PALORINYA, Uganda (AP) — In the bushland of northern Uganda, a recently arrived refugee from South Sudan describes how soldiers back home detained and tortured him for two months for reading an article online.
Tall and thin as a reed, dirt coating his tattered T-shirt and jeans, the young man is one of more than 100,000 people who have fled a single South Sudan county in just three months as civil war continues amid warnings of genocide. The surge of more than half a million South Sudan refugees into Uganda since July is Africa's largest refugee crisis.
Like others who huddle in rapidly growing refugee camps in Uganda, the man spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation and the possibility that South Sudanese intelligence agents circulated among them.
When they arrive after walking across the border, the refugees from Kajo-Keji county "report killings of civilians, sexual violence and fears of arrest and abduction as their main reasons for fleeing," United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters recently.
Interviews with people from Kajo-Keji now living in the Palorinya refugee camp, and U.N. documents obtained by The Associated Press, describe multiple human rights violations committed by South Sudanese soldiers against civilians.
The man in the tattered jeans told the AP that after telling a friend about an article online that described alleged power grabs by South Sudan President Salva Kiir's Dinka ethnic group, soldiers came searching for him.
"Who told you these things?" the soldiers asked. They didn't believe he had read the article online because they hadn't heard of the internet, the refugee said.
"They kept on forcing me to say who really told me this news. All they wanted to get from me was to get to some other person, to get more guys into jail," he said.
He spent two months in jail, unfed except for the food his family brought, he said. After paying the equivalent of roughly $300 he was released and fled to the Palorinya camp.
Before fighting broke out in Juba in July, Kajo-Keji had been a quiet county of about 200,000 people in Central Equatoria state. It was part of South Sudan's breadbasket, predominantly inhabited by the Kuku ethnic group.
After July, the civil war that had been raging since December 2013 came to Kajo-Keji. A number of rebel groups emerged in the area affiliated with opposition leader Riek Machar, who is now in exile in South Africa.
Civilians found themselves caught in the middle of fighting.
Seven refugees in the Palorinya camp interviewed by AP said they knew someone who had been the victim of sexual violence. Many said South Sudanese soldiers targeted them because of suspicions that they supported the rebels.
"Someone will be arrested and taken to the barracks," one woman said. "When someone is taken, there is no coming back. You don't know if that person is being killed."
When a team of U.N. officials visited Kajo-Keji earlier this month, they found its main town almost entirely silent during weekdays, according to internal reports. Victims and witnesses told stories of rape, theft, abuse of power and the murder of friends and family members accused of supporting the rebel forces.
A respected elder pleaded with U.N. peacekeepers, saying civilians were "captive on our own land." The elder told U.N. officials: "When are we going to receive the required help and be protected from being harmed by our national army? We need imminent protection before it's too late. If we get killed because we told you the truth today, so be it."
More than 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers operate in South Sudan. But the peacekeeping mission "has been prevented from verifying allegations of, for example, government forces killing civilians, arbitrarily arresting those gathered in groups and restricting the movements of civilians in Kajo-Keji," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote recently to the U.N. Security Council in a confidential report obtained by AP.
South Sudanese soldiers also blocked a U.N. patrol from going to Kajo-Keji to assess security, Guterres wrote.
Most members of the army are from the Dinka tribe of the president, Kiir. The U.N. has warned that the ethnic divisions in South Sudan put the country at risk of genocide.
Some refugees do blame rebels for attacks. One woman described how suspected rebels attacked her school in September and stole everything, "even pocket money." She eventually left for Uganda because she was scared of being raped.
As the flow of refugees continues, with the U.N. saying more than 100,000 entered Uganda this year alone, resources are stretched. Palorinya camp is already over capacity, and more than 22,000 people have not received relief items.
"These numbers are unsustainable. Everything is in short supply: food, core relief items, water and sanitation, staffing and transport," said Jesse Kamstra, Uganda country director for the Lutheran World Federation, which runs the camp. "The only thing which we have an abundance of is the generosity by the people of Uganda."