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Rape reaches 'epic proportions' in war-torn South Sudan

Sexual violence has reached "epic proportions" in South Sudan during its civil war, the UN Commission on Human Rights said.

Reported incidents of sexual or gender-based violence rose 60% last year, the group found.

A UN humanitarian aid survey conducted in December found 70% of women sheltering in UN camps in the capital, Juba, had been raped since the conflict began.

Mundri, a city of 47,000 people in Amadi state, has been called the epicentre of the problem. Aid organisations blame this on a recent increase in fighting between rebels and government troops - the latest shift of the three-year conflict in an already devastated nation.

One young woman who endured months of sexual assaults after being held by rebels said she did not expect to become embroiled in South Sudan's conflict.

"I just came back to visit my home and I lost my dreams," the 23-year-old said in an interview earlier this month. "If I talk about it, I just cry."

She had been visiting her family in the summer of 2015, with plans to return to school in the capital, Juba. Instead, she was abducted by rebels loyal to an opposition group calling itself MTN, after a popular African telephone company.

Their catchphrase riffs on the company's slogan, taunting: "We're everywhere you go."

She was taken from her mother's hut by rebels who had been searching for her uncle, who had been accused of conspiring with government forces. At their headquarters, she was charged, tried and convicted for her uncle's alleged crimes.

For the next 16 months, she was forced to live in large, muddy pits infested with snakes. Subsisting on only meagre amounts of food, she wasted away, and her hair fell out. Eventually, she was released in December after she became ill.

"They told me to get medicine and then changed their minds and told me to leave and never come back," she said.

The woman became pregnant during her ordeal, and had a child, which she named Barack Obama. "I still have hope," she said. "I just don't even know where to start."

Mundri has many such stories. According to a recent Inter-Agency assessment by international and local organisations focused on gender-based violence, 29 rape cases were reported in Mundri between August and October.

Local organisations say the number is likely to be double that, but most incidents go unreported because of the stigma surrounding rape.

James Labadia, founder of local women's aid body Maya, said: "Realistically, it's more like over 50 cases."

He has been working with rape survivors for several years but said things have never been so dire. "The end of 2016 was the worst quarter I've ever seen," he said.

The group received funds from the US Agency for International Development last year, and while Mr Labadia plans to seek more money, the possibility is in jeopardy thanks to US president Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts.

Reports of rape and abduction are rampant on both sides in Mundri, which is under government control while neighbouring villages are held by the opposition.

South Sudanese officials insist they are taking steps to counter sexual violence. Things in Mundri are slowly improving, said Abokato Kenyi, the minister of education, gender and social welfare in Amadi state.

"The government has put out a new law that any soldier who misbehaves will now be punished," Mr Kenyi said. As of January, he said, anyone convicted of rape will be sentenced to prison.

During the town's first International Women's Day celebration since 2014 earlier this month, Mr Kenyi called on men and women to work together to combat sexual assault.

But survivors say what they really want is to rebuild their lives.

Since returning to the community, the 23-year-old rape victim has received psychosocial support from Maya's staff and joined a women's group. They are launching business initiatives such as selling soap and baked goods in the hope of helping women become self-sufficient.

Ultimately, the woman's dream is to return to school and become a nurse.

"I can't give up," she said.

"I need to continue going to school and fighting for my rights. When you get the woman, you get the nation."

AP

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