By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 20 (Reuters) – Rape and other forms of sexual violence by all sides in South Sudan’s civil war have become so widespread that a 2-year-old child was among the victims, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict said on Monday.
“In my 30 years of experience, I’ve never witnessed anything like what I saw in Bentiu,” Zainab Hawa Bangura told reporters about a recent trip to the northern town, one of South Sudan’s regions worst hit by the conflict.
“The IDPs (internally displaced persons) seeking refuge there face a combination of … insecurity, unimaginable living conditions, acute day-to-day protection concerns and rampant sexual violence,” she told reporters.
Fighting erupted in December in South Sudan – which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 – after months of political tension between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy and political rival, Riek Machar. Peace talks brokered by African regional bloc IGAD have yet to bring an end to the bloodshed.
“Survivors and health care workers told me heartbreaking stories of rape, gang rape, abduction, sexual slavery and forced marriage,” Bangura said. “Those who try to fight back against their attackers are often raped with objects instead. Some victims have even been raped to death.”
She said the victims included women, men, girls and boys, with 74 percent of them below the age of 18, according to South Sudanese hospital officials.
“The youngest victim they have treated is 2 years old,” Bangura said.
She said both sides in the conflict have committed sexual violence, adding that orders had been given within the military forces to perpetrate rapes on the basis of ethnicity.
Bangura added that said a radio station in Bentiu called Radio Bentiu FM was used to broadcast appeals for men to rape women and girls based on their ethnic backgrounds and what was believed to be their political loyalties.
At the end of Bangura’s trip to South Sudan, she and the government signed a communique outlining steps that would be taken to put an end to the rapes, adding that the message must be sent across the military’s chain of command, Bangura said.
She was especially concerned about the lack of psychological and medical care for the victims.
“I am also concerned about the lack of reporting of this crime due to the closure of government offices, insecurity in the country, malfunctioning police services, (and) a lack of capacity by the police and medical service providers,” she said.
The conflict in South Sudan has killed more than 10,000 people, caused over 1 million to flee and driven the country of 11 million closer to famine. By year-end, a third of the people could face the threat of starvation, the United Nations said.
Last month the United States warned Kiir and Machar to engage in serious peace talks to end nearly a year of violence in the world’s newest state or face U.N. Security Council sanctions.