YEI, South Sudan (AP) — First, the soldiers stole their belongings. Then they took their food. On their third and final visit, the woman said, the soldiers raped her and her daughter-in-law until they were unable to walk.
What sets these assaults in South Sudan apart from many other rapes by soldiers in the troubled country is this: The women brought the men to court and won.
Ten years after South Sudan gained its independence and two years after its own deadly civil war ended, large-scale fighting has subsided but clashes continue between communities and between the government and groups that did not sign the peace deal — and the use of rape as a weapon remains rampant. Justice is exceedingly rare, but the September conviction has raised hopes that such crimes will increasingly be prosecuted.
“I was traumatized,” the older of the two women, a 48-year-old mother of eight, told The Associated Press in Yei, a town in the southern state of Central Equatoria where she now lives. The AP does not typically identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they grant permission, and the woman said she continues to fear for her safety and is too afraid, for instance, to return to her home village of Adio.
She said she has found some solace in seeing her two attackers convicted and sent to prison after she reported the rape in May to South Sudan's army chief when he visited her village. A new army chief of staff, responding to growing frustration with such crimes, sent military judges from the capital, Juba, to oversee the case and those of 10 other women and girls who also came forward.
In the end, 26 soldiers were convicted, some for rape but others for offenses including looting. It was the first time soldiers had been convicted of rape since the 2016 rampage at the Terrain Hotel, where five international aid workers were gang-raped and a local journalist was killed.
The army hopes the trial will be a warning to its troops.
“We apologize, we won’t let it happen again, and we’ll arrest people who do it,” said Michael Machar Malual, head of civilian-military relations for the army in Central Equatoria state. A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The woman hopes the verdict will encourage more survivors to speak up in a country where sexual assault is a scourge.
Some 65% of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced sexual or other physical violence, the United Nations children’s agency said in 2019.
Between July and September, the U.N. reported an 88% increase in conflict-related sexual violence from the previous quarter even as overall violence dropped. It said there were more than 260 “violent incidents” in total during the period, but it did not specify how many involved sexual violence.
The villages around Yei have been hit hard as fighting continues between government forces and the National Salvation Front, which did not sign the peace deal.
Civilians say they are caught in the middle, with women often accused by soldiers of supporting the rebels — and assaulted — especially if their husbands aren’t around.
In February, three women and a 14-year-old girl were raped by soldiers about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Yei, according to a report by the independent body charged with overseeing the implementation of the peace deal. One woman was gang-raped while held at gunpoint, the report said.
When the AP visited Yei in December, civilians and soldiers said the situation was improving and there had been fewer reports of sexual violence since the trial. The once-bustling town and nearby villages are slowly returning to life after the war.
Yet some residents said they feel as unsafe as ever. A group of women walking home from the market said they hide their food in the bushes, worried that hungry soldiers will steal it from their homes. An economic crisis in South Sudan fueled by a drop in oil prices and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic means soldiers haven’t been paid in months — and experts are warning of famine.
Rights groups have hailed the recent case as important — but only a first step — and are pushing the government for more accountability.
“This should be a lesson for those with power, especially those with guns, to know that they are not above the law,” said Riya William Yuyada, executive director of Crown the Woman South Sudan, an advocacy group that has pressed the government for accountability.
A hybrid court is meant to be established as part of the peace deal to try people accused of committing wartime atrocities, but implementation is slow. Nyagoah Tut Pur, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, noted that those convicted of such crimes are often lower-level officers, and senior leaders should be held responsible. She added that accountability must also include compensation and services for survivors.
Some women brutalized by soldiers have taken matters into their own hands.
In 2017, Mary Poni said she watched soldiers decapitate her father and gang-rape three of her sisters until they died, before she was assaulted herself. She has written a book about her experience in the hope that it will be a small step toward reconciliation in her country.
“I want the civilian population to be confident in the army, and the army to be able to protect our women and girls,” Poni said. “Women are living in silent fear, not able to open up about things they went through.”
Associated Press writer Maura Ajak in Juba, South Sudan, contributed to this report