‘There's no news hook’: Q&A with Amanda Sperber on trying to cover rape in South Sudan
The scale of sexualized violence in South Sudan has been described by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as “shocking.” In a March report, the office counted more than 1,300 rapes in just five months in 2015 in a single area of the country, Unity State. And this number, according to OHCHR, is only “a snapshot” of the real total, with women and girls being considered “a commodity” by soldiers—reportedly groups allied with the government are being given the go-ahead to rape women “in lieu of wages.” The majority of perpetrators, according to OHCHR, are government forces.
“This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, “yet it has been more or less off the international radar.”
Sadly, less than two years after South Sudan voted to become its own country, separate from Sudan, fighting has swallowed the young nation. Partly due to ethnic tensions between the historically unfriendly Dinka and Nuer tribes, partly because of individual political power grabs, the war has left more than 50,000 dead, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, and 1.6 million internally displaced, according to the UN Refugee Agency. With so many crimes—mass rape, burning of whole villages—being committed, “there are reasonable grounds to believe the violations may amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity,” said OHCHR.
Some of the most interesting—and painful to read—stories to come out recently about what is happening to women in South Sudan were authored by freelance journalist Amanda Sperber. Sperber reported in January and February from a place called Nyal, what she calls “an opposition-held sanctuary of relative calm on the swamps of the Nile,” in the lower part of northern Unity State. While there exist UN Protection of Civilian camps (PoCs) for internally displaced people in South Sudan, Nyal had no such UN support when Sperber was there. It is a place to which she said tens of thousands of people fled to after a government-sponsored scorched-earth campaign in Unity that started in May 2015.
I spoke with Sperber about her reporting and what it was like wandering around Nyal with a photographer, trying to find women willing to speak to them about rape.
Lauren Wolfe: We’ve heard a lot about rape in Sudan and South Sudan over the years, but I wonder if this is something new, or whether sexualized violence has a long history of being used as a weapon of war there.
Amanda Sperber: I spoke to some analysts who say rape has been a weapon of war in the Sudans forever, but then I spoke to other people who said that a fight used to mean a fight between two men, not an attack on women, and now it’s sort of changed to this sort of ghastly level of violence. There have been so many decades of war that now they’re finding new ways to hurt each other.
LW: What are the conditions like for refugees where you reported?
AS: Nyal is just an area, not an official camp. The World Food Program has a presence and there are a few NGOs but there’s no UNMISS [United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan] protection. It’s being protected by the SPLA-IO [Sudan People’s Liberation Army—in Opposition]. About 50,000 people have fled to this opposition-controlled hub, so they feel protected.
There’s no food. It was probably one of the bleaker places I’ve been and definitely even within South Sudan. The markets are dry. The only things you can buy are cigarettes and sugar. The people seem kind of zonked, dazed. People are eating leaves and the sap that comes from trees, and palm fronds from the swamps. Sometimes someone catches a small fish from the swamps and there’s a fight. There was a shooting that happened as revenge after a failed food distribution. There are no kids in school. You feel like you’re just out in the open.
All the reporting I’d done before was in UNMISS territory. This definitely felt different. If something happened, there was no protection there. I definitely felt more exposed.
LW: I know how hard it can feel wandering around a refugee area trying to speak with women about something as sensitive as rape. How easy or hard was it to find women willing to share their personal stories of violence?
AS: Every single man I’d spoken to before I’d spoken to women said, “It’s definitely happening but women don’t want to talk about it.”
But every single woman we talked to knew someone who’d been raped. If you used the word disturbed, people responded more with that. If you said, “Do know someone who’s been raped?” they’d say, “Yes,” and expand on it. Men would come stand around us and we’d have to shoo them away. The first woman we talked to was raped. We were expecting to be digging around, and find maybe one story.
LW: So you found it surprising how easy it was to find women willing to share their stories?
AS: I’ve never been in a situation in which there was such an outpouring. I’d go to a pretty public place and expect to poke around. To have people be so upfront in the first five minutes was not what we were expecting.
LW: Is there one story in particular that stands out in your mind?
AS: We were talking to one woman who didn’t want to talk on the line to register for food distribution. There were thousands of people on line in scorching hot heat and no water. There were lines for women and children and for men. She met us under a tree. The whole time we were trying to talk, a bunch of kids kept surrounding us. We kept shooing them away. There were no tents. We were squatting under a tree—us and the translator. Then the woman stood up and starting yelling at the kids. The translator told me she said, “I’m trying to tell these people something that might help you and you’re ruining it!”
She was yelling at them, very angry and desperate. She wanted to help her children by speaking to us.
LW: The March UN report said that sexual assaults documented in South Sudan “were characterized by their extreme brutality, with women who tried to resist or just looked their rapist in the eye being killed in some cases.” Did you get a sense in your reporting that the rape has been particularly brutal? If so, why do you think this is the case?
AS: I talked to a woman who’d seen her 5-year-old neighbor raped and killed.
People expected fighting in South Sudan to break out after they gained independence. Even though it was expected, it’s still pretty sad that after not even two years of independence this is happening. There’s not just hatred for each other, there’s a history of violence in general that might be kind of backed up. Though the conflict sort of started out along ethnic lines, the major rapes that happened in Unity State in May 2015—were actually Nuer on Nuer. It wasn’t a tribal/ethnic thing. I think about 8,000 Bul Nuer [a subset of the Nuer people] were recruited by the government to march on Unity and take back land that had been gained by the opposition, but the opposition is generally affiliated with the Nuer side.
