Q&A with George Clooney: Hollywood Legend Talks Sudan, Satellites and How to Stop Atrocities

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Roberto Schmidt / AFP / Getty Images

George Clooney takes a break between interviews at a hotel in Juba on the eve of South Sudan's independence referendum on Jan. 8, 2011

If you wanted a celebrity to adopt your cause, you’d pray for George Clooney. The 50-year-old gets to address Congress, the National Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly, meet U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and have dinner with President Barack Obama. He is resourceful enough to rent a satellite and point it at Sudan. He is also dedicated: the week before his arrest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington in March, he took his sixth trip to South Sudan since 2005. TIME’s Africa bureau chief Alex Perry spoke to him there.

Where are you headed on this trip?
We’re going to Yida Camp [a camp on the border between South Sudan and Sudan, catering to refugees fleeing fighting in the Nuba Mountains in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan]. Then we’re going to sneak up to Kordofan and see what’s going on. It should be interesting. They’ve been bombing up that road. But they’re dropping those bombs from 6,000 ft. out of the side of a plane, so their effectiveness has been mostly to terrorize and less to actually … The bigger issue is violence on the road. Some guys just shot and killed and slit the throats of some people going up that road. So you have to be careful. But it’s O.K. We’ve been in some sticky situations before. And we’re going with some guys who know what they’re doing. And you gotta do it.

We found a consistent picture of the Sudanese forces targeting civilians when we were in South Kordofan.
That’s the thing that makes me crazy. It’s all the same argument we constantly have, which is: we have a satellite that keeps showing mass graves. We caught helicopters, we got tanks, armaments like crazy. And still it’ll be, Well, this is rebel infighting. So that’s our job this time. We’re going to go up to some of the places that we’ve had pictures of and say, Well, you know, you say those aren’t mass graves, and we have pictures of it and an analysis that says it is. So now we’re going to go stand there and go, Those look like mass grave to me — and then get some footage of it. Part of what we’re trying to do is just continually keep beating this drum until it just gets deafening.

(MORE: In Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, Rebels Make Gain — and Talk of Marching on Khartoum)

Whose idea was it to get a satellite to spy on Sudan?
Mine. We were lying in the desert out by Valentino Achak Deng’s place. [Deng was the subject of What Is the What?, a best-selling biography by Dave Eggers]. He’s built a school there, based on the money they’ve earned from the book, and we were lying on the sand, looking up at the stars, and I was like, “How come you could Google Earth my house and you can‘t Google Earth where war crimes are being committed? It doesn’t make sense to me.” And John [Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project and Clooney’s traveling companion in Sudan] was like, “I don’t know. You know maybe we can.” So then we started talking to Google and DigitalGlobe and Harvard. The trick was not just to get the images but to get them in close to real time and get the analysis done quickly so that you can say, Well, five days ago this is what this place looked like; this is what it looked like two days ago.

It’s brilliant. I mean it’s insane, but it’s brilliant.
It’s a very effective tool. If you’re going to put 150,000 troops on a border, you’re going to have a really tough time claiming this is all just rebel infighting if that’s photographed by satellites up close and personal. It makes it harder to get away with. Probably the most effective part of it is to make it impossible for the Security Council [to veto an action].

And we know it’s effective because the government in Khartoum keeps saying what a rotten bunch of people we are and how it’s not fair. I love the it’s-not-fair thing. Literally stomping their feet [saying:] It’s not fair! The Defense Minister came out and said, “How would Mr. Clooney like it if every time he left his house there were people watching him with cameras?” And I was like, “Man, I want you to enjoy the exact same amount of celebrity as me.” It seems fair to me. You can’t please all the war criminals all the time. So sue me, you know?

What do you find is the most effective way to make your point?
The thing that’s frustrating and disappointing — and you in the news organizations know this better than anybody — is that the assumption is always, Well, if we know, then we do something about it. And that just isn’t true. I mean we knew about Rwanda, we knew about Bosnia. We knew. But there was plausible deniability. So we’re going to try and keep it loud enough that at least they can’t say they didn’t know.

We also have talking points. [U.S. President Barack Obama] said an interesting thing [recently] at a press conference to a question about gas prices. He said, “Gas prices are because of speculators. They’re because of a threat of action by Israel in Iran, and they’re because Sudan shut its oil off.” That’s a really good place for us to be able to go home and say to people, Why should we give a damn about Sudan? Because every time you put gas in your tank, you’re affected.

