Business, Economics and Jobs

Clooney warns of more Sudan violence


George Clooney in South Sudan in October 2010.


Tim Freccia

George Clooney is keeping on top of the latest worrying developments in the volatile border between North and South Sudan.

Clooney commented Sunday evening on the latest images released by his Satellite Sentinel Project in which new satellite images confirming the intentional burning of a third village, Tajalei, in Sudan’s Abyei region, in addition to the evidence it released Friday of the deliberate destruction since March 2 of the villages of Maker Abior and Todach.

At least 300 buildings at Tajalei were intentionally destroyed by fire, according to the latest DigitalGlobe satellite images released by the Satellite Sentinel Project.

Satellite Sentinel Project analysis of the DigitalGlobe satellite image, taken March 6 and analyzed by the United Nations satellite image agency, UNITAR/UNOSAT, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, with additional analysis by DigitalGlobe. Roughly two-thirds of those buildings appear to be civilian residential structures, known as tukuls.

Clooney said the fresh violence could threaten the peace between North and South Sudan. The Hollywood actor said the new images prove an alarming increase in violence and militarization of the volatile border area between North and South Sudan.

"The Satellite Sentinel Project is the first to confirm the widespread and systematic targeting of civilian infrastructure across the Abyei region. This is the kind of undeniable evidence we feared we'd see if we put a camera where we weren't welcome," said Clooney, in a statement issue by the anti-genocide group, Enough Project.

"Village burning has caused tens of thousands to be displaced, unknown numbers of civilian casualties, and the deliberate destruction of at least three communities. If this violence is left unchecked, it could put the entire North-South peace process at risk,” said Clooney.

Clooney conceived of the idea of monitoring the border region between North and South Sudan by satellite during a trip to southern Sudan with Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast. Clooney has become an expert on Sudan, visiting it several times. Clooney is following the current developments in Sudan from Ohio, where he is directing and acting in a movie, "The Ides of March."

“Satellite imagery combined with on-the-ground analysis is pointing to a deliberate attempt to subvert peace efforts by elements associated with the Khartoum government," said John Prendergast.

"By trying to displace Dinka residents from parts of Abyei, the case is strengthened to further divide the Abyei region between North and South. If mediators and concerned governments acquiesce to this strategy, it would legitimize local population clearing efforts and would be a recipe for a wider war,” said Prendergast, a well known activist working to stop conflicts in Africa.

On Friday, the Satellite Sentinel Project released a report, “Flashpoint: Abyei,” documenting a significant increase in military activity by apparent Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in South Kordofan state, as well as probable Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) buildup south of Abyei. The continuing militarization of this tense region, including evidence of battle tanks and other heavy equipment, has made the already tense situation more combustible.

The satellite images taken by DigitalGlobe confirm widely reported attacks on multiple villages in the Abyei border region since Sunday, February 27. Sources on the ground in Sudan report the fighting may have begun between the southern police and armed Misseriya militia loyal to northern Khartoum government. There are additional reports that elements of the Popular Defense Force militias, historically supported by the North's Sudanese Armed Forces, participated in the attacks.

The village of Maker Abior was previously the scene of fighting just prior to the South Sudan referendum in early January. The fighting, as well as rumors of movement toward Abyei Town, has reportedly triggered the flight of tens of thousands of civilians southward toward Agok.

The satellite project has also documented clear increases in military capacity by the North's Sudan army and the South's Sudan Peoples Liberation Army SAF in areas around Abyei, including heavy equipment transport and tanks at a known Sudan army outpost in Kharassana, a new suspected Sudan army position near Heglig, and a rapid build-out of a suspected encampment of the South's Sudan Peoples Liberation Army in Unity State during the past month.

"The pattern in which these buildings were apparently burned is consistent with the intentional targeting of civilian infrastructure,” said Charlie Clements, MD, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of Human Rights Documentation for SSP. "The systematic destruction of villages, primarily through the burning of civilian infrastructure, including residences, is a violation of the laws of war and represents a gross violation of human rights.

The Satellite Sentinel Project combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker to deter the resumption of full-scale war between North and South Sudan. George Clooney's activist group, Not On Our Watch provided seed money to launch the Satellite Sentinel Project. Other members of Not On Our Watch are Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Jerry Weintraub and David Pressman.

The Enough Project contributes field reports and policy analysis, and, together with Not On Our Watch and Sudan Now pressures policymakers by urging the public to act. UNOSAT analyzes satellite images and collaborates with Google and Trellon to design the web platform. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative provides research and leads the collection, human rights analysis, and corroboration of on-the-ground reports that contextualizes the imagery. DigitalGlobe provides satellite imagery and additional analysis.