These horrific allegations and more are in a United Nations report
released Friday focusing on South Sudan. It chronicles what it called a "scorched earth policy that deliberately targeted civilians" by those working with and for the African nation's government.
This has been the dark reality since a civil war flared in December 2013, after which all parties, including rebels, allegedly inflicted pain, suffering and humiliation on innocents. South Sudanese forces gained the upper hand in 2015 and, in doing so, began carrying out an inordinate amount of travesties, according to the U.N. report.
The document says that females young and old became pawns in this conflict. Many allegedly became sex slaves -- sometimes in lieu of paying soldiers or affiliated militias -- who were considered property, forced to become "wives" and made to do things like carry looted items and do chores.
"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 the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, whose office outlined the allegations in "searing, devastating detail." "Yet it has been more or less off the international radar."
Responding Friday, a spokesman for South Sudan's military claimed the U.N. report was not "genuine."
Gen. Malak Ayuen said that his army has not seen reports of human rights violations, adding that anyone found to have committed such acts will be investigated and brought to justice. For now, though, Ayuen insisted that South Sudan's government is working toward finalizing a peace agreement outlined last August.
"Our mission is to protect the people of South Sudan," the military spokesman said. "This is what we're trying to do."
Violence plagues world's newest country
Less than five years ago
, many around the world viewed South Sudan as a success story.
Celebrations erupted in its capital, Juba, with people honking their horns and waving new flags to toast what was then (and still is) the world's newest country. This came after years of often horrific violence -- evidenced by what the United States and International Criminal Court, in charging Sudan President Omar al-Bashir
, characterized as genocide in Darfur -- that ended with a peace deal and overwhelming vote by South Sudan natives to become independent
Things fell apart in 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his fired deputy, Riek Machar, of trying to oust him in a coup. Hostilities broke out along tribal lines with the Nuer community backing rebel leader Machar, while the Dinka tribe aligned with the President.
The violence forced more than 2 million South Sudanese from their homes and killed tens of thousands more. And stories soon emerged of cannibalism
, gang rapes and children forced into the military, with an African Union report circulated last year accusing all sides.
The U.N. report released Friday echoes that storyline, noting "serious violations of international humanitarian law, gross violations of international human rights law and human rights abuses have been perpetrated by all parties to the conflict."
These include attacks on innocents, rape, arbitrary detentions and abductions, all of which "may amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity." The report states, "Civilians were singled out on the basis of their ethnicity, and shot on the streets, in their homes, while seeking sanctuary in churches and hospitals, and in official and unofficial places of deprivation of liberty."
Report: Rapists killed women who looked in their eyes
According to the United Nations -- whose own peacekeepers in Africa, as well as some from France
, have been accused of rape in the Central African Republic
-- the actions of the South Sudanese government, its military and its allies were particularly egregious last year.
The U.N. documented more than 1,300 reports -- even though many more accounts may have gone untold -- of rape in one of South Sudan's 10 states, Unity, between April and September (one month after the peace framework accord was reached).
Witnesses said that some women were killed for resisting, others for simply looking into their rapist's eyes.
One woman recounted being stripped naked and raped by five soldiers along a road and in front of her children; then get raped in bushes by three more men; then to come back and find her children missing. Another recalled being tied to a tree after her husband was killed, then being forced to watch 10 soldiers rape her 15-year-old daughter.
"During SPLA attacks," the report added, using the acronyms for South Sudan's army, "women and girls were considered a commodity and were taken along with civilian property as the soldiers moved through the villages."
60 suffocated to death in a container, reports say
There wasn't just sexual violence. The U.N. report also documented stories of civilians being hanged from trees, cut to pieces and burned alive.
In a report also recently chronicled by Amnesty International
, 60 cattlekeepers were taken by South Sudanese soldiers who confiscated their livestock, tied them up, then locked them in a steel container with no windows.
That container was brought to a former Catholic Church compound in the town of Leer, where South Sudanese troops guarded it. "According to credible information," the U.N. report states, "all men died within one or two days of being detained, with the exception of one survivor."
South Sudan's government takes "anything like this very seriously," a spokesman said of this allegation, before insisting that "our forces did not commit any human rights violations."
"There are a number of bandits and lone militia forces that are active in that area," government spokesman Ateny Wek said. "Our forces do not kill civilians.
"Occasionally there may be accidental deaths as a result of crossfire, but the South Sudanese army is not responsible for this heinous crime. We intend to investigate who is responsible and bring them to justice."