CHAPTER 1: A bar on the Nile
Mid-morning and the staff were still wiping down the bar and clearing away the empties when George Clooney ambled over to my table. George had a couple of hours before he headed north to the fighting and we’d agreed to meet by the Nile, at the aid worker hotel where he stayed. The river was something to behold, a wide green trench filled with all the rain from the plains of Africa that cut due north, across the Sahara, all the way to the Mediterranean. But George ignored the view. Instead he surveyed the grass-roof over the bar, the tiny collection of bottles clamped to the wall and the empty stools still grouped in small, convivial circles.
“You been here at night?” asked George.
I said I had.
“So you know it gets pretty wild in here,” he said.
“I’ve had some wild nights in here,” he repeated.
George and John Prendergast , his fellow Sudan activist, had just flown into Juba, capital of South Sudan. In a few hours, the pair would be inside a war. To reach it, they would fly to a dirt strip beside a refugee camp in the far north of South Sudan, just below the newly-made border with Sudan. There they would transfer to a battered, metal-floored SUV driven by Ryan Boyette.
Ryan was an American former aid worker who married locally and never left. He was another activist, too, documenting atrocities against the Nuba people by the Sudanese regime. Ryan had volunteered to drive George and John illegally across the border and into the Nuba Mountains, rebel territory where Ryan and his wife lived in a stone house Ryan built himself. A few months before, the Sudanese air force had tried to bomb the house. The route the three would take would lead them up a dusty track that the planes were now hitting almost daily. It was the bombings – barrels of oil attached to explosives rolled out of planes more than a mile up – that George had come to see.
“It should be interesting,” said George. “They’re dropping those bombs from 6,000 feet so their effectiveness has been mostly to terrorise and less to actually… The bigger issue is violence on the road. Some guys just shot and killed and slit the throats of some people going up that road. So you have to be careful.”
I asked if he was worried. George shook his head. “It’s OK,” he said. “We’ve been in some sticky situations before and we’re going with some guys who know what they’re doing.”
“And you know,” he said, “you gotta do it.”
If we had to have celebrities, it seemed to me George was absolutely the best kind. It was March 2012 and George was on his seventh trip to Sudan in as many years. In that time his activism had cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. I could only imagine the angry conversations he must have endured with worried studio heads and agents in Hollywood when he announced he was off to war in Africa. Now one of the biggest stars of his generation was about to fly to a spot about as far from a hospital as it was possible to be on earth, then drive up a dirt road in the hope of getting bombed.
George’s activism tracked the progression and evolution of Sudan’s various rebellions. Before it split formally into north and south in July 2011, Sudan had been Africa’s biggest country, straddling the line in the Saharan sand where Africa meets Arabia. In centuries past, like the efforts of European Christian imperialists further south, Arab attempts to enlighten heathen Africans took the form of slave-raiding, then conquest, then economic marginalisation. After independence in 1956, the regime in Khartoum took its cue from this history, creating an autocratic state that exploited its regions for oil, then spent the money on itself in the capital. It was precisely that kind of behaviour that had provoked the tide of African liberation in imperial times. So it was that Khartoum was soon confronting rebellion in almost every region outside the capital, especially its more Christian, more African and more southern ones. Khartoum responded with repression and, after a military takeover in 1989, the kind of strident Islamism that even persuaded Osama bin Laden to make Khartoum his home for five years in the 1990s. In a half-century of more or less continual fighting, more than two million people died.
Partly because the number of dead in Sudan’s wars was so high, partly because Islamists became America’s enemy No. 1 after 9/11, partly because Sudan’s continued use of slaves horrified a nation whose own creation myth was so bound up in the trade, Sudan became the cause for young American activists in the first years of the new millennium. And George, one of their favourite movie stars, became their champion.
Initially he spoke out against the Sudanese regime’s atrocities in 2003 and 2004 in Darfur, to the east of the Nuba mountains. After the US government designated that conflict a genocide in 2004, George was among those who successfully campaigned to have the International Criminal Court indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2005, the US brokered a peace agreement between Sudan and its largest and most southern rebel army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The deal included a referendum on secession and in the years that followed, George’s campaigning, which included interviews, television appearances, addresses to the US Congress, the Senate and the UN Security Council and talks with US President Barack Obama, helped convince the world the ceasefire should be a first step towards full southern independence. George was duly on hand in Juba in January 2011 when southern Sudanese voted by 98.8% to split Sudan in two and form the world’s newest nation. “It was wild,” he said. “I literally watched this 90-year-old woman who’d never voted in her life and who’d walked a couple of miles to a polling station to vote for the first time in her life for freedom. There’s something mind-blowing to see 98% of the people voting, [to see how] they consider it a duty and an honour and a privilege.”
