In the more than five years since the end of civil war in South Sudan, what began as a Hollywood-friendly script of heroism and positive celebrity activism has disintegrated into the stuff of a horror movie.
That grim reality was made clear again this week, when the UN released a report detailing widespread and ongoing human abuses in the African nation whose very existence came about through the widely publicized efforts of George Clooney, the Washington elite of the Obama era, and an international community some saw as more hopeful than realistic about the challenges facing one of the most war-weary regions in the world.
The 212-page report deplored the "mass rape, killings and torture" taking place in South Sudan, where investigators found people have been detained and tortured in "secret, vermin-ridden detention centers" for years on end, while "children have been run down by tanks, girls as young as seven raped, babies drowned, starved or smashed against trees."
The report detailed that in some poorer areas of the country, two-thirds of women and one-third of men may have been sexually abused, and that violence has remained commonplace despite a fragile peace agreement – first inked in September – remains in place.
The report's findings were no surprise to those who have remained involved in South Sudan, eight years after the people of what was the Christian-dominant region achieved independence from the Muslim-run central government of Sudan.
“The atrocities are egregious: Rape, plunder, and wanton killings that amount to genocide,” Brian Adeba, Deputy Director of Policy at The Enough Project, partly funded by Clooney, told Fox News in an interview well before the report was released. “All sides in the conflict are guilty of these crimes, but the government bears more responsibility for its overwhelming control of the monopoly of violence.”
Since December 2013, South Sudan has been torn apart by bloodshed that has displaced more than one-third of the country’s 12 million population, and left an estimated 400,000 people dead, according to a State Department-funded study released in late September. More than half the country is battling post-traumatic stress disorder, with little in the way of mental health care.
Most U.S taxpayers are entirely unaware they have given more than $10 billion to support South Sudan over the years, and each year still fund more than one-quarter of all the international aid awarded to the nascent nation. The U.S. is also the largest patron of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
But things may be changing, at least for the U.S. Outlining President Trump's new Africa strategy, National Security Advisor John Bolton late last year took particular aim at South Sudan.
"This administration will not allow hard-earned taxpayer dollars to fund corrupt autocrats, who use the money to fill their coffers at the expense of the people. For example, the United States is now reviewing its assistance to South Sudan to ensure that our aid does not prolong the conflict," he said. "We will not provide loans or more American resources to a South Sudanese government led by the same morally bankrupt leaders, who perpetuate the horrific violence and immense human suffering.
So what went wrong? Was it a case of well-meaning celebrities like Clooney overplaying their hand? Or a failure of the international community? Or was it a worthy leap of faith, run afoul by greed and corrupt leadership?
The chaos of today’s South Sudan stands in stark contrast to the jubilation among many following a 2011 vote for independence, which came after some five decades of brutal conflict with the north - at an estimated cost of two million lives.
But within two years of independence, President Salva Kiir – an ethnic Dinka – accused his first vice president, Rick Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of plotting a coup attempt. Tensions escalated. And by the end of 2013, the world’s newest nation was enmeshed in its own horrific civil war.
Some were not surprised the situation went so badly, even after well-intentioned and respected activists like Clooney helped convince the Obama administration to strongly support South Sudan's independence.
“Champions of South Sudanese independence did not appreciate how fractured and dysfunctional the region that would become South Sudan was, and how that dysfunction would make it virtually impossible to form a stable, democratic state,” said Joshua Meservey, Africa policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation.
Prior to the 2011 declaration - when some pessimism spread among diplomatic and policy experts about South Sudan - Clooney teamed up with renowned philanthropist John Prendergast and launched a media offensive. Nearly 100,000 people sent emails to the White House demanding action. One prominent former Sudanese child soldier, Valentino Achak Deng, even went as far as to say that “the referendum would not have taken place” without Clooney’s campaigning.
Clooney wasn’t alone in his support. Other prominent names like his Ocean's 11 bedfellow Don Cheadle publicly rallied for its creation, as did prominent political figures such as Susan Rice and Sen. John Kerry. South Sudan's cause was also pushed by both ex-presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“Clooney’s good intentions were never in question. He played his role, which was getting attention to a crisis, and did it rather well. He also played far closer attention to his cause than most celebrities and took some risks with his own safety. I would say; however, he was badly – or narrowly – briefed,” noted Alex Perry, author of “Clooney's War: South Sudan, Humanitarian Failure and Celebrity.”
