Clooney Shines a Light on Sudan -- But Terror Continues

In wake of star's public arrest, the Nuba people face starvation.

Some years ago, when Sudan’s Islamist regime was waging genocidal jihad in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, I arranged a State Department visit for an Episcopal bishop from that region. Bishop Bullen had a warm, sympathetic reception from then Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Dr. Paula Dobriansky, (those were the days!). But his meeting paled in comparison to the hubbub taking place just down the hall. Every door in the corridor was open. State Department staffers filled the doorways, smiling and waving, as actor Richard Gere and his entourage passed them.

Bullen was the Bishop of Lui, in South Sudan’s Equatoria region. His devastated diocese was as stark as the moon’s surface. His cathedral and hospital had been bombed by the Sudanese government of Omar al Bashir at least seven times. And his brother – just one of millions of victims of Khartoum’s jihad – had been tied up and dragged behind a jeep until he was dead. Seeing the bishop’s puzzlement at the near-hysteria in the hallways, I explained that it was due to an American movie star, an activist who would be speaking about China’s occupation of Tibet at a hearing on Capitol Hill. “If only some movie star cared that much about Sudan!” Bishop Bullen smiled wistfully.

If Bishop Bullen were still alive he would be very pleased to know about George Clooney. An actor who does truly care about Sudan, Clooney first brought his star power to the issue of western Sudan’s Darfur region around 2006, but he has broadened the scope of his advocacy to include all of Sudan’s marginalized people. In December 2010, Clooney went to South Sudan during the preparations for the referendum on secession from the north. There was fear of attacks by Khartoum’s National Congress Party regime, and Clooney, who endured malaria and stomach ailments during his visit, said that by shining daylight on the situation he was making it “harder to kill people.” The referendum did go through extremely peacefully, with 99.9% of the people voting for freedom.

Earlier this month Clooney used his powerful command of the media to attest to Sudan’s current genocidal conditions, taking on the regime of the ICC-indicted war criminal Omar al Bashir, the U.S. State Department, and the international media to press the need for immediate aid and protection for the people of the Nuba Mountains, where time to save lives is running out. The Nuba – the indigenous African ethnic groups (about 40 tribes) of the Nuba Mountain region in South Kordofan – face starvation this month. They have been unable to plant their crops because of constant aerial bombardment by the Sudan Armed Forces since June 2011. Instead, they have been hiding from the bombs in stark, snake-and-scorpion-filled caves, existing on terror and a sub-subsistence diet. Now the little food that they have is running out, and the Khartoum regime has blocked access to all humanitarian aid.

On March 14, 2012, Clooney and John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, testified before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing entitled, “Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.” Clooney, whose powerful testimony followed that of the State Department’s Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, and U.S. Agency for International Development official, Nancy Lindborg, screened for the Senate committee a video he had just made during a trip to the Nuba Mountains the week before.

In the video Clooney meets the terrorized Nuba citizens of burned-out villages, hiding in caves from Sudan’s Antonov bombers just as they were forced to do less than a decade ago during the north/south war. He visits the wounded in a makeshift clinic, including a nine-year-old boy who had lost both hands during a bombing raid the day before. He stands beside both an unexploded bomb, buried up to its unspeakable neck in the dirt, and a man killed by an exploded one, lying unburied in the dirt.

The actor/activist says to a Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) soldier: “This is simply trying to clear people out – ethnically – because of the color of their skin.” The soldier, who is fighting together with fellow Nuba to protect his people from Khartoum’s extermination campaign, agrees, and adds, “They want to destroy the blacks and put the Arabs in.” When Clooney asks the soldier how long his people have been there, the soldier smiles and replies, “since Creation.” The testimony bolstered a bipartisan group, Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), who had introduced a resolution demanding humanitarian access to the region.

Two days after the hearing Clooney and Prendergast participated in a demonstration at the Sudan Embassy. Hundreds of activists marched and chanted, while members of the media staked out a spot for the best view of Clooney’s arrival. The climax of the demonstration was an act of civil disobedience that has been repeated at the Sudan Embassy for almost eleven years. The first such arrest took place on Good Friday in April 2001 when former Washington, D.C. Democratic congressman the Rev. Dr. Walter Fauntroy, civil rights activist and radio talk show host Joe Madison, and Reagan administration official Michael Horowitz chained themselves to the front doors of that same embassy.

