Patterns of Genocidal Rape in South Sudan

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South Sudan has been at war since December 2013. Multiple peace agreements have been signed between Juba and the rebels since, and the conflict has displaced over 4 million people.

At the beginning of the conflict (2015), the African Union noted that it had reasons to believe war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by all parties. The UN warned several times that the violence had the “potential for genocide”. The UN Human Rights Commission on South Sudan noted in 2016 that there was “already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages”. But ethnic cleansing – as opposed to genocide – is not the object of any precise legal definition or international convention. At the time of writing, there has been no investigation into the crime of genocide in South Sudan.

In my last publication, I focus on the perpetration of mass gang-rapes by government troops in Unity state in 2015-2016 and in Central Equatoria in 2016-2017. Using over 325 interviews I collected in 2015-2017, mostly in South Sudan and then in Uganda’s refugee camps, including witnesses of rapes and 28 direct victims of rapes, I argue that mass rapes by government troops in these two states (Unity and Central Equatoria) were genocidal. They were the result of a policy most likely designed by the elite.

Government troops organized and carried out gang-rapes, using different types of perpetrators. In Unity, the perpetrators increasingly shared broad Nuer ethnic membership with their victims. But instead of mitigating violence, the context of intersectional competition and enmity, and a legacy of manipulation by various government actors, facilitated the perpetration of sexual atrocities.  In Central Equatoria, the government employed predominantly Dinka soldiers, because there was no comparable inter-ethnic (or inter-sectional) rivalry there and no local equivalent to the various Nuer perpetrators used in Unity state.

While I argue that the function of these rapes was to destroy the target groups, I hope to advance our understanding of genocidal rape beyond what it does to the victims, to highlight what it does for the perpetrators. I find that genocidal rape fosters the perpetrators’ cohesion and ethnic groupness. It also consolidates their ethnic ascendency, through the destruction and appropriation of the non-Dinka victim groups’ wealth, including land.

What is genocidal rape

I rely on past and recent research on the topic of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Rape can be a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a crime of genocide. Not every instance of mass rape is genocidal. What distinguishes genocide from crimes against humanity is that genocide means to destroy groups as such. In genocide, civilians are targeted for their membership to a group. Genocides do not need to be “complete” to constitute genocide: the UN Convention focuses on the intent to destroy “in whole or in part” national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.

The same logic in distinguishing crimes against humanity from genocide applies to wartime rape. Rape is genocidal if it is intended to destroy a group physically and mentally, and prevent its regeneration. Rape is internationally recognized as an instrument of genocide since the landmark Akayesu trial in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Why it’s genocidal

Several factors make theses mass gang-rapes genocidal in South Sudan, as I show in my most recent article and also, in greater detail, in my book.

First, the perpetrators carefully selected their victims by their ethnicity, in a form of groupism typical of genocides. They intended to punish collectively through rape the Nuer and Equatorian groups (in fact a collection of groups) for their perceived association with the opposition led by Nuer rebel leader Riek Machar challenging Dinka President Salva Kiir at the time.

Second, strong government involvement was clear-cut in both cases, and the perpetrators performed these gang-rapes as a job, a task ordered by commanders. These gang-rapes were organized, and systematic. Every woman found from the target groups had to be raped. Rapes were no accident, no collateral damage, no sexual entertainment for “unruly” savage-like soldiers (a racist stereotype). There was an order to these rapes, and a hierarchy. These rapes were assigned, supervised, and endorsed by commanders who waited patiently with other soldiers for the rapists to be done.

In both Unity and Central Equatoria, the rapes shared more similarities than differences. They were mostly gang-rapes, involving sometimes more than 10 perpetrators. And they took time: up to 5 hours. So they were costly in terms of military efficiency. It would have been easier for the perpetrators to shoot their victims on site in “enemy” territory (where the rebels were vastly outgunned). But that was not the point. Survivors of genocidal rape in other conflicts have indicated that rape is a form of killing, and that surviving it is worse than death. In South Sudan, rapes were, as two Nuer women from Leer (Unity) aptly put it, “a torture and a form of killing”.

This brings us to my third point: this government policy of mass gang-rapes meant to kill, displace, dehumanize, morally and physically destroy the target groups. And the perpetrators were not shy about it in their utterances: they communicated clearly their intent to kill and destroy the group of their victims. In my article, I cite multiple testimonies of survivors I collected. One of them, from Unity, recollected of her perpetrators: “They said ‘we’re from Mayom and we are coming to kill you.’ They raped me for four hours”.

Perpetrators gang-raped women in public as much as they could, in what resembled industrial lines, sometimes on sites of dead bodies in order to desecrate further the already dead. These rapes were a public performance for everyone to see, including children. They were a communication device that rippled through communities. They forced civilians into displacement and convinced the survivors never to return to their homes or to South Sudan. Survivors weren’t merely shooed away from their land. They only survived because they managed to reach a UN Protection of Civilians camp or refugee camp, after escaping perpetrators who chased them all the way up there with the intent to rape and kill them. As one psychological worker explained to me in a refugee camp in Uganda, “The goal is to traumatize people so much that they never come back. Some reach acute levels of psychosis…”

And this rape policy worked, at least for a good part: these gang-rapes physically, morally and economically destroyed the target groups. They prevented their moral, material and demographic regeneration.


But this policy of genocidal gang-rapes did not just destroy the target groups. It also yielded considerable benefits for the organizing state and its perpetrators. Gang-rapes in civil war are a form of group violence that typically builds cohesion, especially in groups recruiting members forcibly. In South Sudan, these gang-rapes also fostered cohesion amongst recruits from various ethnic backgrounds, sometimes forced to join, and not immune to in-group policing either.

They also steered ethnic groupness. Ethnic groups are not coherent entities that are fixed. But violence is the great group crystallizer. Genocidal gang-rapes reinforced the perpetrators’ ethnic groupness. They bolstered their sense of ethnic group entitlement and absolute ascendency over their victims. I cite a survivor from Central Equatoria recalling of her Dinka rapists: “They removed our skirts, all we had were T-shirts. They said ‘what we feel like doing, we will do.’”

Women represent economic and reproductive wealth in South Sudan, as bridewealth is exchanged for marriage. These gang-rapes destroyed women’s bodies, group moral but also group wealth. They sapped the victim groups’ chances at demographic and material regeneration. They also advanced a process of inner colonization: in both Central Equatoria and Unity state, perpetrators and associated settlers colonized the land of their victims, rich in oil and minerals. As such, these gang-rapes participated to the perpetrators’ ethnic group ascension, and therefore to ethnic ranking. They reconfigured the social order to the benefit of the ethnic supremacists.

What next?

In this way, genocidal rapes are truly a form of nation-building in South Sudan. But what kind of nation? The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) finds that the “security situation is much improved” now. UNMISS’ assessment is short-sighted given the entrenched patterns of atrocities. It also comes in stark contrast with the long-term risks associated with the flawed security arrangements from the latest peace agreement. These arrangements remain largely unimplemented and will result once again, if they are, in an inflated, divided and unstable army. The establishment of a Hybrid Court also remains a distant prospect, leaving little hope for accountability. But UNMISS presses on: it announced that it was going to withdraw from the Protection of Civilians camp sites, where the gang-rape survivors and their communities had found refuge. It will leave them under “government protection” – the same government that sent perpetrators to rape them to death, to kill and chase them. Those survivors and their displaced communities received loud and clear their rapists’ message. One wonders if UNMISS did.

Clémence Pinaud is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Studies of Indiana University, Bloomington. She has published articles on the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s military history, including predatory behaviours and marital practices.

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