Nairobi — Witnesses to the violence in South Sudan since December 15, 2013, have described how targeted attacks against civilians on an ethnic basis have taken place in both government and opposition-controlled areas.
South Sudan's government and opposition forces should both immediately end abuses against civilians.
South Sudan's leaders, the African Union (AU), and the United Nations should also support an independent, credible, international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged crimes since the conflict erupted.
The UN should also impose a travel ban and an asset freeze on anyone credibly identified as responsible for serious abuses and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.
"Appalling crimes have been committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"Both sides need to leave civilians out of their conflict, let aid groups reach people who need help and accept a credible, independent investigation into these crimes."
Between December 27 and January 12, 2014, a Human Rights Watch research team in South Sudan interviewed more than 200 victims and witnesses to abuses in Juba and Bor.
Researchers documented widespread killings of Nuer men by members of South Sudanese armed forces in Juba, especially between December 15 and 19, including a massacre of between 200 and 300 men in the Gudele neighborhood on December 16. Researchers also documented the targeting and killing of civilians of Dinka ethnicity by opposition forces in other parts of the country.
The targeted killings of civilians, looting, and destruction of civilian property by both parties to the conflict in locations across the country have contributed to the displacement of more than 400,000 people, according to UN estimates, in the past month.
Many of the crimes committed after conflict broke out are serious violations of international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Fighting erupted in the headquarters of the South Sudan army's presidential guard at around 10:30 p.m. on December 15, hours after a meeting of South Sudan's leading political party, Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The meeting was marked by extremely high tensions between President Salva Kiir, who is of Dinka ethnicity, and former Vice President Riek Machar, who is of Nuer ethnicity. Kiir had dismissed Machar, a senior SPLM member, as vice president in July and fired his entire cabinet. Machar had earlier that year indicated his intention to run for president.
The government also arrested 11 prominent politicians and members of the SPLM's political bureau on December 16 and in the following days, alleging they were involved in planning a coup.
The politicians have been detained for four weeks without formal charges or access to legal counsel, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.
Kiir has called the violence on December 15 an attempted coup by Machar and his allies, a charge Machar, who is now in an undisclosed location, has denied.
However in the following days a number of senior army commanders from key locations in South Sudan rebelled against the government, leading to intensive fighting in Bor, the Jonglei State capital, and surrounding areas, the town of Bentiu and other locations in Unity State, and Malakal in Upper Nile State.
Delegates representing both Machar and the government are attending negotiations over a cessation of hostilities and other issues in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, under the auspices of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). They have yet to agree to a ceasefire.
On December 24, the UN Security Council agreed to temporarily increase the troop ceiling for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) from 7,000 to 12,500 and to increase the mission's police force to up to 1,323, from 900.
The UN should accelerate the deployment of these reinforcements and take other urgent steps to improve the protection of civilians, including better security around UNMISS compounds sheltering some 66,500 civilians displaced by conflict, Human Rights Watch said.
Peacekeepers should also ramp up independent patrols to all accessible locations in areas where they are operating and where civilians are in need. The location and timing of patrols should not be subject to government approval.
Human Rights Watch said it had received multiple reports of looting of medical and humanitarian facilities, and of some government denials of flight authorization to areas where people are in desperate need of aid.
The South Sudanese government and leaders of opposition forces should ensure unhindered access by UN and independent humanitarian agencies to displaced and other civilians in need of assistance and protection.
Both sides should respect medical and humanitarian facilities, material and staff, as required by international law. Anyone who blocks or otherwise doesn't cooperate with independent humanitarian activities should be held accountable.
The AU decided on December 30 to establish a commission of inquiry. The AU should avail itself of UN experience with commissions of inquiry by asking the UN to promptly provide staff and support a team of international investigators and experts to investigate serious crimes committed since December 15, Human Rights Watch said.
The commission of inquiry should report to both the AU and the UN secretary-general. In addition, UNMISS should bolster the investigative capacity of its human rights section and report regularly and publicly on human rights and humanitarian law abuses by all sides.
"The South Sudanese and the international community should show that we have learned the lesson history has taught us that without justice and reconciliation, residual pain from gross violations and other crimes are all too easily abused by those seeking power at any cost," Bekele said.
Killings, Arrests in Juba
In Juba, clashes between members of the presidential guard of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) erupted during the night of December 15, 2013, and spread the following day into neighborhoods around the army headquarters, also triggering serious fighting in at least two other areas of the capital.
However, much of the violence in the capital the following week was targeted attacks by Dinka members of South Sudan's armed forces, both the police and army, against Nuer males, including civilians, Human Rights Watch concluded after interviewing more than 150 victims and witnesses.
