WUDU BENTIU, South Sudan (AFP) - The levels of rape in war-torn South Sudan are the worst the UN special envoy on sexual violence has ever seen, she told AFP Friday, after meeting scores of survivors of attacks.
"In all my life and experience of nearly 30 years in public service and in the UN and as a government minister, I have never seen what I have seen today," Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told AFP.
Bangura, who comes from Sierra Leone, said she had witnessed brutal violence during the civil war there, but conditions in South Sudan after almost 10 months of conflict were worse in terms of attacks on women and girls.
She said she had been in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown when it fell.
"We picked bodies from streets and buried them."
Speaking in the South Sudan town of Bentiu, which has repeatedly changed hands in the war, she said both government troops and rebels were committing rapes.
Thousands of people have been killed and almost two million have fled fighting between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided along tribal lines.
Almost 100,000 people are sheltering in squalid UN peacekeeping bases fearing they will be killed if they leave the barbed wire protection.
"It's unbelievable. It's painful. It's challenging to see the conditions under which these women live, the harassments and sexual violence that take place at check points, and when the women go out to get food, and when they go out to get fire wood. It's really extremely distressing," Bangura said.
"These are not conditions and circumstances under which women can live. I heard a story of a woman who had just given birth who had been raped, I heard a story of an old woman who was raped, children as young as 10 or 11 years who are being raped on daily basis."
Fighting broke out in the oil-rich country, also the world's youngest nation, in December 2013 following a clash between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
The war spread rapidly across the country and has been marked by widespread human rights abuses and atrocities by both sides.
Bangura is visiting South Sudan in a bid to persuade both sides to end the violence and rekindle stalled peace efforts.
"I have travelled around the world and I come from a conflict country, but I have never seen what I saw today," she said, adding it was worse than conditions she had seen in many countries including Bosnia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Somalia.
"This is the worst case scenario for me, it is extremely difficult to deal with."