LW: It’s not just rape being perpetrated—it’s also mass abductions of women, right? What happens to the women after that?
AS: I met two girls who had been abducted and escaped. I think in general they’re used as cooks and maids and they watch the cattle that have been stolen. And, obviously, as wives, as sex slaves. This is common.
LW: This is partly an ethnic conflict between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Looking back at other conflicts with an ethnic element, rape was a remarkably powerful tool: It was used in the Rwanda genocide to destroy Tutsis and in the Bosnian war to humiliate Muslims. Do you think this is why rape is such an effective weapon at this point in South Sudan?
AS: Rape is always an effective weapon of war. I’m sure that there are ethnic divisions still at play. People know which tribe is affiliated with which side. I think right now, there’s a very clear, systematic use of rape in the war. There’s also a complete level of impunity in the country in general. There’s a place called Yambio [in southwestern South Sudan] which has seen very little fighting before now, but the fighting has been heating up. Nobody really knows what they’re fighting about. But there are reports of huge amounts of rape there. I think there’s just a level of chaos in general. Civil society has crumbled.
LW: What should the international community be doing that it isn’t?
UNMISS has been called out for being insanely terrible. Aid workers all said it’s well known and well documented that women would leave the UN camps to get firewood to cook because they would only get raped and not killed, unlike the men. They would often get raped by soldiers on their way or on their way back, but a lot of times, specifically in Bentiu [in Unity State], they were raped right outside the PoC—and UNMISS did nothing. People could hear them screaming. [Multiple requests for comment from UNMISS went unanswered by the time of publication.]
The UNMISS head of gender [Kasumi Nishigaya] said they’re doing the best that they can with the budget they have. One comment that I found insightful from her was that because in part the government has completely crumbled, there’s very much no future for men right now. She was saying that in some ways, because a lot of men don’t have enough money for cows and marriage, she thinks this rape and stealing comes from a need for men to assert themselves.
LW: That’s something I heard from UN staffers at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan when I was there in 2013—that frustration from men who couldn’t find work or provide for their families was leading to an increase of violence against women.
AS: It was hard for me to not see that as an excuse, but this deserves context. I think people are frustrated. Whether or not rape has been a defining characteristic of war in Sudan and South Sudan, I can’t totally say. But domestic violence in South Sudan in general is extremely high. Women do the brunt of the work. You see women carrying 80 pounds of firewood on their head.
I interviewed someone from [Christian NGO] World Vision about relations in South Sudan and the woman I interviewed said a lot of women would come to her women’s health center and complain about headaches, back pain, and couldn’t sleep—but didn’t connect it with being abused. It was just part of the culture.
LW: Besides rape, what problems are women dealing with because of the war?
AS: Their husbands are getting killed. If they’re going to PoC camps, their husbands will stay back and try to defend the land. Trying to manage five kids alone with no food…all of these people are just really stressed out. It seemed like nobody had time to think about the fact that they were raped or abducted or seen someone being raped. Food, protection, trying to get water—these are the priorities. They’re trying to build up from square one. I don’t think people really have time to think about what they’d seen. I think there are much bigger concerns.
AS: Extremely high. People just seem dazed. They were also just extremely hungry. But, very high. The kids, they weren’t playing and laughing. It just seemed like everyone was waiting for something to happen. It didn’t feel like there was any sort of hope at all. Everyone seemed very desperate for peace but they didn’t seem to have any information about where the peace process is at. It was sort of this existential place, where what you’re waiting for is very tangible—for people to stop fighting—but also very ephemeral: What kind of peace are you waiting for to go home? They say the best way to solve a problem is to make small steps, but it just seemed like everything was wrong, so it seemed like everything they needed to do was so overwhelming. Moving back into house, school—it all just seemed like such a remote possibility.
There are so many generations traumatized. The needs are so basic. They need plastic sheeting for when the rains come. They’re not thinking about treatment for psychological trauma. Especially because so many generations have been raped. Nobody seems to think that it’s a defining characteristic of what was going on, but it clearly is. This indicates that it’s ingrained into a patriarchal society.
LW: Did you sense violence among men and women in Nyal?
AS: No. But it seems that one thing that’s missing is people recording abuses as they happen right now. A level of accountability—that people will be held accountable one day. The government says anyone who raped will be held accountable, but how is that possible? There were 1,300 women raped just in Unity State in five months. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are certainly not going to be thousand of trials.
LW: You said that nobody there felt any hope. Do you feel any hope?
AS: There’s always hope. It’s definitely going to be a long road. Something that confuses me is, I’d love to know what tangible goals there are in terms of development and safety. In terms of something that’s “by and for the people.”
LW: For women in particular, do you have hope for them? And what do you think specifically could help them?
AS: Probably support in every other area—food, development—support for their kids so they would have time to think about stuff for themselves. Or time to reach out for help, or process what happened to them. But I don’t think they’re going to have time to do that while their kids are starving and not in school. A lot of the fathers aren’t around and in general, women just have more responsibility.
LW: Is there anything else you want to add that we’re not talking about?
AS: In general, it’s really frustrating how little South Sudan is covered in the media, and when it is covered it’s covered as a blanket, tragic African story. It doesn’t give the people any dignity and it certainly doesn’t allow for the situation to be understood with any nuance. Without that, tangible solutions are going to be hard to come by.
Even this story, I pitched it and an editor said, “Yeah, people are raping each other in South Sudan. There’s no news hook.”
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Africa, Sexualized violence