence support services in clinics and hospitals where they can feel supported,” he said.