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In this Jan. 13, 2014 file photo, South Sudanese government soldiers wait to board trucks in Juba to head to the front lines of the conflict with rebel forces.Jake Simkin/The Associated Press

An inquiry by the African Union has found horrific evidence of war crimes by government and rebel militias in South Sudan, including massacres, rapes, beheadings, forced cannibalism, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.

The long-awaited report was released this week after nearly two years of brutal daily violence in South Sudan, sometimes described as a civil war but more accurately a relentless wave of massacres by all sides, usually targeted against ethnic foes.

In the first three days of the conflict alone – from Dec. 15 to 18, 2013 – an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people from the Nuer ethnicity were killed, according to testimony at the inquiry.

Since then, the bloodshed has continued with barely a pause, involving both Nuer and Dinka perpetrators, while ceasefires were repeatedly ignored. Most of the killings were deliberately organized by militias or were revenge killings, the inquiry found. Most of the victims were unarmed civilians. The inquiry saw mass graves and lists of the dead, among other evidence.

Even before the outbreak of killings in December, 2013, South Sudan had suffered 50 years of war as it fought for independence. But the killings in the past two years may have been worse than anything in the previous half-century, the inquiry said.

"The stories and reports of the human toll of the violence and brutality have been heart-wrenching: reports of people being burnt in places of worship and hospitals, mass burials, women of all ages raped, both elderly and young, women described how they were brutally gang-raped and left unconscious and bleeding," the report said.

"People were not simply shot, they were subjected, for instance, to beatings before being compelled to jump into a lit fire. The commission heard of some captured people being forced to eat human flesh or forced to drink human blood. All these accounts evoke the memories of some of the worst episodes of human-rights violations on the continent, including in South Sudan itself."

Although the government of President Salva Kiir has always alleged that the bloodshed was a result of a coup attempt and rebellion by vice-president Riek Machar, the inquiry found that in reality the conflict began when fighting erupted within the Presidential Guards in the capital, Juba.

"Dinka soldiers, members of the Presidential Guards and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes," the inquiry said. "It is reported that some were arrested and killed elsewhere. Police stations and security installations were alleged to be sites of killings. Some were allegedly suffocated in containers. Survivors were shot."

A separate report, by inquiry member Mahmood Mamdani, reported similar evidence of forced cannibalism and other cases of "gratuitous degradation." It quoted one witness as saying: "I have seen people being forced to eat other humans. Soldiers kill one of you and ask the other to eat the dead one. Women are raped, people burnt."

Rape was routinely used as a weapon of war, according to Mr. Mamdani's report, which quoted one witness describing how 10 women were shot in the vagina because they refused to be raped.

Much of the violence was organized by militias that were financed or recruited by South Sudan's vast army or other security forces, including those of the President, Mr. Mamdani's report said.

The two reports were researched during the inquiry's work last year, yet the African Union had refused to release them until now – partly because it said the reports might have complicated the work of peace negotiations. But those negotiations have never led to a successful ceasefire, and the AU finally released the reports this week.

The inquiry called for an African-led internationally supported court to bring justice to the perpetrators of the war crimes. But this could be difficult because South Sudan does not belong to any international courts, including the International Criminal Court, and the African Union has not yet obtained full approval from its members for a functioning court of its own.

While the violence continues, South Sudan's humanitarian crisis is growing far worse. Nearly four million people – more than a third of the population – are unable to meet their food needs because of severe food insecurity, a study last week reported. There has been an 80-per-cent increase in hunger levels in the past year, it said.

Among the hungry are an estimated 30,000 people in war-ravaged Unity State who are in a catastrophic state and on the verge of famine, the report said.

"We hear heartbreaking stories of civilians being caught up in a vicious cycle – fleeing their homes and making the treacherous journey to safer locations, only to be faced with starvation as aid organizations are blocked due to fighting," said a statement by Zlatko Gegic, the Oxfam director in South Sudan.

"Many children have arrived alone, their mothers killed in the fighting or during the journey, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, surviving on plant roots and whatever else they can forage."