GENEVA – Some women were tied to trees, raped for hours and then beaten. Others who resisted were pummeled with rifle butts, sticks and cable wire. The assailants were armed men, mostly from forces aligned with South Sudan’s government.
Nearly five months after South Sudan’s warring leaders signed an agreement to end five years of conflict in the country, which was only founded in 2011, the United Nations on Friday listed those horrific practices to voice alarm about an upsurge in sexual violence there that started late last year.
United Nations investigators said they had documented the rape of 134 women and girls in northern areas of South Sudan in the last three months of 2018. Fifty of the victims were children, one of them just 8 years old. Another 41 women and girls suffered other forms of sexual and physical abuse.
Many rape victims had dispersed to remote areas that could not be reached by road, and the actual number of attacks was much higher, the investigators said, noting that the violence had continued this year, albeit on a smaller scale.
South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011 with the backing of Western nations. But two years later, civil war broke out after a feud between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and others who supported Riek Machar, then the vice president.
Fighting among several factions soon erupted, and South Sudan became engulfed in ethnic violence and a devastating humanitarian crisis, with millions fleeing to neighboring countries to try to escape hunger and disease.
The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, urged South Sudan’s leaders in a statement on Friday to investigate the latest evidence of widespread rape, put perpetrators on trial and tackle the pervasive impunity that the report identified as an important factor in the country’s endemic sexual violence.
The chances of that happening appear remote. An investigation into the reported rapes, led by Awut Deng Acuil, South Sudan’s minister of gender, child and social welfare, concluded in December that the allegations were “unfounded and baseless.”
Rupert Colville, Ms. Bachelet’s spokesman, told journalists in Geneva, “Obviously, we don’t agree with that conclusion.”
“That’s simply not good enough,” he added.
The United Nations said most of the attacks were conducted by youth militias and by elements of forces aligned with Mr. Kiir. A smaller number of attacks were linked to opposition fighters supporting Mr. Machar.
The attacks were premeditated and appeared to be organized, the investigators said in their report, observing that, “the ruthlessness of the attackers appears to be a consistent feature of the sexual violence documented.”
One survivor cited in the report said she and others were raped repeatedly on three different occasions. “We avoided the road because we heard horrible stories that women and girls are grabbed while passing through and are raped, but the same happened to us,” she said. “There is no escape — we are all raped.”
Almost 90 percent of the victims were raped by more than one attacker and often for hours at a time, the United Nations reported, describing one episode in which soldiers gang-raped a group of five women, four of whom were pregnant at the time.
A senior military officer implicated by the United Nations in a campaign of rape and killings carried out by government forces last year was later promoted and was identified by the organization as commanding units involved in the attacks described in Friday’s report. He was not named in the report.
A military court last year sentenced 10 soldiers to prison terms for their part in the rape of five foreign aid workers during an assault on a hotel in the capital Juba in 2016, but that case is seen as unusual.
“The number of people tried and convicted for sexual violence in South Sudan is extremely small,” Mr. Colville said