George Clooney, in safari shirt and hiking boots, is holding court for the media in the dust of a former war zone.
Perched on a wooden chair near the banks of the White Nile, the actor is lending his star wattage to a new campaign: freedom for the people of southern Sudan. One by one, the invited media are ushered over to him for carefully rationed 10-minute chats, complete with the chance to pose for a photo with him.
Nearby, in the Nile, impoverished urchins are playing in the fast-flowing river, next to the rusty hulk of a wrecked barge. Just a few years ago, Juba was the heart of one of the world's longest and bloodiest wars. Now it is the latest battlefront in Sudan's political machinations, and Mr. Clooney is heavily involved.
It's a bravura performance. As he chats with the journalists, he is genial, charming, good-humoured, yet detailed on the nuances of Sudanese politics. He has just returned from a flying visit to Abyei, a key flashpoint that could trigger a return to war between the north and south, and he is knowledgeable about the obscure ethnic politics of that crucial region. He even has suggestions on the complexities of revenue-sharing and nomad grazing rights - and he warns of the risk of full-scale war if the efforts fail.
But he knows that he has to communicate to a North American audience, so he switches to sports metaphors to explain how he can anticipate the tactics of his nemesis, the Sudanese President and accused war criminal Omar al-Bashir.
"We're watching tape on the basketball game and we know that he doesn't pick and roll," he says with a chuckle.
"He's very predictable. We know all the moves. If you play basketball with somebody three times, you know that they've got no left hand…. We know how Bashir acts. He helps arm one of the rebel groups that are in disagreement with other groups in the south and tries to foment violence to destabilize the government. That's what he's always done."
Nobody doubts Mr. Clooney's sincerity about human rights - and his love for basketball. But as he ventures again into the thorny thickets of Sudanese politics, after years of controversial activism on Darfur, some critics are questioning whether his latest scheme might be as superficial as his sports analogies.
His new plan to monitor Sudanese troop movements with private satellite technology has gained praise from some analysts, but it is scorned by others who say that the satellite images could be misleading or even counter-productive. Satellite photos, according to some military experts, are not precise enough to be helpful, especially in chaotic and remote regions of Sudan where even high-level commanders are uncertain of troop movements. And wrongly interpreted photos could make tensions much worse, they say.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on the weekend, Mr. Clooney defended the satellite project - and flared into anger when he is asked about the many critics who deride his political activism.
"I'm sick of it," he said. "If your cynicism means you stand on the sidelines and throw stones, I'm fine, I can take it. I could give a damn what you think. We're trying to save some lives. If you're cynical enough not to understand that, then get off your ass and do something. If you're angry at me, go do it yourself. Find another cause - I don't care. We're working, and we're going forward."
His current scheme, known as the Satellite Sentinel Project, aims to be an "early warning system" to scout for troop movements that could trigger war between Sudan's north and south. Using commercial satellites and field reports, along with expert analysis from the United Nations and Harvard University, the project will try to prevent military clashes on the north-south border. "We want to cast a spotlight - literally - on the hot spots along the border to record any actions that might escalate the chances of conflict," the project's website says. More succinctly, Mr. Clooney calls it the "anti-genocide paparazzi."
In the interview, he said the first satellite data is already beginning to arrive, but the project leaders want to analyze it carefully before releasing it. They want to make sure that they know which side is the aggressor and which side is the defender. "We don't want to inflame," he said. "We don't want to blow it on the first crack - we want to get it right."
He also doesn't want to disrupt the south's referendum on secession, which so far is going better than anyone expected. His current visit to southern Sudan, his second since October, has been inspirational. "It's not often in your lifetime that you get to witness the birth of a nation," he said on Sunday after visiting the polling stations where voters were deciding on secession from the north.
"This has been an extraordinary moment. No one thought it would come off as scheduled."
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