The witnesses and victims provided accounts of soldiers and policemen conducting house-to-house searches for Nuer men focusing on certain neighborhoods in northwest Juba, such as Gudele, Manga, Mangatain and New Site and around areas where fighting began in southwest Juba.
Numerous witnesses described seeing male family members, neighbors, or others shot dead in or around their compounds or as they ran for safety to other neighborhoods or to UN bases. In most cases reported to Human Rights Watch, witnesses described multiple killings.
"The soldiers shouted at my mum that if (the men) don't come out of the house they will start shooting all of us," a 21-year-old woman from the Mia Saba area said, describing one incident. "When they came out they started beating them, and shooting. They shot my brother in the leg. My uncle ran and fell in a shallow ditch. They shot him in the face."
A 42-year-old bricklayer from the New Site neighborhood described killings by security forces: "They brought out five of my neighbors and shot them in the street. We ran, the soldiers said 'stop', we refused and they shot at us. I stopped to pick my son but he was heavy and dead. When they reached him they shot him again."
In the worst single incident documented by Human Rights Watch, soldiers and policemen from around the Gudele and other nearby neighborhoods gathered hundreds of Nuer men during the night of December 15 and the following day and detained them in a building used by the police, near the junction that divides Juba's Gudele 1 and Gudele 2 neighborhoods.
Survivors estimated that between 200 and 300 men were jammed into a room so crowded and hot that several people collapsed during the day on December 16. At around 8 p.m., gunmen alleged to be government forces began systematically shooting into the room through windows on one side of the building, killing almost all of the people in the room, a few survivors said.
"It was very dark," one survivor said, adding that he survived because he was shot early in the massacre. "The windows were opened and then they shot through them. It was just light from the guns and the sound of the shooting. They shot me in the inner thigh, I fell and then dead people fell on top of me."
About an hour later, armed men with torches entered the room and shot again several times at people, apparently anyone who appeared to have survived, leaving the door open after they left.
At least two survivors escaped during the night. The following afternoon, members of South Sudan's National Security Service freed 11 others who had been protected when bodies fell on them and who had spent the day with the corpses. Several of the survivors had severe gunshot wounds.
"I thought I would go mad ... for three days I could hear the screaming and the shooting in my head," said one man who had been hiding near the site of the massacre. "I knew my brother was captured in there."
Human Rights Watch talked to neighbors of various ethnicities who described with great distress the huge number of bodies they saw at the site on December 17 and their removal in large trucks on December 18.
Human Rights Watch also documented mass arrests during the week of December 16. Former detainees said they were among scores of Nuer screened for their ethnicity and then held, usually for between three and seven days, most commonly in army buildings or in a national security building close to the Nile River in downtown Juba.
Most were arrested in their houses or on main roads as they tried to reach family members or safe locations. Victims showed injuries from beatings and described overcrowding, extreme heat, and a lack of food and clean water in the detention sites. Almost all who had been held in Juba suffered from a similar skin ailment that may have been caused by the extreme heat and overcrowding.
Four Nuer men, interviewed separately, also described being tortured by members of security forces who demanded information about Riek Machar's location.
The men said security forces lashed them, beat them until they lost consciousness or smashed the victims' faces into the ground with a boot to the back of their head. Security forces took the Nuer men's cars, phones, and money in most cases, and house-to-house searches were often accompanied by extensive looting.
Many of the Nuer interviewed said they still do not know the location or fate of male family members and friends. More than 25,000 Nuer were displaced by the fighting and attacks in Juba; many fled to two UN bases in Juba and say they are still afraid to return home.
The Events in Bor
Human Rights Watch was not able to conduct an on-site investigation in the town of Bor because of the ongoing conflict, but in early January researchers interviewed more than 50 people in Awerial, to which 84,000 civilians from Bor and surrounding areas fled following successive waves of fighting in December and January.
Witnesses described clashes between government and defecting anti-government security forces, indiscriminate attacks on civilians in densely populated areas, targeted shootings and attacks on civilians, and widespread looting and destruction in Bor. The civilian death toll is unclear, but many witnesses who had returned to Bor in late December said the streets were littered with dead bodies.
The conflict in Bor erupted on December 18. Forces loyal to General Peter Gadet, a prominent Nuer commander, took control of the town following events in Juba, triggering clashes within the army, police and wildlife services and in certain areas of town. The fighting caused thousands of civilians to flee to the UN compound in Bor, as well as outside the town.
