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UN: Rape Used as Weapon of War in S. Sudan Conflict

FILE - Aid workers have expressed alarm at poor conditions in South Sudan refugee camps. A woman and baby shelter in a makeshift tent at the Kalma refugee camp.

A senior U.N. official says rape is used as a weapon of war in the conflict between government SPLA and opposition forces in South Sudan. The official who recently visited this war-torn country says sexual violence against women and girls is rampant in camps for internally displaced people.

U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura interviewed rape victims sheltering in a U.N. compound in Bentiu City, in Unity State. The Sierra Leone diplomat says in her 30 years of experience as an advocate for health and women’s issues she has never witnessed anything as appalling as what she saw in Bentiu.

She says internally displaced people there face chronic insecurity, unimaginable living conditions, acute protection concerns and rampant sexual violence.

“The women when they go out to get firewood, etc. have to go through several checkpoints where you have the SPLA [Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army] and in the course of that they are raped continuously. And, the men do not get out of the camp because the men have to make a choice. ‘If I go out, I get killed. So, I rather send my wife, my daughter or my mother out because the most they can do is rape her. She will come back alive.’ So men have to make that difficult decision of either being killed or female members of the family being raped," said Bangura.

Bangura says the women with whom she spoke feel they have no one to whom to turn, they have no one to whom they can report the crimes committed against them. She says there are no basic services for victims of sexual violence. She says they cannot get the medical or psychosocial services they so badly need.

“So, by doing some of the worst atrocities against women, you are sending messages to the men. It is a way of punishing them. So, women have become victims of the conflict as a way of actually destroying communities and families. Survivors and health care workers told me heartbreaking stories of rape, gang rape, abduction, sexual slavery and forced marriage ... I was astonished in the extent in which both parties seem to have declared war on their own people," she said.

The U.N. special representative says both parties have basically turned women and girls into battlefronts. She says each one is waging a war against the other’s ethnic group. She says the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is documenting crimes committed by both sides to the conflict.

She says sexual violence in conflict can constitute a war crime or crime against humanity. She says she has held extensive talks with both government and opposition officials and told them these atrocities must stop. She says she has warned them that crimes committed by them will not go unpunished, but will be prosecuted by both national and international courts.