“We wanted to find out why, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced was not a story,” says veteran American journalist Nick Clooney of his trip with his son, George Clooney, movie star, to Darfur last year. They were there to film a documentary about the Sudanese region’s unfolding humanitarian crisis.
Clooney jr., currently starring in Ocean’s Thirteen, belongs to a long Hollywood tradition of liberal campaigners. But it was his highly-publicised address to the United Nations in 2006 calling for international intervention in Darfur that really established his name as a celebrity with a conscience.
“Make no mistake it is the first genocide of the 21st century. This genocide will be on your watch. How you deal with it will be your legacy, your Rwanda, your Cambodia, your Auschwitz,” Clooney told Security Council members.
“George can be an opening door,” Nick told newstatesman.com. “When people see him coming back with a camera on his shoulder and a beard, they say what you been doing? And then he tells them.”
Arriving in Sudan, they discovered a country in “total disarray”, said Nick. “We met women and elders who were scared, who had lost many members of their families, who had had there cattle slaughtered. They had nothing, they were empty-eyed.”
Evidence of atrocities were all around: “We saw at least 50 people who had visible wounds, missing fingers, missing arms below their elbow that kind of thing.”
Less visible though, were the scars of rape, described by Nick as “another form of genocide”, used by militiamen as part of a terrifying campaign of social cleansing.
It is more than four years since Darfur’s simmering tensions exploded into violence when Darfur rebels unhappy at a lack of regional investment, political representation and wanting a share in potential oil revenues, launched a series of attacks against government targets.
The response by the government in Khartoum was to give nomadic Janjaweed tribesmen free rein as they retaliated with a campaign that brutally targeted civilians, driving them out of their villages into poverty-stricken camps. To date, hundreds of thousands have died, according to the Save Darfur organisation.
With the Janjaweed’s northern homelands being lost to the advancing Sahara, their campaign against African Darfurians, which some argue is motivated by simple racism, has allowed them to seize new lands for themselves.
Nick acknowledges that the conflict in Darfur has deep and complex historical causes, dating back to Sudan’s colonial past when its British rulers annexed Darfur and handed power to the Arab minority from the north.
“Khartoum’s take on it is that their problems are a direct result of colonialism,” he says. But economic factors have also played a part, he says, suggesting that the government has used the uprising by Darfurian rebels as an excuse to gain access to lands potentially rich in oil reserves.
The oil issue is also blamed by many for the United Nations Security Council’s failure in tackling the crisis, largely due to the fact that veto-wielding permanent member China happens to be the largest customer for Sudanese oil, buying around 70 percent of the country’s total output.
“China has been very, very in bed with [Sudanese military leader] Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir,” says Nick, pointing out as well that a recent report by anti-genocide campaigners AEGIS criticised the Church of England, Prudential, Axa and Barclays among others for investing in Chinese and British oil companies operating in Sudan.
Nick would like to see the UN impose personal sanctions against Sudan’s leaders, “so they can’t spend their money… at Harrods, they can’t go to Monaco or buy a luxury German car. Where are they going to spend it, in Khartoum?”
According to Nick, Sudan has also been a victim of the US’s waning global power, triggered by a “diminishing of US clout on the world stage as a direct result of Iraq.”
He also believes the US’s reluctance to get tough with the Khartoum regime has partlt been because of Sudan’s wider importance in the war on terror as a former refuge for the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In 2005 Sudan’s head of security flew to Washington to meet the CIA. “At the time the CIA would have been against any strong sanctions because they thought they were getting information,” Nick claims.
For Nick however, the greatest failure in Darfur has been one of media silence or misrepresentation – notably in the Arab world.
“None of us have done well with this,” he says. “But the Arabs perhaps are coming down on the side of the Arab leader of Sudan in Khartoum against the African Muslims of Darfur. We’ll know when this is turning around when we get an important Muslim leader saying Omar Hasan ought to fix this.”
While this week’s announcement by Khartoum that it would allow a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force into Darfur appeared to be a step towards stopping the killing, Clooney isn’t holding his breath: “By my count fourth time they have agreed to exactly this same formula.”
For a pampered star more used to premiers and parties, Nick says his son coped well with Sudan’s inhospitable conditions, except for one incident when a tarantula sprang at George taking “seven years of his life”. Otherwise, their most worrying moments came in their nightly trips to the toilet. “We had to be very carefully where we put parts of our anatomy,” says Nick.
With footage by George Clooney, George Clooney: A Journey to Darfur, is the documentary of their visit. It is being shown on the Community Channel, Saturday 23 June @ 9pm, and repeated Tues 26 June @7.30pm.