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In South Sudan's civil war, sexual violence by both government and rebels is a regular occurrence. 'It's no longer a gun,' an orphanage director says. 'It becomes another way of damaging people's morale and their community.' Mothers raising children born of rape must press on in a judgmental society, as Tanya Birkbeck reports from Juba

On the day her life changed forever, four South Sudanese government soldiers at a checkpoint gave Mary a choice: Have sex with us or we will kill you.

It was July, 2016, during the violent and chaotic days around the fifth anniversary of the independence of South Sudan.

"We told them, 'You are better to rape us rather than kill us, we want to go back to our children,'" she recalls.

She didn't know at the time, but the attack left her with another child: a baby born of rape.

The world's newest country was born in 2011 amidst boundless optimism. But since 2013, South Sudan has spiralled into a complex civil war among government forces and several rebel groups, and sexual violence has become one of the weapons of choice.

Rights groups say armed men on all sides of the conflict use rape to degrade and demoralize those who are perceived to be supporting their enemies. Thousands of women have been sexually assaulted, and some have given birth to children of rape whose own future is as uncertain as that of the country itself.

On the day of the attack, Mary was with one other woman, both members of the Nuer ethnic group.

At first, Mary resisted. One of the soldiers hit her hard in the side with his gun, causing an injury that still plagues her today. She realized the death threat was serious and submitted. Two of the soldiers raped her.

Tribally motivated fighting and sexual violence have become a regular occurrence. But it wasn't supposed to be this way.

For decades before independence, the dozens of tribes in South Sudan were united by a common enemy: the Sudanese government in the north. Southerners, who mostly practise Christianity or traditional religions, were resentful of Khartoum's attempts to impose sharia law and an Arab identity.

Many people in the south also felt they were not adequately benefiting from oil revenue, despite the fact that the majority of the oil fields in the former united Sudan lie south of the border.

After years of guerrilla warfare, a peace agreement was reached and Southerners voted nearly unanimously for independence in 2011. South Sudanese were not the only ones celebrating – Western interests also welcomed the prospect of a nominally Christian, democratic ally in the region.

But it didn't take long for the dream to disintegrate. Fighting began in December, 2013, months after President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer. Mr. Kiir accused Mr. Machar of plotting a coup – which Mr. Machar denies.

Under international pressure, Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar reluctantly signed a peace agreement in August, 2015, and, according to the implementation terms, Mr. Machar and his troops returned to Juba – the country's capital – in April, 2016.

But on July 8, 2016, the fragile entente crumbled and Juba was once again filled with gunfire. Within a few days, Mr. Kiir's soldiers had driven Mr. Machar and his forces out of the city.

International organizations scrambled to evacuate their employees. Government troops stormed the Terrain Hotel, a compound that was home to dozens of foreign-aid workers and contractors. A local journalist was killed and at least five expat workers were raped in the attack.

Armed men attacked World Food Programme warehouses and looted massive amounts food destined for starving people across the country.

It was in this chaos that Mary and her friend ventured outside of the protective fence of the camp where they lived, in search of food. (The Globe and Mail has changed the names of women victims of sexual violence to protect their identity.) In a country where polygamy is commonly practised, Mary was also caring for the children of her husband's three other wives. Delivery of food aid was disrupted and the whole family was hungry.

The two women managed to find some sorghum, a grain that's used to make starchy porridge-like food, but on their way back to the camp, soldiers at a checkpoint stopped them.

They were not the only ones raped at that time: The United Nations Mission in South Sudan documented 217 cases of rape in Juba between July 8-25, 2016.

Mary holds her baby, a child born of rape, in the United Nations Protection of Civilians site in Juba. Mary was the victim of sexual violence perpetrated by government soldiers during the violent uprising in Juba in July 2016.

Mary: "People look at me as if I am not good"

As Mary tells her story, the baby girl who was born in April, 2017, lies quietly in her mother's arms, occasionally nestling at her breast. Mary is sitting in the mud-walled house of a local female leader, where she is sheltered from the prying eyes of community members who often scorn her because of the child.

Mary is from Bentiu, in Unity State, near South Sudan's oil fields. Government soldiers and rebels have battled for control of the key strategic territory since the beginning of the civil war, and civilians who are perceived to be supportive of either side have been targeted by troops. Along with her husband and their children, she fled the fighting and took refuge at a United Nations base in Juba.

Mary and her family – as with tens of thousands of other Nuer citizens – live in a UN Protection of Civilians camp on the edge of the city, with at least a partial sense of security from the blue-helmeted peacekeepers patrolling the perimeter of the settlement.

When Mary told her husband about the rape, he took her to a clinic at the camp where she was given medicine to prevent HIV, but no emergency contraception.

