Video: To save the children

By Ann Curry
Dateline NBC
updated 3/16/2009 6:33:13 PM ET 2009-03-16T22:33:13

The dusty, sun-baked roads leading to the refugee camps on the border of Chad and Sudan are unforgiving. These are roads shared by camels and nomads, bandits and Arab militiamen.

They are also the lifeline to tens of thousands of people forced from Darfur into isolated camps, struggling to survive.

George Clooney: Watch yourself, this might be a big one.

We're traveling with actor George Clooney, an outspoken Darfur activist who sees his fame as a means to draw attention to a conflict often ignored by the world. He's also a United Nations messenger of peace, who says his role becomes more challenging with each passing day.

George Clooney: The problem is, how do you keep it new, how do you remind people that each one of these is an individual that's a person who grew up with a family and a story. And we forget that after a while. It becomes numbers.

And the numbers are staggering. A war that began as a crackdown on anti-government rebels six years ago has driven 2.5 million civilians from their homes. An estimated 300,000 have lost their lives as Sudanese troops and government-led Arab militias continue to target black African tribes.

Clooney worries about complacency setting in, and what that means for those whose lives hang in the balance in these refugee camps.

George Clooney: I was here three years ago and in some ways there isn't a whole lot of difference. It's sort of status quo. And the problem with that is that the status quo is unacceptable, at any level, for anybody.

The fates of so many here continue to unfold in unimaginable ways.

When we met 17-year-old Aziza in 2006, she told us how three men on horseback chased her down as she was gathering firewood. One, who she says was wearing a Sudanese military uniform, told her, "You're black, you have no place here." Then, she said somberly, he raped her.

We set out to find Aziza on this trip. And when we did, we found that the trembling teenager we first met is now a woman with quiet strength. She is married, expecting her first child, yet still fearful.

AnnCurry: She says, "I am still scared when I collect firewood, now for my baby too. But if it's a girl, I will protect her. I don't want her to be a victim as I was."

Abdulla Inderes could hardly speak when we first found him in a makeshift hospital. His eyes were bayoneted by Arab attackers. Today, he is blind and led around the camp by his wife. He dotes on their young son he has never seen. Like Aziza, he says his attack was motivated by the color of his skin.

Abdulla Inderes: (speaks in foreign language)

AnnCurry:  "They said I was black and useless," he says. "A fool. So what we have to do, they said, is kill you."

Stories like these haunt Clooney.

Ann Curry: How heavy does it weigh upon you to try and give voice to all these people?

George Clooney: Well, I come back because for the same reason I think you come back. If there is any chance you can shine a light on it, and if you don't, it's irresponsible.

Still, there are times when his sense of responsibility gives way to an easy sense of humor.

Ann Curry: There are a lot of problems in the world, George Clooney, why this one?

George Clooney: I didn't want to do anything where it was cold.

It doesn't take long traveling with Clooney to notice that even though he takes his humanitarian work seriously, he doesn't always take himself seriously.

George Clooney: It's our second night in Goz Beida. Let me show you the bathroom. 

That was obvious after we gave him a small camera to record his thoughts during the trip. Video: Darfur refugees refuse to be broken

George Clooney: And that's us. [Looks in mirror] Hi. That's a nice hair-do, by the way. I pay people to cut my hair. I pay them a lot of money. You think it would last longer than just a short trip to Chad. I'm sounding like Andy Rooney. Why doesn't my hair last? Why don't I have hair that can last through Chad? But I don't. I never paid for it.

Where there is humor, there is often hope. And it's clear that Clooney draws hope from the faces and the spirit of these children.

And here on the edge of the Sahara Desert, you find hope in the most unlikely places.  This mud-brick building is a school house. After the U.S. elections, the refugees renamed classroom number one. It is now the Obama school.

Inside, they don't know George Clooney is a movie star.

George Clooney: Let's see what we got.

... they just think he's fun.

George Clooney: That you?

Children's voices: Yeah!

George Clooney: Ah, nice.

And Clooney the activist isn't above using the children to deliver a message.

George Clooney: Salaam, Obama!

Children[in unison] : Salaam, Obama!

Ann Curry: It was interesting to see you wave at the camera and say, "Hey say hi to Obama," and they all did. You did that for a purpose. You did that for a reason.

George Clooney: Oh, it's manipulative.

Ann Curry: What do you want Obama to do?

George Clooney: We want him to appoint a high-end, full-time diplomat to everyday to work hard on a negotiation for a peace treaty.

A few days after he left Chad, Clooney took his talking points to the White House. After a meeting with President Obama and Vice President Biden, he emerged optimistic.

George Clooney: They said they would appoint a full-time, high-level envoy that would report directly to the White House, which I think is a huge step.

The White House has not made an official announcement. But back in Chad, people have high hopes for President Obama, and for the international community to finally rally behind them.

As we listened to the tribal elders, it was clear that perhaps more than anything else, the prospect of justice fuels this hope. They were waiting for word any day that the International Criminal Court would indict the man they most hold responsible for destroying their lives - Sudan President Omar al-Bashir - a man whose name women in the camps sing out in anguish.

And on March 4, the prayers of thousands of refugees were answered.

Court spokeswoman: Omar Bashir is suspected of being criminally responsible: murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians.

The court indicted President Bashir on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. He became the first sitting head of state to be charged by the war crimes tribunal.

Standing before cheering crowds in Khartoum, a defiant President Bashir denied all the allegations and said western colonialists would not bring him down.

He quickly ordered thirteen international humanitarian organizations out of the country, a move that President Obama said a few days ago put millions of lives in jeopardy.

President Barack Obama: We have a potential crisis of even greater dimensions than what we already saw.

Whether President Bashir's order will force a new flood of refugees across the border into camps in Chad is unclear. But what is clear is that even in this fragile existence, hope sustains life.

It's in a song rising from a school named Obama; it's in the intertwined hands of a young boy and his father, a man blinded by a bayonet. And it's in the kick of an unborn baby whose mother had been beaten and raped. George Clooney sees it every time he returns to the camps.

George Clooney: They want to go back to their villages. They want to live normal lives. They want to be normal human beings.

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