Joy Diko recalls that the government soldiers who besieged her town were young enough to be her children.
Yet the teenagers in South Sudan military uniforms showed no mercy as they swept in to put down a rebellion, raiding homes and raping women and girls for days on end.
The solemn-looking Diko, a 60-year-old widow, escaped unhurt. But she said the young soldiers dragged her teenage daughter outside and took turns raping her as she cried for help. That’s when Diko decided she had seen enough, and they fled.
Now living in this sprawling settlement in neighboring Uganda that is home to over 270,000 refugees, she is one of hundreds of survivors of sexual violence who meet regularly to help each other get beyond their trauma.
Gathered under tarpaulins baking in the sun, the women counsel one another and learn skills such as how to build a kitchen stove from clay. Thirteen such centers focusing on gender-based violence were launched last year by the International Rescue Committee.
Sexual violence in South Sudan has “reached epic proportions,” United Nations investigators have said.
Some of the women say sharing their stories helps them cope with the trauma of sexual violence, but memories are still raw.
“We would see people being killed and sometimes very young children would call a mother of my age to go sexually with him,” said Diko, who crossed into Uganda in September. “I would expect such a kid to be calling me ‘mother,’ but you saw young boys going with women who were old enough to be their mothers.”
The violence of South Sudan’s civil war spread to Diko’s formerly calm town of Yei in August after fresh fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, and government troops pursued rebel leader Riek Machar toward the border. When the army fought for rebel territory, Yei became an epicenter of some of the worst atrocities since the conflict began at the end of 2013.
Gunshots echoed through the town at night and soldiers were said to prowl the streets, looting and raping. A U.N. report in May said pro-government forces killed 114 civilians in Yei last year and raped girls and women in front of their families.
Many of the women at the support centers in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, which in recent months has become the largest in the world, were in Yei when the crackdown by government forces began.
Though all sides in the civil war have been accused of raping and killing, the women who spoke to The Associated Press said their homes were raided by pro-government troops with the facial marks of the Dinka, the ethnic group of President Salva Kiir.
South Sudanese officials have insisted they are taking steps to counter sexual violence, while other officials have denied abuses by government troops.
The civil war often has been fought along ethnic lines, with Dinka pitted against ethnic Nuer rebels loyal to Machar. Other, smaller ethnic groups have been caught in the crossfire.
The Bidi Bidi settlement is largely inhabited by members of minority groups such as the Pojulu and the Kuku. It is hard to find Dinka refugees.
One 32-year-old mother was detained by Dinka soldiers after being separated from her husband, who remains missing. She said she was raped for several days before she was allowed to leave. In September, after she escaped to Uganda, the mother of five tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The women said they have little hope of returning to South Sudan, where the fighting shows no sign of ending.
Lilian Dawa, a refugee from Yei who runs one of the support centers, said victims and survivors of sexual violence value a place to be heard without the risk of being ostracized.
Dawa is 25 and the mother of a toddler. She said her husband was tied to a tree and shot in the chest by South Sudan government forces in 2014. She remembers hiding in her home in Yei last year, too scared to go out and work in her garden because rapists were lurking.
She now walks Bidi Bidi’s dirt paths saying encouraging words to others.
“It’s the young generation that will change the future of South Sudan,” she said. “I believe that if every South Sudanese sends her child to school, it will wipe out the state of hatred.”
Text from the AP news story, South Sudan refugees recall horrific sexual assaults, by Rodney Muhumuza.
Visual artist and Digital Storyteller at The Associated Press