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South Sudan On Brink Of 'Rwanda-Like' Genocide, Commission Warns

In this photo taken Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, women stand outside a U.N. Refugee Agency site in Yei, in southern South Sudan. The formerly peaceful town of Yei is now a center of the renewed civil war. Justin Lynch/AP hide caption

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Justin Lynch/AP

In this photo taken Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, women stand outside a U.N. Refugee Agency site in Yei, in southern South Sudan. The formerly peaceful town of Yei is now a center of the renewed civil war.

Justin Lynch/AP

In a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday, a special commission to South Sudan described the state of the country in the starkest terms possible. Atrocities like murder and gang rape are happening on an "epic" scale, reported the commission's chief, who warned that the world's youngest country now "stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war."

"A steady process of ethnic cleansing is already underway in some parts of the country. We don't use that expression lightly," said Yasmin Sooka, chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. "Targeted displacement along ethnic lines is taking place through killing, abductions, rape, looting and burning of homes."

In the statement delivered to the council, Sooka said approximately a quarter of South Sudan's population have had to leave their homes — about a million of whom have left the country as refugees. As of October, the inflation rate had ballooned to more than 800 percent, Sooka reported, and a third of South Sudan's teachers have fled the country.

Since December 2013, South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war that began as a primarily political conflict, but has since taken shape between the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. At that time, South Sudan President Salva Kiir fell out with his former vice president, Riek Machar, over allegations of a coup attempt. Kiir, who is Dinka, and Machar, who is Nuer, gathered supporters from their respective tribes.

The recent spate of violence follows a particularly bloody summer, which saw hundreds of casualties amid heavy fighting in the country's capital, Juba. And the violence has eased little since then, Associated Press reporter Justin Lynch told NPR's Ailsa Chang this weekend:

"Women talked about being raped by soldiers based on their ethnicity. Men talked about being targeted for killings and arrest. And I even talked to one police officer who said that when he was going to collect bodies in the streets that had been killed, the army had attacked him."

Lynch, who had been reporting on human rights violations there for the AP, was arrested last week by government agents and deported. And he's not the only one: The Norwegian Refugee Council, an international humanitarian organization, says two of its senior staff members have been ordered to leave South Sudan within the span of a week.

And Sooka said the commission only expects the recent violence to intensify as South Sudan settles into its dry season, when fighting traditionally worsens. And she says she fears a lack of international interest in the violence will be interpreted as a green light for further brutality. She warned of a "Rwanda-like" descent into violence, referring to the 1994 genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives along ethnic lines.

Sooka called for the immediate deployment of a "4,000-strong regional protection force" to the country, and called for that force to be deployed beyond the capital, as well.

"To be frank," Yasmin Sooka said, "we are running out of adjectives to describe the horror."