Two months later, she was sick and her monthly period had stopped. She knew she was pregnant from the rape.

"The first thing that came to my mind was abortion, but I was advised by people not to do that."

Abortion is illegal in South Sudan and many Christians there consider it to be a sin. It wasn't Mary's choice to continue the pregnancy, but nevertheless, her husband left her, taking the children from his other wives with him.

"People look at me as if I am not good because I brought a baby from the rape," says Mary, who was hospitalized for depression during the pregnancy.

Abandoned by her husband, she struggles to provide for the three children who were born in the marriage.

"Their father is doing nothing for them; he doesn't even buy shoes or clothes for them."

Her feelings toward the new baby are conflicted. "Even though I gave birth to her … no one will help me in bringing her up. I feel upset when the baby cries. I don't have money to buy milk, that is another problem to me."

A UN report on the violence in Juba in July, 2016, says both government and rebel forces were involved in rape. But it says most cases of sexual violence were committed by armed men associated with the government.

In an Amnesty International report on sexual violence in South Sudan, published in July, 2017, local human-rights groups interviewed dozens of women who had been raped.

"They spoke to me in Dinka, saying that I must be a Nuer woman. They told me, 'You woman from Dr. Riek [Machar] supporters … we are going to show you today,'" said one woman quoted in the report, who said seven soldiers raped her at around the same time as Mary was raped.

The soldiers forced her to have oral, anal and vaginal sex, and told her she would become pregnant from the rape, she said in the report.

Amnesty International's regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said the testimonies prove that the rapes were not just the byproduct of a lawless situation.

"This is premeditated sexual violence on a massive scale. Women have been gang-raped, sexually assaulted with sticks and mutilated with knives," Muthoni Wanyeki said.

The shock waves from that spate of sexual violence spread far.

Elisa: "I felt like killing myself"

More than 300 kilometres by road from Juba, across the Ugandan border in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, Elisa cradles her own baby girl, who was born in March, 2017.

In July, 2016, the then-23-year-old was living with her sister in the Tomping neighbourhood of Juba, working as a cleaner for a Chinese company and mourning the deaths of her parents.

The elderly couple was killed in June of that year when fighting broke out in Kajo Keji, in South Sudan's Equatoria region between Juba and the Ugandan border. Elisa still doesn't know exactly what happened to them.

Still raw from the loss, Elisa says she was at home on a Sunday in early July when, in the middle of the afternoon, soldiers broke through the fence. They asked her sister for money and her sister gave them some cash. Then they came into a room where she was resting.

The soldiers asked Elisa for money as well, but she didn't have any.

"One decided now to push me down. They put me under gunpoint. I cried out for help. When my sister was coming to rescue me, they [shot] her dead. Then later, those people slept with me."

Elisa says there were more than 10 soldiers in all. She doesn't know how many raped her, because she passed out from the fear and pain.

She's not sure how long it was until she woke up, with her sister's corpse beside her and her toddler niece and nephew crying nearby.

She gathered up the two children and went to the Red Cross. She told them she was raped, but says she wasn't given emergency medical treatment.

"A friend told me there is a convoy from Uganda, and they told me they were going to pick some of the Ugandans to go back. I decided to join the convoy. They brought me up to the border."

Elisa and her sister's two children became part of what is now, according to the UN's refugee agency, the world's largest refugee camp. At the beginning of 2016, Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda didn't even exist. Now, it is a sprawling, dusty settlement with thousands of makeshift plastic shelters and hastily constructed thatched-roof mud huts.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than a million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, and 270,000 people in Bidi Bidi camp alone.

Here, Elisa and the children found physical safety, but she was emotionally tortured. For weeks, she waited to find out if she had contracted HIV from the rape.

The result came out negative, but at the same time, doctors told her she was carrying the baby of one of her rapists.

"At first, I wanted them to help me remove the pregnancy. I asked from the health centre. But they did not accept it. They said it is not possible. I felt like killing myself."

Despite her depression, Elisa was still responsible for her niece and nephew. Uganda's refugee policy allows each family to have a plot of land, so Elisa settled in the place allocated to her and built a small mud house by hand.

"I laid the bricks by myself. I dug the latrine also by myself," she says, sitting on a mattress on the floor of the house, a green fabric sheet that serves as a door fluttering in the wind.

Even though she did the construction alone, her structures have more elaborate finishing than most of her neighbours. The house is painted in a simple yet attractive yellow and black design, with a thick grass-thatched roof. Several metres away, the mud bricks of the latrine have been laid in a pattern allowing for ventilation.

But even as she settled into her new home, Elisa remained distraught by the pregnancy. She tried twice, unsuccessfully, to abort the baby herself – first when she was four months pregnant and then, at six months.

