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Western Aid Workers Among Those Attacked By Soldiers In South Sudan


There are new details about violence in the world's youngest nation, South Sudan - and a warning. They are disturbing. Human rights groups and victims say South Sudanese soldiers raped and tormented Western aid workers in a recent attack in the nation's capital. They say the U.N. did not come to the victims' rescue. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a report out today, Human Rights Watch describes a harrowing scene less than a mile from a U.N. base in South Sudan's capital. It was July 11 and dozens of men in government uniforms were ransacking a hotel compound, first killing a South Sudanese journalist and then attacking the aid workers living there. Among them was a private aid contractor Jesse Bunch who was hiding in a room with several other Westerners and was shot in the leg through a door.

JESSE BUNCH: They broke down the door. They came in. They began to threaten women. They separated us into groups. They took us outside. We saw where they had shot the local journalist, and then they began to separate women into the various rooms.

KELEMEN: Bunch says he tried to stop them.

BUNCH: And I said, look, these women are here to help you. Don't hurt them, but they continued to take them out of the room. And I heard crying in the other rooms.

KELEMEN: A Human Rights Watch researcher Jehanne Henry says she's spoken to several of those women who did not want to be identified.

JEHANNE HENRY: According to the women I spoke with, the men would say, you know, if you don't have sex with me, you'll have to have sex with all the other soldiers.

KELEMEN: There was really no choice, though, and Henry says one woman said she was raped by at least 15 men. Speaking via Skype, Henry says the ordeal lasted about five hours, and some of the victims were stranded there all night, despite their appeals for help from a nearby U.N. base.

HENRY: Some of them were on the phone with the U.N. and had been texting a number of diplomatic contacts in Juba while the attack was starting, and, you know, had received a, you know, promises - OK, well, we're on it. Well, we'll work on it. But it seems that the rescue missions actually ended up being South Sudanese national security in some cases or a private security company in other cases

KELEMEN: In its account, the Associated Press reports that the U.N. peacekeepers all refused to go to the Terrain hotel compound. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq says the U.N. is still investigating.


FARHAN HAQ: We're reviewing exactly what our response was, and we're trying to see what the deficiencies were.

KELEMEN: At the State Department, spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau says the U.S. ambassador got on the phone right away calling the South Sudanese government to send forces to stop the attack.


ELIZABETH TRUDEAU: There was an immediate response from the U.S. Embassy to identify and dispatch the people who could intervene immediately in the attack.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is now calling for accountability as is the U.N., which says South Sudan must investigate and hold to account the perpetrators. The trouble is this wasn't an isolated incident, says Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch. She says she's documented many cases of rape just outside the U.N. compound when South Sudanese women leave the protected area in search of food.

HENRY: Many Southern Sudanese women who were sheltering at that U.N. base were also snatched and raped by soldiers along that road, so it wasn't only this compound and the international women. It was many, many more South Sudanese.

KELEMEN: The government of South Sudan has been put on notice repeatedly, she says. But the problem persists. She says both sides are committing atrocities and acting with impunity in a conflict that started as a political squabble between the country's president and former vice president. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.