Since December 18, Bor has changed hands twice, with the government regaining control between December 25 and 31. Opposition forces and armed Nuer civilians, referred to as the "white army," control Bor and surroundings now, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
Bor residents who fled the initial attack but returned soon after government forces retook the town on December 24 reported seeing bodies of both soldiers and civilians in several neighborhoods.
Human Rights Watch viewed footage obtained by a local government official showing 28 dead bodies in various locations, including close to the UN base, and many witnesses interviewed in Awerial said relatives or neighbors were among the dead. At least two disabled war veterans were killed and their homes looted during the first attack.
A journalist named seven old or mentally ill people he had been told had been killed by Gadet's forces in the initial attack. The journalist said he had seen the bodies of two of them, Majang Mach and Piel Mayen Deng, soon after the government recaptured the town.
Government forces retreated as Gadet's forces, augmented by thousands of armed Nuer, including women and children, retook the town on December 31, 2013.
By some accounts looting and destruction of civilian property increased during the second attack by anti-government forces as they approached villages near Bor.
Many civilians received warnings of the approaching forces and fled into the bush and marsh areas surrounding the town, in some cases leaving behind elderly or ill relatives who could not run. "Those unable to run (from the rebels) were burned in their houses, including two elderly men, Achieng Mayen and Kuol Garang, and a paralyzed woman, Yanadet Garang," a chief from an area just outside Bor told Human Rights Watch.
One mother of four said that armed Nuer aligned with anti-government forces killed her 70-year-old mother. "We came outside (of the house) and the attackers shot at us," she said.
Witnesses also told Human Rights Watch of attacks by armed Nuer groups and soldiers who followed fleeing civilians into marshland around Bor, possibly to steal cattle from the large cattle camps.
Many of those interviewed reported attackers had looted all of their cattle during the first and second attacks on the area, effectively stealing their primary source of livelihood.
A 55-year-old community leader who had fled to the marshland from a village outside Bor said that on January 7 a combined force of Nuer soldiers in uniform and armed civilians had attacked the cattle camp where he had taken shelter, killing at least seven people including a seven-year-old boy, and stealing thousands of cattle.
The attacks on Bor's Dinka community have reopened old wounds and revived ethnic divisions from atrocities during Sudan's long civil war. In what was known as the "Bor massacre," in 1991, largely Nuer forces loyal to Machar attacked Dinka communities in and around Bor, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. At the time, Machar had split from SPLA, then the South's rebel force, and fought against it with support from other factions.
Attacks on Civilians Elsewhere
Human Rights Watch received alarming reports of targeted attacks on Dinka civilians in other areas of South Sudan, as well as credible reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilians during fighting in Bentiu and Malakal, but was not able to visit these locations in the initial investigation. The impact of conflict on civilians in these areas requires further in-depth investigation.
On December 19, large numbers of armed youth together with unarmed women and children, and accompanied by uniformed security forces, attacked a UN mission base in the town of Akobo, in Jonglei state, where around 30 Dinka, including disarmed soldiers and civilians had taken shelter, witnesses said. In the stampede on the base, two peacekeepers and an estimated 20 civilians and disarmed soldiers were killed.
Armed men also issued serious threats against Dinka seeking shelter in UN bases in Yuai in Jonglei state, where a UN helicopter was shot at as Dinka were being evacuated, and in Nasir, Upper Nile state, UN officials said.
Two Dinka staff at a base owned by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Companyoil consortium described to Human Rights Watch how Nuer day laborers turned on Dinka staff and killed at least six men using batons and machetes on the night of December 16. Both witnesses said Nuer police on the base saw the violence and did not intervene.
President Kiir has acknowledged that ethnic targeting and killings took place in Juba and said in a Christmas day speech that those responsible would be punished.
The chief of staff of South Sudan's army, General James Hoth Mai, issued an order on December 21 to arrest a number of members of various armed forces suspected of killing "innocent soldiers and civilians simply because they hail from different tribes." Some soldiers have been arrested but have not yet been charged.
On December 28, the inspector general of police for South Sudan, General Pieng Deng Kuol, established a five-member committee of policemen to investigate allegations of killings of civilians including media reports that "a great number of people were dragged into one of the police stations in Juba and murdered cold blooded inside the cells."
On December 30, the African Union's (AU) Peace and Security Council decided to establish a commission to investigate "human rights violations and other abuses committed during the armed conflict in South Sudan" and submit a report within three months.
The AU's call for an international commission of inquiry is a positive step. Any such commission should be fully resourced and supported by United Nations and concerned governments.
To be truly independent and credible, the commission should be mandated to report to more than one organization, for example to both the AU and the UN, and it should consist of international experts who have experience with South Sudan, forensic investigations, human rights and humanitarian law, and arms and munitions, Human Rights Watch said.