Editor's Note: This op-ed, written by George Clooney, co-founder of Not On Our Watch, and John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, together head the Satellite Sentinel Project originally appeared on USA Today.
The last two times the Sudan government perpetrated horrific attacks against civilian populations in the disputed territory of Abyei, a Connecticut-sized political football contested by both Sudan and South Sudan, we visited with the survivors after the fact. The main town was burned, villages were razed, and over 120,000 residents were displaced after their homes were destroyed. In our trips there, we interviewed dozens of survivors, whose chilling accounts of targeted killings and destruction continue to haunt us.
Abyei is at the center of whether Sudan and South Sudan will resume one of the deadliest wars in the world, which took more than two million lives between 1983 and 2005. Feeling abandoned by the world and following the passing of a deadline that the African Union proposed for holding an internationally supervised referendum to determine Abyei's future, its residents have taken matters into their own hands. They are holding their own referendum this week, sparking speculation that the Khartoum regime may in response again unleash Arab Misseriya militias living north of Abyei. Despite peace agreements in part brokered by the United States, arbitration decisions, and international commissions that have acknowledged that Abyei is the traditional homeland of the "nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms," the Government of Sudan has continuously obstructed progress toward the holding of a representative vote.
Promoting some kind of showdown between the local Dinka and Misseriya communities – despite a long history of peaceful interdependence – is right out of Khartoum's divide-and-conquer playbook, pitting neighbors against each other throughout Sudan since the regime took power in a military coup in 1989.
Instead of recognizing and confronting the Sudan government's divisive and deadly strategy, the United States and broader international community have prioritized a neutral approach to promoting peace between Sudan and South Sudan as well as within war-torn Sudan. For all the difficult questions, such as the status of Abyei or free and fair elections for Sudan, the internationals have kicked the relevant cans down the field, hoping that time will heal the biggest wounds. But the wounds are growing more infected, unfortunately, and there is nowhere else to kick the cans.
In Abyei, a traumatized population has rushed back to vote in the unsanctioned poll. The South Sudanese organization Kush estimates that nearly 40 percent of Dinka civilians in Abyei are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many residents feel they have nothing left to lose after devastating setbacks in the previous attacks. But Abyei is only the tip of the iceberg.
In Sudan's western region of Darfur, violence has again spiked, with hundreds of thousands of people driven into camps since the beginning of the year. The regime is utilizing its same divide-and-conquer strategy to give the appearance of worsening "tribal" conflicts while it is consolidating control over the conflict gold trade in Darfur's expanding mines.
In the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, government offensives have driven hundreds of thousands of villagers from their homes. We visited caves where people hide from the indiscriminate aerial bombardment. The government blocks all humanitarian aid, using the denial of food as its principal vehicle for ethnically cleansing populations on the basis of their identity.
In Khartoum and other major Sudanese cities during the last month, the government killed over 200 protesters by firing into crowds with live ammunition. It has arrested nearly a thousand young activists, many of them tortured and held incommunicado without charge.
American and broader International impartiality have failed to slow the pace of death and displacement. Yes, Sudan and South Sudan have not gone back to war against each other. But the escalating violence in Sudan and human rights issues in South Sudan demand a new approach.
Photo: George Clooney and an Abyei elder in Sudan. (Tim Freccia/Enough Project)