One hundred and twenty-five women and girls have been raped, whipped and clubbed in attacks so shocking that some aid workers in South Sudan say they are left speechless.
Doctors Without Borders on Saturday said the “dramatic increase” in sexual violence occurred over 10 days, between Nov. 19 and Thursday, as the women and girls walked to a food distribution site in Bentiu in Unity state. By contrast, the medical charity’s Bentiu clinic treated 104 survivors of sexual assault in the first 10 months of this year.
Sexual violence has been widespread in South Sudan’s civil war, and even under a recent peace deal humanitarians have warned of higher rates of sexual assault as growing numbers of desperate people try to reach aid.
A midwife with Doctors Without Borders who treated some of the survivors said those targeted include pregnant and elderly women and girls as young as 10.
“What is happening since last week is indescribable. I haven’t got words for it,” Ruth Okello told The Associated Press. The women were robbed of clothing and shoes, and even their ration cards for food distribution were seized and destroyed, the aid group said.
The United Nations mission chief, David Shearer, said the “abhorrent” attacks were carried out by young men in military uniforms and civilian clothing. The U.N. has increased patrols in the area and launched an investigation while urging local authorities to hold the attackers accountable.
South Sudan’s government was not immediately available for comment.
The U.N.’s World Food Program said that while there was a distribution underway in Bentiu for displaced people, the women and girls weren’t due to receive food assistance until the following week. WFP said it was looking into whether it can move distribution sites closer to communities in the area.
A new report by the United Nations panel of experts monitoring sanctions on South Sudan says it remains “extremely concerned” about the continued high level of conflict-related sexual violence, despite the peace deal signed in September.