The second attempt landed her in the hospital until the baby girl was born at close to full term.

Elisa named her baby Mercy, "because it was through God's mercy that I survived from death during the rape."

Like Mary, her feelings toward the baby are mixed. When asked if she loves the infant, she pauses for a very long time.

"I do. But not to that extent," she says.

"Sometimes I don't feel good. But there is nothing I can do. So I just keep her like that."

Elisa has found some comfort in counselling from a social worker with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a U.S.-based humanitarian organization. But bearing the child of rape has stigma, even among the refugees of Bidi Bidi, where almost everyone has witnessed the horror of the war.

"When I talked to a friend who was there to help me, what she did was to laugh at me, and then I see it is useless even to tell my problem out loud to somebody," she says.

Elisa earns some money by going to town to buy fish and maize, which she then resells in the refugee camp. She's managed to buy a mattress for the hut and some clothes for the children, but she struggles to have hope for the future in a place where most women are dependent on a husband to support them.

"I don't think there is someone who can marry someone who has been raped by so many men like that," she laments.

Lillian Aloyo is a response officer with the IRC who counsels traumatized women at Bidi Bidi.

"I tell them, it's not their fault, this situation they are in, they didn't ask for it. And many of the women have also gone through the same situation they are facing."

Morning Glory, a baby born of rape during the violent uprising in Juba in July 2016, is held in the shelter where she is currently being cared for. Morning Glory’s mother was raped by men in uniform and is unfit to care for Morning Glory due to mental instability.

At the orphanage: 'The relatives didn't show up'

Back in Juba, at an orphanage, workers are caring for yet another baby girl, also born in April, 2017. They call her Morning Glory. Like Mary and Elisa, Morning Glory's mother was raped.

The director of the orphanage, who doesn't want to reveal her name or location for fear of reprisals from the government, says Morning Glory's mother was raped by men in uniform. The orphanage has taken responsibility for the baby because the mother is suffering from a mental-health disorder.

After a couple of months at the orphanage, Morning Glory is chubby and happy. Her caregiver is hesitant to disturb her nap, but when she enters the nursery, the baby is gurgling in her crib and happy to be passed from one set of loving arms to another.

"Usually we have extended family who can look after a baby of this age, but unfortunately the relatives didn't show up," says the orphanage director. She suspects it may be because the family knows the baby was born of rape.

Because of the mental state of Morning Glory's mother, it's impossible to say for sure who raped her. "Women can tell you men in uniform, but those uniforms can also be bought in the market, so they may not necessarily be soldiers," says the director.

Rape and unwanted pregnancy is "what the war has become," she says.

"It's no longer a gun. It becomes another way of damaging people's morale and their community, [because] 'We have gotten a hold of your women and now they are having babies from us.'"

Amnesty International says the South Sudanese government must stop what the rights organization labels an "epidemic" of sexual violence. It is calling for investigations and trials for those soldiers who are implicated.

The report makes recommendations for the government to "initiate prompt, effective and impartial investigations into allegations of violations … including sexual violence," and to "bring those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice in open, accessible civilian courts."

Thirteen soldiers are currently on trial in a military court for the rape of the foreign-aid workers at the Terrain Hotel, but there has been no such trial for those who raped South Sudanese women during the same period of time.

Government and army spokesmen have repeatedly said soldiers who are caught raping civilians are punished, but they dismiss the testimonies of survivors, saying there is no way to prove they are telling the truth.

Survivors of rape as well as community leaders have also pointed fingers at UN peacekeepers for failing to prevent sexual assaults from happening mere metres away from their observation posts. The Kenyan commander of the peacekeeping force was sent home in November, 2016, after a UN report found that its response during the heavy fighting four months before was "chaotic and ineffective" and failed in its mandate to protect civilians.

The head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said changes have been made since then. David Shearer says peacekeepers are now enforcing a 200-metre weapons-free zone around the Protection of Civilians camps.

"We got down to see what the needs of women are in the camps, and try to work with them and provide them protection. I'm not saying it's perfect, but it's a dramatic difference from what it was a year ago," said Mr. Shearer.

But none of that changes anything for Mary, still living in a plastic shelter in the camp, the baby girl wrapped in a blanket, cradled on her knee.

She named the new baby Kumawicni, which means "between two countries," because the father comes from one tribe and the mother from another. There is no father's name to put on the birth certificate.

Kumawicni is a child of war. But still, her mother has hope – that one day her daughter may live in a country where South Sudan's warring tribes can live together in peace.

"Maybe some day she can do something good for the nation," says Mary.

The author's reporting in South Sudan was made possible through a fellowship from the International Women's Media Foundation