NAIROBI, Kenya — In the second YouTube video in a week to highlight an African conflict, George Clooney makes an illegal and dangerous trip to the southern reaches of Sudan, where the actor witnesses what an American activist said Thursday was likely a Chinese-made missile sail overhead.
Clooney's four-minute video highlights attacks on civilians in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, a region that U.S. officials say could soon suffer a severe hunger crisis. The video comes about a week after a YouTube sensation about Joseph Kony, the leader of the brutal Central Africa militia the Lord's Resistance Army.
In the Clooney video, which he wrote and directed, a man from the Nuba community is seen pushing Clooney to take cover after a rocket sails overhead. Mothers carrying children and young children lugging water jugs can be seen moving toward the rock caves.
Ryan Boyette, an American who lives in the Nuba Mountains, said Sudan's military has been launching large, Chinese-made rockets against civilians – not military forces with the rebel group known as the SPLM-N. Boyette said most of the rocket victims are caught off guard because they don't know the rocket is approaching.
Helen Hughes, an arms expert at Amnesty International, said the rockets can travel about 40 miles (60 kilometers) and deliver a "quite large" blast radius. The rockets are supplied by China. Hughes said the country can't close its eyes to the evidence that its weapons are being used against civilians.
"These rockets are long-range, ground-launched unguided rockets, and they're being used in Kauda, which is a civilian area," said Hughes. "There are no military there. They're being used indiscriminately and that's a violation of international humanitarian law."
Clooney met with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday, saying he came away from the talks encouraged.
"The good news for us is we feel like there's a commitment at a high level" to address the Sudanese situation, Clooney told reporters after his meeting with the president. He added that he sensed "great interest in working with China."
The actor was questioned about why he would hold out hope for cooperation from China on Sudan. Clooney said energy-hungry China, which receives about 6 percent of its oil from Sudan, has an economic incentive to work to bring peace to the region.
Oil-rich South Sudan and Sudan, the keeper of the pipelines, have been at odds over oil and profits. Exports have stopped, putting pressure on oil prices worldwide.
"Suddenly, this affects their economy," Clooney said of China. "This is a moment we can appeal to China."
During his advocacy work in Sudan, Clooney helped found the Satellite Sentinel Project, which uses satellite imagery to monitor activities of war. The project on Thursday released a March 8 satellite image the group said showed an Antonov bomber flying away from two sites where plumes of smoke are rising. The group said no military infrastructure or personnel can be seen near the plumes.
The SPLM-N was or is aligned with the military in South Sudan, a new country that broke away from Sudan last year after decades of civil war. The Nuba Mountains were partitioned with the north although the black population there is ethnically and in some cases religiously different than the mostly Arab north.
South Sudan says it has severed ties with the SPLM-N. Sudan accuses it of continuing to aid SPLM-N fighters.
The Clooney video, produced with the advocacy group Enough Project, shows graphic footage of a boy who lost both hands in an attack. It also shows Clooney speaking to a child who recently had a bullet removed from his body.
Clooney asks one man during a conversation: "This is simply trying to clear people out ethnically because of the color of their skin?" The Nuba man responds that Sudan wants to move black Nubans out and put Arabs in.
Boyette said that he has been frequently told by Nubans that they are scared of the Antonov airplane bombings so haven't been in the fields to plant.
"But since they have used the rockets now they are scared to even get firewood and water nearby to cook for their children," Boyette said.
Sudan has refused to allow aid agencies into the region. Nancy Lindborg, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a Senate committee that Clooney testified before on Wednesday that 250,000 people are on the brink of a famine.
Clooney said in Washington it was imperative for the world to move swiftly to open a humanitarian corridor to those in need.
"When the rainy season starts, it is impossible to get through," Clooney said. "There is a very, very great possibility of a lot of people starving in the next few months."
The Kony video, produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children, has received about 80 million views on YouTube since its March 5 launch. The video was applauded in some corners for raising awareness about Kony and his group's attacks on civilians. Critics called the video misleading and accused it of being a fundraising vehicle for an organization some critics said doesn't spend enough on ground-level programs.
Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for the Enough Project, said Clooney was not aware of the popularity of the Kony video while filming the Nuba people, because he was in Sudan during its release. Clooney is quoted in the Kony video as saying he wants warlords to be as famous as he is, but Clooney was referring to Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, not Kony.
"The purpose of the four-minute video is for Clooney to give a megaphone for the Nuba people on the ground and to raise awareness," Hutson said. "Clooney wanted to make sure that the Nubans in the video were not portrayed as victims. He wanted to put the spotlight on the voices of civilians on the ground."