It was just before noon on 18 July when the soldiers grabbed Theresa*. She was only metres away from safety, a short dash from the UN gate that marked the entrance to her home, a camp for internally displaced people in Juba, the South Sudanese capital.
Even though they were in plain sight, the soldiers took their time, discussing Theresa’s fate before offering her a choice between two cruel options. “I could choose the one who would rape me, or they all would,” Theresa, not her real name, recalled. “I begged them to kill me instead.”
The five men, all members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the national military force, dragged her a few metres to the side of the road. Then they raped her – in broad daylight, right there on the side of the road.
Theresa is not the only woman to have suffered such a fate. In the immediate aftermath of deadly clashes earlier this month between government and opposition forces in Juba, dozens of women were reportedly raped in close proximity to the UN Protection of Civilians (POC) site, home to more than 30,000 displaced people.
Gender-based violence has become a defining feature of South Sudan’s civil war over the past two years. A culture of impunity within the armed forces and a limited peacekeeping presence outside the UN’s own bases are largely to blame.
As lawlessness descended on some parts of the capital in the aftermath of the most recent clashes, soldiers preyed on women driven out of the POC by hunger, exploiting the vacuum left by an international community whose focus had shifted to evacuating its own staff.
Community leaders told reporters that more than 120 women were raped over the course of a few days, a figure that tallied with the number of casesdocumented by the UN. Several rape survivors recounted how soldiers who had set up shop along the road leading past the UN camp attacked women in what appeared to be systematic, ethnically driven violence against civilians. Most of the women were members of the Nuer community, the ethnic group of opposition leader Riek Machar, who fled Juba amid the most recent fighting.
“The objective is to impose punishment on a [segment of] society that is perceived to be sympathising with a particular group,” said Edmund Yakani, executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, which lobbies for government accountability.
With young Nuer men often suspected of being rebel supporters, they rarely leave the camp’s perimeter. When the UN’s food supplies were looted, it was the women who set out to nearby markets in an effort to feed their families.
One of them was Nyanene, a quiet 15-year-old. “I saw that many women were going outside that day to get food,” she recalled. “I thought if I went along with the others, I’d be safe.”
As Nyanene made her way back from the market, two soldiers quietly pulled her away from the group. She was dragged into a nearby hut and raped by both men.
The army spokesperson, Brig Gen Lul Ruai Koang, blamed attacks near the POC on “bad elements” within the force, denying widespread violence against civilians by SPLA forces.
Wary of being ostracised by their husbands and the wider community, rape survivors rarely report incidents or seek professional help.
“In our culture it’s very difficult to admit that you have been raped. Often I have to guess what really happened to the women,” said Angelina John, a community leader who has been trying to gauge the scale of the attacks.
Many women would claim they were beaten but managed to escape. Others pretended to be witnesses of rape, recounting incidents in the third person, but with a level of excruciating detail that left little doubt about the truth.
Since the beginning of July, only 20 survivors of gender-based violence – a number that aid workers believe to be the tip of the iceberg – have registered with the International Rescue Committee to receive psychosocial support in the POC.
Yet even women who did seek help didn’t always get it. Theresa was brought to a clinic run by the International Medical Corps (IMC) the same day she was raped, but was only given painkillers, not the antiretrovirals she needed to reduce her risk of contracting HIV.
Mounting reports of mass rape so close to UN premises have sparked renewed outrage among the displaced population, who already blame peacekeepers for abandoning their posts when the camp came under fire.
The UN mission in South Sudan, Unmiss, maintains that it has protected civilians to the best of its ability but been thwarted by restrictions on movement imposed by government forces. “We were going as far as we could but, both around the POC site and inside the compound, there was still a robust level of patrolling going on,” said spokesperson Shantal Persaud.
The idea that Unmiss required permission to patrol from the very authorities that were responsible for perpetrating atrocities against civilians cast doubt on the effectiveness of its mandate. “If Unmiss doesn’t have the capacity to move beyond its bases in times of crisis, then the whole concept of protection of civilians is pointless,” said Yakani.
Theresa has lost her faith in the UN’s ability to protect her. “The security guards and the peacekeepers at the gate saw me being captured,” she recalled. “But they did nothing.”
* Some names have been changed to protect identities