In a report released Thursday, the African Union has accused soldiers in South Sudan’s civil war of a harrowing list of atrocities against civilians, including rape, mutilation, burning alive, and forced cannibalism.
The report covers a span of time beginning in December 2013 and following the descent of the infant nation — the world’s youngest — into civil war following coup allegations by President Salva Kiir. Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, accused his vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, of attempting to stage a coup. The allegation triggered a wave of ethnic violence that turned rapidly into a civil war.
The report found “extreme cruelty exercised through mutilation of bodies, burning of bodies, draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others from one ethnic community to drink the blood or eat burnt human flesh.”
The investigating commission noted that most of these acts were committed against “civilian populations taking no active part in the hostilities.”
Civilian witnesses tell shocking personal stories of watching entire families hacked to death by machetes, burned alive, or raped to death. Some people, the report notes, “were subjected, for instance, to beatings before being compelled to jump into a lit fire.” “When they arrived here and found a blind person, they would tie the blind person with grass and set that blind person on fire and then laugh at that,” one witness told AU investigators. The report also notes that rape of girls and women was so violent in some cases that it “involved maiming and dismemberment of limbs.”
Nuers were targeted by Dinkas for Machar’s alleged betrayal of Kiir, and identified by tribal scars on their faces. Those with Nuer-looking scars were killed, though the AU report notes that many of these were likely Dinkas, as the scarring is similar and it is not believed that fighters worked to identify their civilian targets carefully.
Then follow the reports of cannibalism: “I have seen people being forced to eat other humans. Soldiers kill one of you and ask the other to eat the dead one,” one witness is quoted as saying in the report. Another witness, a woman, shared a similar experience, saying, “They had been made to eat the flesh of the dead people.” The woman, a Nuer, claimed she was told that the Dinka attackers were offended by the claim that Dinkas were cannibals. “They were told that you always say Dinkas eat people, so now you eat,” she explained.
The Washington Post notes that some Dinka groups do, in fact, engage in cannibal behavior, though this is increasingly uncommon and has become insulting to many Dinkas.
Some observers are concerned that the AU report will inflame tensions between the groups because it concludes specifically that Kiir’s allegations of coup plotting were false. “From all the information available to the Commission, the evidence does not point to a coup,” the report reads. The report also accuses the government of systematically targeting Nuers.
What the report does not do is accuse Kiir of genocide, claiming investigators failed to find evidence that addresses the elements of a legal genocide claim before the International Criminal Court. The definition of genocide, as defined in the Rome Statute, requires evidence of killing, serious bodily or mental harm, harmful conditions of life “calculated to bring about destruction,” birth prevention acts, and forcible transfer of children “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” “As such” is typically interpreted to mean that the perpetrators are acting against the group for its existence as a group.
Currently, the factions involved in the civil war are working to establish an end to it and set a timetable for demilitarizing armed groups. Following the war, the nation will have to face solving the problem of extreme hunger; the United Nations estimates nearly four million people are threatened by famine in the nation.