JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN – Since the start of South Sudan’s civil war in 2013, there has been a massive increase in allegations of rape, notably against government and rebel troops.
In the context of conflict, it can be difficult to seek out justice. But that hasn’t stopped Bishop Paul Yugusuk of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan.
On February 14, he was driving to Juba when he received a call from a distressed member of his church. He was told that the village of Kubi, located 9 miles (15km) to the southeast of the capital, Juba, and home to about 3,000 people, had been attacked by a group of army soldiers. He rushed back and found a village that was nearly deserted, apart from a number of women and girls who said they had been raped. The attacks took place after a deadly assault on a military convoy in the area.
Bishop Yugusuk was able to take four women who were in dire need of medical help to the hospital in Juba. But he says there were many other victims who refused to speak about the incident, because of the stigma surrounding rape.
Soon after, the bishop publicly called for the perpetrators to be arrested. The army formed a committee to investigate the crimes, which led to the arrest of four soldiers. No trial date has been set as of yet.
Women & Girls spoke with Bishop Yugusuk in Juba about his campaign for justice for the victims of the Kubi attacks.
Women & Girls Hub: You’ve played an important role in this case since the start. What is your motivation?
Bishop Yugusuk: First, I’ve been part of this struggle [the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’ struggle for independence from Sudan] for a long time. [Editor’s Note: When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the SPLA became the new country’s regular army.] We supported the SPLA movement because we believed it was working for a just cause.
But above all, because of the nature of my work and my love for my country, I have to stand up for these women and girls.
I’m calling on the leadership of the army to [do the same] so that the actions of individual soldiers do not tarnish the image of the whole institution.
We need reforms in our military as recommended in the peace agreement. We want to see a good army, an army that protects people and the nation. We still love [the army]. They are our people and we’ll pray for them, but they need to change.
Women & Girls: What is the current situation in Kubi village?
Yugusuk: Some people are back in Kubi, but [are living] with great fear. I was told that during their raid, the soldiers threatened to come back. This has created fear in the minds of women, and the communities are scared. Youths [young men] are leaving for refugee camps in Uganda, leaving behind women and old people.
I’m even trying to relocate the village school to Juba, so that girls can go to school there. They’re traumatized in the village, so keeping them there won’t help them focus on their education.
Women & Girls: What do you think is the impact on the rape survivors?
Yugusuk: Traditions demand that certain rituals need to be carried out before they can be accepted back into the family. The tradition requires that the one who has committed the rape must come and participate in the ceremony. But how would the perpetrator do this in this circumstance, when he is nowhere to be seen? So these women will suffer isolation in the community, I’ll tell you that.
When it comes to young girls, this will affect their future chances of getting married. Their self-esteem, too, is already affected. They [are] seen as outcast by their friends.
These girls are many, but we have [spoken to] only a few. The [other] girls won’t come out to talk about this because of the cultural practices that I have mentioned. I have been working with the Kubi community to help encourage these women and girls to come out and talk so they can get help, especially medical help. I want them to be checked for sexually transmitted diseases. That’s our big worry.
Women & Girls: After your campaign, the army formed a committee to investigate what happened in Kubi. This has led to the arrest of some of the military personnel that were accused of these abuses. What do you think of the response of the army leadership?
Yugusuk: We appreciate the investigation process, although we are still uncomfortable. We want to see more investigation into the matter and more culprits arrested.
The military is trying to get an out-of-court settlement [in a military court martial].
We can settle other [types of] cases out of court, but not rape. We want to follow this up and ensure that justice is done in this particular case so that the people have confidence in their military and in the courts. This will prevent something like this from happening again. But if we settle this by compromise, it won’t give a good example to the community. There is no way you can compensate for rape.
Women & Girls: How do you tackle issues of sexual and gender-based violence with your congregation?
Yugusuk: I keep on talking to people about respect to women. But the people who did this were not part of the community. These were soldiers that came from somewhere else. So I don’t only talk to the community, but also to the army. I have about seven army bases in my area, and I have created chapels in these bases. I go there and pray with them. We use the pulpit in their chapels to talk to them about important things, like how to respect human beings.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.