Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the mountains where Sudan residents have fled Sudanese government bombing. They are the Nuba mountains, not the Juba mountains. Juba is the capital of the new nation of South Sudan. This version has been updated.
Actor George Clooney brought his star power to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to call for stepped-up action to resolve ongoing violence in Sudan and stop a potential humanitarian disaster.
Clooney traveled last week to the volatile border region between Sudan and South Sudan, where he filmed what he said was the aftermath of attacks by Sudanese government aircraft and ground-launched rockets that have driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, many of them into caves in the central Nuba mountains.
“It is absolutely without question a war crime that we saw firsthand,” he said in an interview before testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I’m not a policymaker,” said Clooney, who has a White House meeting scheduled with President Obama on Thursday to discuss the matter. “My job is to just raise the volume.”
Clooney and other activists are trying to bring attention to a situation that most Americans thought had abated with a decline in fighting in the Darfur region, in western Sudan, and last year’s agreement that created a new country in the south.
But the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought South Sudan’s independence in July left a number of issues unresolved, including the pricing and division of profits from oil reserves that are located in the south but shipped through pipelines in the north. After Sudan began diverting oil from the pipeline, South Sudan stopped the flow six weeks ago.
Obama has cited the stoppage as among the reasons for high gasoline prices in the United States. Much of South Sudan’s oil goes to China, and the shutdown has forced the Chinese to seek supplies elsewhere on the already tight international market.
The independence agreement also left thousands of rebel fighters from earlier north-south battles stranded on the Sudanese side of the border, where they continue to fight a Khartoum government that has struck back with a vengeance in the border regions of Abyei, southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Civilians in the region have borne the brunt of the attacks.
U.S. development officials estimate that 130,000 refugees have been driven from the border area since June, with 360,000 people internally displaced.
Few outsiders have traveled to the remote region. Clooney sneaked across the border from the south with activist John Prendergast of the Enough Project. They returned to the United States on Tuesday with videos — including one of a boy whose hands had been blown off by what Clooney described as a 300mm rocket — that were posted Wednesday on the Enough Project's Web site.
Clooney, Prendergast and Foreign Relations Chairman John f. Kerry (D-Mass.), speaking in an interview with three reporters, said that the displaced civilians are already starving and without medical care and that the situation will become far worse when spring rain makes the roads to the region impassable.
They called for the administration to press China to use its economic influence with the Sudan government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and to step up enforcement of sanctions against Khartoum.
Sanctions, and indictments at the International Criminal Court against Bashir and other government members, remain on the books from the long Darfur war that continues to smolder.
“It is grotesque,” Kerry said. “There are new refugees, new displacement, new slaughter. We can’t sit by after all our engagement, several billion dollars invested” to help South Sudan and respond to what the George W. Bush administration called a “genocide” in Darfur.
Clooney told the committee that the activists are not advocating a “no-fly zone” or U.S. military involvement. “There is a long list of things we can do that won't cost lives or very much money. . . . We can’t put the lives back, we can’t replace that young boy's hands.”
But, he said, “it can start here. I know this, if we work together, all of us, we can't fail.”