George Clooney and John Prendergast: We can prevent the next Darfur

George Clooney and John Prendergast travel to the border region of northern and southern Sudan, where a referendum this January will decide if the south will secede from the north.
By George Clooney and John Prendergast
Sunday, October 17, 2010

If you had had the opportunity three months ahead of time to prevent Darfur's genocide, what would you have done?

The world faces such an opportunity today. On Jan. 9, just 84 days from now, the people of southern Sudan and of the disputed region of Abyei -- which straddles northern and southern Sudan -- will vote in referendums on self-determination. If held freely and fairly, these votes will result in an independent, oil-rich Southern Sudan. If not, the catastrophic war between the north and the south that ended in 2005, after 2.5 million deaths, could resume.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the man responsible for prosecuting both that war and the Darfur genocide, which has resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths since 2003, doesn't want to be the one who lost the south. We just returned from a fact-finding mission to Abyei and various points along Sudan's north-south border, where we found that Bashir's regime in Khartoum is doing all it can to undermine the coming referendums in the hopes that they will be postponed or cancelled.

The United States and the international community were too late to prevent the conflagration in Darfur, just as they were too late in Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo and Sierra Leone. Usually, the world responds only after wars begin, spending billions of dollars to mop up humanitarian catastrophes.

In southern Sudan, however, the United States has a unique chance to avert war and atrocities. We talked last week to a number of Democratic and Republican leaders, and even in this polarized political environment, all of them strongly agree that more must be done to prevent further conflict in Sudan. It's time now to follow through and to pull the Europeans and America's other partners along with us.

Most Americans have never heard of Abyei. We hope the region does not follow in Darfur's footsteps to become a household name, but it could. An area about the size of Connecticut, Abyei is inhabited mostly by the Dinka, southern Sudan's largest ethnic group. With war again looming, it could become a flashpoint for the world's next genocide. U.S. intelligence officials have already said that southern Sudan is the region of the globe most at risk of mass killing or genocide in the coming year.

Two years ago, the Sudanese army and its allied militias attacked Abyei town and burned it to the ground. When we visited this month, a blind Dinka chief told us about that day. Unlike the straw huts where many of his fellow townspeople lived, his house was made of concrete and bricks, so it didn't burn down. Because he was blind, he stayed behind while most people fled for safety. Four of his nephews huddled with him in his house, hoping to remain undetected. They were not so lucky. The army came and took the four boys away. No more than 30 seconds after they left the house, their uncle heard shots. The boys' bodies were never recovered.

Later in our trip, when we visited a mass grave where hundreds of Abyei's dead were buried, we wondered if those boys were among them.

Over the past 20 years, the regime in Khartoum has armed and politicized the northern communities that border Abyei, using them as a battering ram to drive out residents and ensure control of the area's valuable oilfields. Bashir is reactivating these militias to destabilize the area if things don't go his way in January. This is the same sort of divide-and-destroy tactic he used in deploying the Janjaweed militias to ravage Darfur. Also worrying, the governor of Abyei's neighboring region to the north is Ahmed Harun. Like Bashir, Harun has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for orchestrating war crimes in Darfur.

Will the international community allow Abyei to burn again? Next time, the fire will not be contained to the town we visited. It will ignite a national war, with repercussions throughout the country, including in Darfur, which remains rife with conflict, human rights abuses and insecurity. The Dinka residents of Abyei whom we spoke to were clear about their views. "They better come and kill me in front of my house," one chief told us, "so I can be buried there with honor. We are ready to die for our land."

And, we must note, for what's underneath that land, for what grows on it and for the river that runs through it. As another older Dinka man told us: "We have suffered so much for so long. The oil is a gift for our suffering. We cannot give it away. We just want to feel the winds of freedom."

We met with President Obama last week and found him in command of the facts and seized with the urgency of the moment. Over the past month, his administration has enhanced its diplomatic efforts in support of peace. U.S. proposals on Abyei, however, have led the southern Sudanese to worry that the longtime Dinka residents of Abyei could have their votes drowned out by northern groups being suddenly resettled in the area by the Khartoum government. The United States needs to take a principled stand in support of the Abyei referendum, and it should further step up its diplomacy in pursuit of a grand bargain that would finally address all the issues dividing the north and the south, including the question of who will get to vote in the two referendums, post-referendum arrangements between the north and south (including oil-wealth sharing), border demarcation, citizenship and future relationships with the United States, a matter of great concern to Khartoum.

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