JUBA, South Sudan — Sweaty, dusty, often smelly and mostly poor, Juba is not the kind of place you expect to find Hollywood actor George Clooney.
But here he is, sitting on a plastic chair beneath a mango tree, intently discussing the birth pains of a new nation.
“Sudan has such great potential and such great risk so it requires the attention of the world,” Clooney told GlobalPost. He warned that diplomatic action is needed to avoid violence in the disputed Abyei border area.
This is Clooney’s second trip to Sudan in three months, visits during which he is using his star power to shed some light on an ignored and troubled part of the world.
“I keep coming back to keep the attention on it,” he said. “I’ve always felt as if the more light that is shed on a subject, the less ability for humanitarian crisis to happen. I’ve been committed to [Sudan] since 2005 and you don’t abandon a place when it’s going through its changes.”
In October, the 49-year-old actor spent a week criss-crossing the vast region. Now he has taken time out from directing a movie to return for another five days. Clooney travels to Sudan with John Prendergast, director of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group that has focused on Sudan.
“Everybody has their thing that they’re into, some people like to skydive …” Clooney said with a smile. “There’s a lot worse ways to spend your time than coming down here and attempting to look out for people.”
Wearing an untucked safari shirt, Levi’s jeans, hiking boots and sporting a neatly trimmed gray goatee and healthy tan, Clooney looked relaxed in the dusty setting. But he displayed an in-depth understanding of the tricky issues that threaten to derail southern Sudan’s independence.
He said he was “optimistic” about the referendum that began on Sunday. Voting by 3.9 million southerners is set to continue until Saturday. Southern Sudan is voting to determine whether to become independent from the rest of Sudan.
“Nobody thought the vote was going to go off, and go off peacefully, but it is,” he said. Clooney added that he believed the southern leadership headed by southern Sudan President Salva Kiir had the ability to build a functioning government and country.
On Sunday, Clooney was in Juba greeting Kiir as the politician prepared to cast the first ballot in a referendum that is likely to split Africa’s biggest country.
Clooney, speaking to a press conference, said he was moved by how much the people of southern Sudan had suffered for their independence.
"It's been 55 years of marching, fighting and dying. Today marks the first step toward independence. It's not often in your lifetime that you get to see the birth of a nation. It's an honor for me to be here. I'm proud to stand among such brave individuals," said Clooney, speaking with U.S. Senator John Kerry and John Prendergast.
Clooney had just returned from Abyei, the disputed border region that is a tinderbox of North-South tensions. It is the place most likely to witness an outbreak of fighting in the weeks ahead as the South votes and results are tallied and Clooney stressed the election and independence process "can only be a success if Abyei is addressed and if Darfur is addressed."
It was reported today that dozens were killed during three days of clashes in Abyei. The failure to agree on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya people would be eligible to vote in Abyei alongside the Ngok Dinka tribe meant the referendum did not go ahead there on Sunday, even though the rest of the South lined up to vote.
Thirteen Misseriya have been killed and 38 wounded since Friday, according to tribal leaders. And 22 Ngok Dinkas have also been killed in the clashes, according to a district administrator, who said the fighting is continuing.
United Nations peacekeepers have been dispatched to the area to investigate the claims between rival northern and southern tribesmen in the fertile, oil-producing area outside Abyei town.
None of this surprised Clooney who warned that the ongoing mediation efforts in Abyei were no more than “putting a band aid on a gunshot wound.”
“Abyei is much worse now than in October,” he said. “They are depressed; they feel abandoned by the South and threatened by the North.
“The Ngok Dinka are resolute they will not share the land with the Misseriya and they are willing to go to war: they are ready, and when we were there,” he added, “really ready.”
The annual seasonal migration of northern Misseriya Arabs through the homelands of the Ngok Dinka people is a flashpoint that quickly sparks violence.
Clooney said the answer is, “smart, get-your-hands-dirty diplomacy.” Information is also fundamental and Clooney has helped to fund surveillance by satellite of Abyei and the tense border region to keep tabs on troop build-ups.
“Even the United Nations can’t get the images we can,” he said of the Sentinel Satellite Project. “We can’t see if it’s 15 guys on horseback with machineguns coming to attack, but we can see 20,000 troops moving into the area,” he explained. The images will be released to provide proof of any movements of soldiers and weapons that might indicate impending conflict.
Clooney emphasized the need for continued attention on the Abyei border area between North and South Sudan.
“If you underestimate the importance of that area, all of this can fall apart," he warned. "All of this joy and happiness can turn into the bloodiest war of the 21st century.”