You’re meeting the Chinese too?
We have a meeting with the Chinese when we get out. The Chinese get 6% of their oil [from Sudan]. They have a great need. So it’s an interest, an incentive. I’ve traveled to Egypt, I’ve traveled to China and spoken to their leaders. It is in their interest.

[During the preparations for the referendum in South Sudan’s independence in January 2011] the Chinese came out and said if there is a referendum and they vote for a separate country from South Sudan, then China would observe and support it. They said, Hey, man, if you guys go to war, they’re going to blow up all those oil wells in the south that we built, and we’re not going to be able to get to the oil. The minute that happened, everything changed. Everything changed. Pressure from Khartoum became very different. There wasn’t going to be a war. Everything was pointing to that, and it didn’t happen. There’s no way of telling whether how many people’s lives were saved by that. That’s the kind of effect that they can have. And not for some great humanitarian reason. Guilting any country into doing something right … I’ve never seen it actually work. What you can do is appeal to their good sense. Because they’ve been spending years building an infrastructure here for oil. So China is the issue here. And they can be the hero here.

Do you think you can even persuade Khartoum? Do you even get to meet them?
I was there once. We’ve tried carrots. I’ve been the first to talk about seeing if there’s some door to open to allow these guys to step through and have an easier way of it. But carrots haven’t been very successful with the government of Khartoum. They don’t want to do it. So now we have to make it much harder, make it so these officials can’t spend their money anywhere.

What’s the big concern for the immediate future?
Things are starting to elevate pretty rapidly [in the Nuba Mountains], and it looks like famine could become a real issue. [We] hope there’s a way to create some sort of a corridor, just to keep [Khartoum] from bombing them so they can at least grow crops. And that’s the big danger, the big question. The international community has to prepare for what will be 125,000 people starving to death in rapid-fire succession. And there has to be some real headway made on that immediate crisis.

Second, you have 110,000 people that are just gone, forced out of the place their ancestors grew up. That’s ethnic [cleansing]. There’s no other way around it. It’s that simple. They’re clearing them out to suck what’s left of the oil out of that area.

The Nuban rebels have made some advances. How do you rate their chances?
The reality is Khartoum’s pretty heavily armed. What you really need them to do is protect and give some safety to some of the people there. It’s all the same thing as Syria. Do you go to the [South Sudanese] government and say, Well, supply some arms for these people? Or is [that] just escalating the war?

What do you get out of these trips?
It’s not the most comfortable way to spend 10 days, but, you know, the truth is I think any human being, once they participate in something that’s bigger than themselves and, and something that you can’t fix yourself, the idea that you wouldn’t continue … you would feel as if you had done something terrible, you’d abandoned them. So you have to continue. You’re never going to win. You’re never going to succeed fully. What is required to actually succeed at all is sustained. And it will be two steps forward and three steps back. And it will feel oftentimes like a failure. But it will always have moved. If you can step back and look at it, I mean, there’s an independent South Sudan now that wasn’t there a year ago.

(MORE: Global Justice: A Step Forward with the Conviction of Charles Taylor and Blood Diamonds)

But can South Sudan make it?
I don’t know. Look, could this have been Somalia? It’s always a possibility. You know nobody thought that Mugabe was a bad guy when he started. Nobody thought Charles Taylor was a bad guy. Who knows? If you travel here, you sit in the back of a pickup truck for eight hours, riding on what is supposed to be a road that isn’t, and you get where there are people starving to death everywhere you look — literally starving to death and roasting outside — and every one of them has an AK-47. They’re armed to the teeth. This is a land of people that has been at war for a long, long time.

Could it fail? Without question. What I do know is that when something is on fire, the first thing you do is put the fire out. And it will most definitely fail without the entire world’s effort in trying to help it. And it has every good reason to because there are an awful lot of resources here that the world is going to want.

We’re going to see if this new government is able to pull it together. I know them, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I have faith in them. I was here for the day of the vote. That was pretty exciting. It was wild. I literally watched this 90-year-old woman who’d never voted in her life and who’d walked a couple of miles to a polling station to vote for the first time in her life for freedom. And there’s something mind-blowing to see 98% of the people voting. Here they consider it a duty and an honor and a privilege. It was really exciting to see. But it was worrisome too. [Because] once you’ve voted for your freedom, then what?