Source: The Guardian
It is late afternoon when the white Jeep pulls up outside a compound attached to one of the largest camps for families fleeing South Sudan’s civil war.
Accompanied by two UN police officers, a woman steps out and walks briskly past a rusty shipping container holding the man who allegedly raped her less than 24 hours earlier.
In a country where UN investigators say sexual violence remains ignored despite having reached “epic proportions” – one survey found 70% of women in such camps said they had been raped since conflict erupted in December 2013 – this is a rare example of action being taken.
The alleged incident illustrates not just the bleak reality facing women at the sprawling Malakal protection of civilians (PoC) camp, but also the shortcomings of international peacekeepers and the makeshift nature of justice at what is supposedly a place of safety for 33,000 people.
Such is the prevalence of sexual assaults against women forced to forage beyond the camp’s perimeter that UN peacekeepers now carry out regular armed patrols to secure the ground ahead of them. However, the troops are not always there. Even when they are, women say they have been told to go away after telling peacekeepers they have been fired on by government troops.
Consequently, they must fend for themselves or depend on the protection sometimes afforded by unarmed volunteers who venture out with them.
“It can be dangerous and may not always be enough to deter those behind GBV [gender-based violence], but in this context an international presence can give some protection, at least,” says Ayda Wondemu as she and colleagues from the Nonviolent Peaceforce accompany women in the shrubland.
According to Wondemu, the poverty here is such that – simply to save 25 cents on a kilo of sugar compared with the price in the camp – women visit the market in the partially deserted city of Malakal to trade, risking harassment or worse by troops.
At the end of December, a woman from the camp was reportedly shot dead by gunmen in military uniform as she foraged in the bush for materials to make charcoal. The UN peacekeeping mission, Unmiss, said a patrol sent to the location, 4km east of their base, was blocked at a checkpoint by South Sudanese government troops.
“We’re grateful to the NGOs who have been supporting us with food and other items,” says Sarah (not her real name), a mother who has been living in the camp since 2013.
“We get oil and grain but there are shortages and that puts us in a difficult situation. When we go out to fetch firewood some of us risk being attacked. It has happened to sisters and friends of mine. Malakal is now held by government troops, but they are the people who harass us when we go out.”
Rachel Nayik, a former secondary school teacher who has lived in the camp since 2014, and who organises weekly women’s meetings, says sexual violence is also a major issue within the camp’s boundaries. She attributes the problem partly to the traumatic impact the conflict has had on men.
“This situation of having people so enclosed together, with little room for movement outside, has made life even more difficult and may have caused GBV rates to increase, but it was a problem that was there before the conflict too,” she says.
“The other issue is many women have become the breadwinners, or widows, because their husbands have been killed. They have to go to Malakal town to sell or buy things for their families in order to supplement the sorghum, lentils and oil we are given here. However, some of them are stopped and beaten and, yes, raped too.”
The camp hosts the largest emergency gender-based violence (GBV) response programme in South Sudan by the UN children’s agency, Unicef, and partners. The programme includes medical and psychosocial support services as well as safe places for women.
However, there is growing resentment among camp residents towards the peacekeepers and the wider UN mission. Residents are beginning to take matters into their own hands. A camp “jail” has been established – a small wooden shack with a corrugated iron roof. It was here the alleged rapist was held before being passed to the UN police.
Bolis Yanyo, 32, a former soldier in charge of the volunteers, explains how they do their best to detain and hold camp residents involved in fighting, stealing and other misdemeanors, once judges drawn from different ethnic groups have adjudicated. But he says the job is becoming tougher, especially with limited resources available.
With a shrug, he motions towards the compound housing the UN troops, protected on all sides by a perimeter of large, earth-filled “Hesco” barriers.
“The Hescos are to defend them, but not the people inside the camp. They should put it all around the PoC,” he says.
The UN mission rejects suggestions that peacekeepers have insulated themselves from those inside the camp, claiming it is surrounded by a robust perimeter security fence.
“We would also note that in the event that internally displaced people have to leave the camp because of any insecurity or threat, Unmiss has already earmarked locations within its base where they can be safely and securely concentrated and protected, and has identified access points to these areas,” he said.
A spokesperson said it was not always possible to verify the women’s claims. “Peacekeepers also provide escort patrols, as agreed with the leadership of the PoC, for those vulnerable persons who may need to leave the camp to fetch non-food items such as firewood. Unmiss has established a weapons-free zone in a wide radius around its Juba PoC sites in an effort to increase the safety and security of the sites, and is now working to implement this across all its protection sites.”
The local authorities have rejected any suggestion that women are being targeted for sexual violence, and have even accused the UN and journalists of fabricating stories.
“There is no rape at all,” insists Elias Biech, deputy mayor of Malakal city. “For me, it is Unmiss who are causing this. For we as Dinka [the ethnic group that largely supports the government], the problem of rape is cursed. When you do it you will not be tolerated in the community. But this language of the media almost creates a lot of problems. They exaggerate.
“There is no need for the UN to come out and protect the women coming here from the PoC. Protect them from what?”
Back at the camp, the fate of the man accused of rape is yet to be decided. Serious offences such as rape and murder can lead to expulsion. At the camp gates, the faces of those who have been cast out stare back from mugshots bearing the scrawled slogan: “Expelled”.
Skye Wheeler, a South Sudan-based women’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, says it is very difficult to ensure justice for offenders in the camp. “Who is going to try them, what kind of justice process will they get, how long will they be detained for, what happens when they’re released back into a community squashed into a small UN-protected area? It’s a nightmare.
“On the other hand, there needs to be repercussions for rape and other violence, and civilians need to be protected. It’s appalling the way the authorities have dealt – or rather totally failed to deal – with sexual violence, including by forces under their command. At times in this conflict we’ve seen patterns of sexual violence as part of military attacks and in some places it seems that women from certain ethnic communities are seen as fair game. To this day, there’s no sign of anyone taking rape of South Sudanese women seriously in the government or army.”
Nayik believes progress is being made, albeit gradual, to tackle the root causes of violence, in the camp and beyond.
“Before, some women thought it was normal to be beaten by their husbands, for example, but now through talking together and campaigns by groups here they are understanding that it’s not right,” she says.
“Change is slow but hopefully we will realise eventually that violence cannot solve any of our problems and that people should live together in peace.”