No chains were involved in this month’s arrest, but the message is the same as that conveyed in 2001 by attorney Ken Starr. Starr, who, in an interesting twist, represented Fauntroy and Madison while the late Johnnie Cochran represented Horowitz, said that their goal was to “attest to the atrocious conditions that exist in the Sudan, the conditions of slavery and murder, genocidal conditions that should be getting the attention of all individuals around the world.” Eleven years later, those atrocious conditions still exist for 85 percent of the population of Sudan. For trespassing on the property of the Sudan Embassy, Clooney and Prendergast were led away in handcuffs, along with Clooney’s father, journalist Nick Clooney, U.S. Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Al Green (D-TX), Jim Moran (D-VA), John Olver, (D-MA) and several other activists.

Some conservatives, while having done nothing themselves to help the Sudanese, criticize Clooney because he has not made the final leap and stated explicitly Khartoum’s genocide to be the persecution of Christians and others by an Islamist regime or that it is the agenda of jihadists who seek to build a global Caliphate. Clooney has surely heard these explanations of the otherwise inexplicable behavior of the Sudanese government during his time building relationships with the South Sudanese and the Nuba, Muslims and Christians alike. But he is doing what he does best – attracting media attention to a neglected, underreported crisis. Others should make use of the space he has seized from competing, clamoring voices and fill in the background rest of the story. A rule of thumb for assessing Clooney’s value to the situation should be the appreciation given to him by the Sudanese themselves.

The Enough Project asked the Rt. Rev. Andudu Adam Elnail, the Episcopal Church of Sudan’s bishop for the Nuba Mountains, his opinion of George Clooney’s advocacy for Sudan. Andudu, who was in the United States for medical treatment when Khartoum’s extermination campaign in the Nuba Mountains began, has now been granted asylum in the U.S. His name, along with those of many Christian leaders, had been placed on a death list by the regime. The bishop said that the visit of George Clooney and John Prendergast was “very important” to the Nuba people “to bring to the world the real suffering and devastating situation that the media does not cover.”

At this point, it seems as if defying the Sudanese government and bringing aid across the border from South Sudan into Sudan’s Nuba Mountains is the only means of preventing the starvation of hundreds of thousands. But there isn’t much time. Once the rainy season begins, roads will disappear, and with them, the hope of saving the lives of the Nuba.

While Congress is considering the new bill introduced in the Senate to demand humanitarian access, along with a tough House bill to support Sudan’s marginalized people introduced by U.S. Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA), the Obama Administration is not leaning towards such a bold move. Administration officials refer to the SPLA-North soldiers who are bravely defending their people and, extraordinarily, winning every ground battle against the Khartoum regime, as “rebels.” And this is not meant in a good way, as it was for those dashing Libyan “freedom fighters” that needed to have their battles fought for them by the United States and NATO, and that lynched the president of their country in the street.

On March 22, 2012 the U.S. State Department expressed “alarm” at the “threat of greater violence between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northern Sector (SPLM-N) in Southern Kordofan State.” The statement also demands that the Government of South Sudan “end any military support for the SPLM-N and work with the Government of Sudan on ways jointly to bring peace to the border region.” But the State Department fails to demand that the Government of Sudan stop attacking the SPLA-N controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains and start political negotiations. Whether or not this is intended, it appears that the Obama Administration therefore condones the crushing of the SPLA-North by the Sudan Armed Forces. And, as usual, that the U.S. expects the Islamist regime in Khartoum to suddenly change decades of behavior and negotiate in good faith with the people that it is attempting to eradicate.

George Clooney may not be exposing the Islamist root of Khartoum’s genocide, but as his ongoing media attention shines a light on the crisis in Sudan, never fails to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Omar al Bashir and the Khartoum regime. As Ulysses Everett McGill, one of the escaped convicts turned singing sensation leader of the Soggy Bottom Boys in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Clooney sang “I am a man of constant sorrow.” The plight of Sudan’s marginalized people truly appears to be Clooney’s constant sorrow. He does not pretend there is moral equivalency between the Sudanese regime and those who are fighting and dying for freedom from that regime, and he tries to make to it harder for the regime to kill people.

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