George Clooney to Senate on Sudan violence: ‘We found children filled with shrapnel’

Dylan Stableford
March 14, 2012

Actor and activist George Clooney testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday about the Sudanese government's bombing and violence against civilians near its border with South Sudan.

"I want to separate what is fact and what is fiction," Clooney, who just returned from an eight-day trip to Sudan with human-rights activist John Prendergast, told the committee. "The government of Sudan, led by Omar al-Bashir, Ahmed Haroun and defense minister Hussein, the same three men who orchestrated the atrocities in Darfur, have turned their bombs on the Nuban people. Now, these are not military targets. These are innocent men, women and children. That is a fact."

Three days ago, shortly before Clooney and Prendergast crossed the border in the Nuba Mountains, 15 bombs were dropped on a village, the actor said. "When we got there, we found children filled with shrapnel, including a nine-year-old boy who had both of his hands blown off."

Clooney continued: "As we met with their leaders, we were also met with three, 300-millimeter rockets fired overhead. We witnessed hundreds of people running to the hills to hide in caves for their safety. That happens every day."

Clooney and Prendergast co-founded the Satellite Sentinel Project, an organization that uses satellite imagery to monitor the human rights situation in the region. South Sudan won formal independence from Sudan in 2011, following a two-decade civil war.

The Sudanese government in Khartoum, Clooney said, is leading "a campaign of murder, and fear, and displacement, and starvationand that is also a fact."

"These are war crimes," Clooney added. "When you are indiscriminately bombing innocent civilians, you are committing war crimes. It's a cowardly act."

He said that the American people should care about Sudan because, among other reasons, it has an effect on oil prices here.

"What happens in Sudan matters very much to the U.S. economy," Clooney said. "That is a fact ... We need to do what we're best at: real diplomacy."

He suggested lawmakers use the situation in Sudan to pressure China, which gets six percent of its oil from Sudan, to understand the gravity of the situation on the ground.

[ SLIDESHOW: Clooney goes to Congress ]

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee's chairman, opened the hearing by offering "cautious optimism" on the region.

The New York Times, Kerry noted, recently published a story with the headline, "A Taste of Hope Sends Refugees Back to Darfur."

"When was the last time you saw 'hope' and 'Darfur' in the same sentence?" he said.

But for every step forward, Kerry said, the region seems to relapse into violence. "Bashir has waged war on his own people," Kerry said, referring to the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes. "The past has become prologue."

Kerry visited Sudan with Clooney and Prendergast last year. Clooney is set to meet with President Obama and Hillary Clinton on Thursday to discuss the new southern Sudan crisis.

The UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said it has registered more than 80,000 refugees fleeing violence in Sudan into South Sudan and neighboring Ethiopia, including more than 2,000 new arrivals just last week.

"A huge part of the border area [between Sudan and South Sudan] is insecure," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told Yahoo News Friday. Indiscriminate, aerial bombing "is driving lots of people across the border. Civilians are not being fed, they have no real safe place."

Another looming concern, Fleming said, is that on top of the violence, there's been a drought and people haven't been able to plant crops. "They are very close to what people predict could be a famine," she said.

Another aid group working in South Sudan, the International Medical Corps, reported seeing some 300 internally displaced people who were fleeing the fighting arrive at Akobo Hospital in Akobo, South Sudan, on Tuesday alone, IMC's Margaret Aguirre told Yahoo News by email Tuesday.

"This is a fundamental foreign relations problem," Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the panel, told the hearing. "We're being rebuffed" by Sudan's leaders, "people who use starvation as a form of warfare."

The video below shows more from Clooney's visit to Sudan. Warning: it includes graphic images of injuries.

--With Laura Rozen

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