Rampaging South Sudan troops raped foreigners, killed journalist

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Nairobi — The soldier pointed his AK-47 at the female aid worker and gave her a choice.

"Either you have sex with me, or we make every man here rape you and then we shoot you in the head," she remembers him saying.

The woman took the first option. But by the end of the evening, she had been raped by 15 South Sudanese soldiers anyway.

On July 11, South Sudanese troops, fresh from winning a battle in the capital, Juba, over opposition forces, went on a nearly four-hour rampage through a residential compound popular with foreigners, in one of the worst targeted attacks on aid workers in South Sudan's three-year civil war.

For hours throughout the assault, the UN peacekeeping force stationed about a kilometre away refused to respond to desperate calls for help. Neither did embassies, including the US Embassy.

The attack on the Terrain hotel complex shows the hostility toward foreigners and aid workers by troops under the command of South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, who has been fighting supporters of rebel leader Riek Machar since civil war erupted in December 2013. Both sides have been accused of abuses. The UN recently passed a US resolution to send more peacekeeping troops to protect civilians.

Army spokesperson Lul Ruai did not deny the attack at the Terrain but said it was premature to conclude the army was responsible. "Everyone is armed, and everyone has access to uniforms and we have people from other organised forces, but it was definitely done by people of South Sudan and by armed people of Juba," he said.

Outnumbered

The attack came just as people in Juba were thinking the worst was over.

Three days earlier, gunfire had erupted outside the presidential compound between armed supporters of the two sides in South Sudan's civil war, at the time pushed together under an uneasy peace deal. The violence quickly spread across the city.

By Monday, the government had nearly defeated the forces under Machar, who fled the city. As both sides prepared to call for a ceasefire, some residents of the Terrain started to relax.

What was thought to be celebratory gunfire was heard. And then the soldiers arrived. A Terrain staffer from Uganda said he saw between 80 and 100 men pour into the compound after breaking open the gate with gunshots and tire irons. The Terrain's security guards were armed only with shotguns and were vastly outnumbered. The soldiers then went to door to door, taking money, phones, laptops and car keys.

"They were very excited, very drunk, under the influence of something, almost a mad state, walking around shooting off rounds inside the rooms," one American said.

For about an hour, soldiers beat the American with belts and the butts of their guns and accused him of hiding rebels. They fired bullets at his feet and close to his head. Eventually, one soldier who appeared to be in charge told him to leave the compound. Soldiers at the gate looked at his US passport and handed it back, with instructions.

"You tell your embassy how we treated you," they said. He made his way to the nearby UN compound and appealed for help.

‘Do you want to die?’

Some of the soldiers were violent as they sexually assaulted women, said the woman who said she was raped by 15 men. Others, who looked to be just 15 or 16 years old, looked scared and were coerced into the act.

"We kill you! We kill you!" the soldiers shouted, according to a Western woman in a bathroom. "They would shoot up at the ceiling and say, 'Do you want to die?' and we had to answer 'No!'"

When the soldiers came across John Gatluak, they knew he was local. The South Sudanese journalist worked for Internews, a media development organisation funded by USAID. He had taken refuge at the Terrain after being briefly detained a few days earlier. The tribal scars on his forehead made it obvious he was Nuer, the same as opposition leader, Riek Machar.

Upon seeing him, the soldiers pushed him to the floor and beat him.

During the tirade, a soldier hit a man suspected of being American with a rifle butt. At one point, the soldier threatened to kill all the foreigners assembled. "We're gonna show the world an example," Libot remembered him saying.

Then Gatluak was hauled in front of the group. One soldier shouted "Nuer," and another soldier shot him twice in the head. He shot the dying Gatluak four more times while he lay on the ground.

Eventually, South Sudanese security forces entered the Terrain and rescued all but three Western women and around 16 Terrain staff.

When asked why the UN peacekeeping mission didn't respond to the repeated requests for help, acting spokesperson Yasmina Bouziane said the circumstances are under investigation.

The US Embassy, which also received requests for help during the attack, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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