Perry condemned the early narrative of Sudanese leaders as the villains, and South Sudan as the good guys, for having “skewed (opinions) in an inaccurate direction.”
Yet that was the storyline that permeated in Washington. In March 2012, Clooney Oscar briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and leveled blame at the Khartoum-based, Sudanese government.
Along with dramatic footage of himself at the Sudanese border, Clooney demonstrated the depths of children's suffering, and the sound of rockets cracking above, not only painting a vivid and emotional picture for decision makers; but drawing awareness to a long-running war not familiar to many in the West. A few days after his testimony – Clooney trespassed onto the grounds of the Sudan Embassy, and with television crews rolling live, was hoisted away in handcuffs, and made to pay a $100 fine.
Clooney also leveraged his relationship with then-President Barack Obama for an Oval Office visit, to ensure a special envoy to Sudan was appointed. Clooney's tireless commitment and extensive boots-on-the-ground experience – where he endured a bout of malaria – won the respect of the White House and others.
In late 2010, weeks before the big vote, Clooney and Pendergast launched the Satellite Sentinel Project – partnering with Google, the UN, and Harvard University – to “stop a war before it starts,” by curtailing the waiting time for satellite images from the region to be processed in less than 36 hours, rather than two weeks. The idea was to publicly analyze and showcase mass movements of people, the decimation of towns and villages, and other markers of war crimes and premeditated bloodshed.
But Clooney’s relationship with the Juba-based South Sudan government dramatically curdled over time.
By 2015, when the civil war was well underway, the website announced it would no longer be collecting and analyzing satellite imagery. Those resources were instead channeled into a new Clooney initiative within The Enough Project, titled The Sentry, which is made up of a team of forensic investigators, policy analysts, and experts who track the financial networks of those deemed “most responsible for Africa’s deadliest conflicts.”
In September 2016, Clooney and Prendergast wrote in a Washington Post editorial that a “new strategy” to “counter the mass atrocities” was required in the form of anti-money-laundering measures, with targeted sanctions focused on top regime officials, while still “encouraging banks to help provide essential services to innocent South Sudanese.”
The following year, in March 2017, Clooney and Prendergrast characterized South Sudan's crisis as “government-made.” Clooney went on to accuse the leadership of exacerbating ethnic tensions to foster their own fortunes – from multi-million-dollar mansions and luxury cars to high-power international business ventures – in the oil-rich nation.
Clooney’s involvement in Sudan and South continues today, albeit more quietly. He and Prendergast recently wrote a column for the Guardian addressing their efforts against the Sudanese government, and briefly mentioned South Sudan. His initiative continues to churn out exposes regarding South Sudan’s corruption.
“Mr. Clooney has stayed closely involved in monitoring the crisis unfolding in South Sudan,” Prendergast told Fox News, noting the actor's backing comes mainly from financing The Sentry initiative. “The Sentry undertakes investigations into the illicit financial flows of the networks that are setting this region on fire and profiting from it. He has generously helped fund the initiative and works closely with me on strategy and impact.”
Their October, 2018 report, “Banking on War: Ending the abuse of South Sudan’s banking sector by political elites pushing for peace,” illuminated how “violent kleptocrats with access to the global financial system” are able to send the “proceeds of their mass corruption out of the country,” thus urging the United States, the European Union, South Sudan’s neighbors and global banks to use their leverage to target the money laundering.
The South Sudanese government has rejected charges it is a failing state, or one that has been brought on by the leadership itself. The South Sudan embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for further comment.
Pete Martell, a journalist who has covered South Sudan for more than a decade, and recently published “First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan won the longest war but lost the peace,” said that “while international support was critical in ensuring the referendum on independence, claiming that Washington, or any other nation, made South Sudan” is an insult to the millions who fought and died for that freedom.
“The U.S. appeared only at the very end, helping the final stage of a very long journey,” he noted. “Around 2011, too often the stories were ones where Washington was creating a country – and the media focus was on those celebrities who became the face of that cause. The focus should have been on how the creation of that country was actually going.”