Survivors of South Sudan’s Terrain attack demand justice

Juba — In July 2016, during clashes in the capital Juba, South Sudanese soldiers broke into the Terrain Hotel, a compound popular with international workers. During the violent rampage that followed, a South Sudanese journalist was shot and killed, and five international aid workers were raped.

Now the survivors are demanding just compensation, but say the government has ignored their claims.

Last September, a military judge sentenced 10 soldiers to jail for the horrific attacks, in a trial that was widely seen as a test of South Sudan’s ability to hold its military to account. The military tribunal did award some compensation, but survivors say it falls well below international standards. The judge awarded $2.5-million to the Terrain compound, while rape and abuse survivors were give $4 000 each. The family of the murdered journalist, John Gatluak, received 51 cows (each cow is worth approximately $600).

The survivors told the Mail & Guardian that they appealed the compensation in October, but said that since then the government has ignored their claims, telling them that it can’t find the original case file. According to South Sudanese law, the file is needed in order to advance the appeal.

The levels of compensation are “dismissive, shocking and unacceptable,” said Jesse Bunch, who was beaten, shot in the leg, and incurred permanent spinal damage during the attack. At the time, Bunch worked for Tetra Tech Management Systems International, a US government contractor. Awards usually cover all medical costs, counseling, lost income and pain and suffering, he said.

The survivors are demanding to be compensated according to international standards. These include the establishment of a victims’ fund for anyone beaten, raped or abused; and a fund for the families of anyone killed.

International observers who once hailed Terrain’s trial as a step in the right direction for a country where soldiers rape with impunity, are “dismayed” by the appeal’s standstill, said a United States embassy official.

“(We) hoped that the trial would precipitate more action by the government of South Sudan to hold accountable those responsible for committing, on a massive scale, human rights violations and abuses, including sexual and gender based violence,” said the official. The US said it will raise the issue of the survivors’ access to their case file with South Sudan’s government in both Washington and in Juba.

Rape has been used as a weapon of war throughout South Sudan’s five-year conflict, which has killed almost 400 000 people. While a fragile peace deal was signed almost six months ago, sexual violence committed with “pervasive impunity” continues across the country, according to a report in February by the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Mission in South Sudan. At least 134 women and girls were raped, including some as young as eight, between September and December last year in northern Unity state.

The government should find a way for the appeal to move forward while allowing the victims to pursue justice, said one human rights lawyer.

“The level of trauma that a victim of sexual assault goes through is unbearable. Rape is dehumanising and degrading and the victims deserve fair and reasonable compensation,” said Jackline Nasiwa, national director for the Centre for Inclusive Governance Peace and Justice a local non profit organization.

Deputy army spokesman Santo Domic Chol didn’t know whether the court had lost the case file but told the Mail & Guardian that it shouldn’t infringe on the victims’ right to appeal.

The office of the president, the ministry of justice and the supreme court were unable to comment. All claimed to have no knowledge of the appeal’s status. The survivors’ lawyer also wouldn’t comment on the case.

The survivors are calling on South Sudan’s government to show that it cares about delivering justice and acknowledge the conflict’s effect on the country’s civilians.

“The courts need to find a way to make a serious attempt to understand and recognise this impact. Not just for a group of privileged aid workers but for their own citizens who they are there to represent,” said one Australian survivor, who was gang-raped for several hours by 15 men and threatened with execution during the attacks at Terrain. The M&G is not using her name to protect her identity.

“I am fighting for the compensation not for the money itself, but for the principle,” said an Italian aid worker who was the only foreign survivor to testify in person. “The compensation given to rape victims whose lives have been destroyed has been negligible and it’s being treated like a minor crime. It makes me feel re-victimised and it diminishes the strength of the verdict.”

Sam Mednick
Sam Mednick
Sam is a freelance journalist and the South Sudan Correspondent for the Associated Press. She’s worked and lived all over the world including Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and the Middle East covering conflict, post conflict and development stories. Sam writes for the Associated Press, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Devex, News Deeply, USA Today, Verge Magazine among other publications. When she’s not in the field, Sam hosts a weekly talk radio show, in Barcelona, as well as the Happy Melly podcast, which she hosts and produces.
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