Spanning nearly a full page of The Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section, George Clooney and John Prendergast used their prime real estate to describe some of the conversations and observations from their recent trip to Sudan that led them to conclude “the catastrophic war between the north and the south that ended in 2005, after 2.5 million deaths, could resume.”
This time around, the U.S. government, cooperating with regional and international partners, can prevent this deadly scenario – if they act quickly. Clooney and Prendergast detailed some of these pressure points and ways the U.S. should create leverage.
When planning out their week-long trip to the South, Clooney and Prendergast prioritized visiting Abyei, a contested area on the border that will vote on January 9 whether to become part of the North or the South should the country split. The region is a microcosm of Sudan and as such, predicted to be a flashpoint. Here's a particularly compelling graf:
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.
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."
The team that accompanied Clooney and Prendergast to southern Sudan included Nairobi-based photojournalist Tim Freccia. The online version of the op-ed features a spectacular collection of his images, which can be seen here.