George Clooney, UN Security Council descend on Sudan
George Clooney has been roughing it recently, on the latest of his trips to Sudan to highlight the problems there.
The Hollywood superstar and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador was touring semi-autonomous south Sudan ahead of a planned January 2011 referendum on whether southerners in Africa’s biggest country should secede from the Khartoum-led north. Tensions are high because of fears the plebiscite could be delayed, sparking a new war between the predominantly Muslim north and the heavily animist and Christian south.
The U.N. Security Council delegation I traveled to Sudan with was in Juba, the scruffy capital of south Sudan, at the same time as Clooney. But we reporters never saw him. The journalists covering the Security Council’s African trip were barred from the party that Clooney, council diplomats and U.N. officials attended. According to several of those present, Clooney and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, had a long huddle to discuss the problems of Sudan, including the referendum and the 7-year-old conflict in Sudan’s remote western Darfur region. Of course Sudan was not the only interesting thing about the evening — one U.N. official boasted of having seven pictures of her and Clooney on her digital camera.
Leaving south Sudan was not so easy. Our plane had engine trouble and we were all marched to a Russian peacekeeper base. Four local Sudanese reporters with us were told by U.N. officials that there no sandwiches for them and initially ordered to remain on the press bus.
When the delegation boarded a different plane, it was discovered that there was one too many passengers on the aircraft. A U.N. security officer decided that a Sudanese Reuters photographer would have to leave the plane, even though he had been invited to join the delegation and had all his permits in order. The Reuters photographer protested but was told he would be ejected forcibly if he didn’t comply. When I asked why he was being singled out, the answer was: “He was the last one on.” The Reuters photographer realized that the only way to avoid an ugly confrontation was to retreat, so he did. The three other local Sudanese reporters — one of whom was a Reuters cameraman — joined him out of solidarity.
One diplomat noted that while all the other envoys went alone or with a single advisor, the U.S. ambassador brought two advisors and two security personnel. If her entourage had been smaller, the diplomat said, there wouldn’t have been a problem with space. (Others, however, suggested that the strict security policies of the U.S. government might have made a smaller entourage impossible.)
Because of the tight schedule and security concerns, the council had far less time for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the Abu Shouk refugee camp near El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, than they had for George Clooney back in Juba.
They spent around 15 minutes on the ground talking with refugees, who complained of hunger, unemployment and poor security in the camp.
We reporters also heard tales of hunger, disease, theft, and rape. Refugees complained that UNAMID, the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in the region, did little to protect them. After seven years of a conflict and ensuing humanitarian crisis that the United Nations believes has killed up to 300,00 people, they all said they want peace and security — and above all to go home.
There are millions of such refugees in Darfur.
After their brief visit, the U.N. delegation climbed into their flashy white U.N. SUVs and quickly departed. As we sped away, we watched chickens, goats and donkeys picking through piles of garbage and drinking fetid water from holes in the ground. Children ran after the vehicles and waved. Their mothers looked up from their makeshift hovels built with mud bricks and plastic tarps. We headed for the airport in El Fasher to catch a plane to the capital, Khartoum.
This time they had a bigger plane and no one was tossed out onto the tarmac.