JUBA, South Sudan – South Sudan's army has burned people alive, raped and shot girls, and forced tens of thousands from their homes, according to interviews with survivors by The Associated Press and corroborated by human rights groups.
The scorched earth campaign is apparently aimed at driving civilians out of the rebel-controlled parts of an oil-rich state, according to Human Rights Watch. South Sudan's military is trying to depopulate the rural areas of Unity state through violence and hunger, said the group. The tactics, which include the alleged burning of grain stocks and the looting of life-sustaining property like cattle, are believed to be part of efforts to drain the rebels of their support base.
"They are trying to destroy our lives," said survivor Angelina Nyaboth Chap Tang, who fled to a U.N. base in the state capital of Bentiu. "I lost my son. I lost my grain. I lost my cattle. Everything has been destroyed."
Tang said armed men killed her son in an attack two weeks ago in which her village was torched, grain stocks destroyed and cattle looted.
Another survivor, Theresa Nyakama, said she lived off wild plants for a month before seeking shelter with the U.N. in Bentiu, where some 28,000 civilians have fled since the start of the offensive in May.
Although both warring factions in South Sudan's current conflict are accused of carrying out widespread abuses against civilians, government troops are increasingly reported to have committed large-scale atrocities in conflict zones where the rebels are perceived to have support.
The pattern of attacks on "village after village" amounts to a "widespread and systematic" campaign by government forces to displace civilians, Human Rights Watch researcher Skye Wheeler told AP in Bentiu.
"The opposition forces are dependent upon the civilian population for their livelihoods, so what the government has done in Rubkona, Koch, and Guit counties we know for sure, and perhaps in other areas as well, is implement a very large scale pattern of attacks on the civilian population, undercutting the (armed opposition's) ability to live in those areas," she said.
Humanitarian aid to the hardest hit areas has been "blocked" by the violence, according to the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System Network, which said in a report last week that "an increasing number of households are likely to face catastrophe," or famine conditions in which people starve to death.
Evidence of "serious" human rights abuses that represent a "new brutality and intensity, including such horrific acts as the burning alive of people inside their homes," was presented in a report released this week by the human rights division of the U.N.'s mission in South Sudan. The U.N. report also alleged widespread sexual violence.
South Sudan military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer denied the allegations, saying the army's strategy is not to drive out civilians to undercut the rebels. He called for a full investigation including representatives of the U.N., the government and the opposition.
Yet survivors of some horrific attacks in South Sudan believe government troops are responsible.
In a recent interview in the U.N. base, survivor Chan Wang said he watched from a river where he hid as soldiers threw two women, his male neighbor and children into a hut and set it ablaze, killing all those inside. "If they don't shoot them with a gun, they throw them into the burning house so that they die there," he said.
In another case, witnesses alleged that armed men gang-raped a 17-year-old girl and then fatally shot her, according to the U.N. report.
"The government was in charge of this operation completely. They designed it, they implemented it, and they are claiming victory because of it," said Wheeler of Human Rights Watch.
South Sudan's civil war has inflamed the country's ethnic tensions. The Dinka followers of President Salva Kiir are pitted against the Nuer allies of former vice president Riek Machar. In Unity state, however, the fighting is mostly between the Bul, who have remained loyal to Kiir, and other Nuer groups aligned with Machar.