Despite the peace deal, Khartoum never wavered from its enmity towards the south nor its preference for killing its opponents. Those included southerners but also other rebels such as the Nuba who remained within its new truncated borders. George was on an earlier trip with John in October 2010 trying to figure out ways to hinder the bloodshed when, lying out in the desert and looking up at the stars, the pair came up with an idea even more outlandish than helping create a new country in Africa: their own spy satellite.
“I was like: ‘How come you could Google Earth my house and you can’t Google Earth where war crimes are being committed? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“And John was like: ‘I don’t know. You know, maybe we can.’”
On their return to the US, George and John contacted Google Maps and a satellite photography specialist, DigitalGlobe. They rented time on three of DigitalGlobe’s satellites stationed in the stratosphere over Sudan and worked to process the images and overlay them with Google Maps in minutes. “The trick was not just to get the images but to get them in close to real time and get the analysis done quickly,” said George. “Then you can say ‘Well, five days ago this is what this place looked like. And this is what it looked like two days ago.’”
The satellites were one of the things I had wanted to ask George about. I told him I thought the idea was brilliant, if a little insane.
“It’s a very effective tool,” replied George. “If you’re going to put 150,000 troops on a border, you’re going to have a really tough time claiming this is all just rebel infighting if that’s all going to be photographed by satellites, up close and personal. It makes it harder to get away with. It makes it impossible for the UN Security Council to veto action against Khartoum. And we know it’s effective because the government in Khartoum keeps saying what a rotten bunch of people we are and how it’s not fair.”
“I love the ‘It’s not fair’ thing,” he said. “Literally stomping their feet. ‘It’s not fair!’ The Defence Minister came out and said: ‘How would Mister Clooney like it if every time he left his house there were people watching him with cameras?’
“And I was like: ‘Man, I want you to enjoy the exact same amount of celebrity as me.’ It seems fair to me. You can’t please all the war criminals all the time. So sue me, you know?”
You had to admire the inversion. George, whose privacy was routinely invaded in pursuit of trivialities, was violating the privacy of a dictatorial regime in the pursuit of saving lives. He was using his fame and fortune to try to effect positive change in a place which, without him, would have remained far more obscure. He presented a far less self-indulgent model of celebrity than usual and, with his stature and influence in his industry, could even lay claim to re-inventing the whole notion of fame.
George also knew his limits. He had a clear goal – prevention of human suffering – and a well-defined idea of his role. “The reason I come is not because I’m a policy guy and not because I’m a soldier and not because I can do anything except get this on TV and in the newspapers,” he said. “The thing that’s frustrating and disappointing – and you in the news organisations know this better than anybody – is that the assumption is always: ‘Well, if we know, then we do something about it.’ And that just isn’t true. I mean we knew about Rwanda. We knew about Bosnia. We knew. But there was plausible deniability. So we’re going to try and keep it loud enough that at least they can’t say they didn’t know.”
George’s efforts revealed imagination and refreshing depth. His campaigning was also effective. But when I thought about it later, in some ways that only made it stranger. Because he was charming and handsome and famous and rich, George had been able to help engineer the creation of a vast new country in a faraway land. The fabulousness of one of Hollywood’s leading men, normally used to sell movie tickets and watches and coffee, had changed millions of lives and the course of history. Good for George. But if this was how Western power worked, it was absurd.
At one point I asked George whether he’d ever met his adversaries in northern Sudan, whose consistent complaint was that Sudan’s future wasn’t the business of an American actor, no matter how cool he was. George replied that his one trip to Khartoum had been frustrating because the government had obstinately refused to listen to him. As George saw it, they forced him to play tough. “We’ve tried carrots,” he said. “I’ve been the first to talk about seeing if there’s some door to open to allow these guys to step through and have an easier way of it. But carrots haven’t been very successful with the government of Khartoum. They don’t want to do it. So now we have to make it much harder, make it so these officials can’t spend their money anywhere.”
George was not asking himself, as I was trying to, what any of this – Sudan – had to do with him. Rather, he was acknowledging that in practice it had had a lot to do with him – from the moment he decided it would. He had the clarity of moral obligation. Because he could, he should.
But with his campaigns, George was acting on behalf of others. Inevitably, as with the satellites, that sometimes meant instead of them. When I asked George about his role in making a new country, what I meant was: Why should a Hollywood actor wield such influence over a distant foreign land? Why should any outsider? How, really, could you foster someone else’s independence? Surely the whole point with independence was that people had to do it for themselves?
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