George Clooney was arrested last weekend for demonstrating outside the Sudan Embassy in Washington. The focus of his action was the bombing of the people of the Nuba Mountains by the Sudan Armed Forces.
Few Australians would realise the special significance of this issue to us.
Since the British left in 1956, Sudan has been almost constantly at war. The root cause of the wars in Sudan is the profound neglect of most of the country by the Khartoum elite. The people in Khartoum and along nearby sections of the Nile consider themselves Arabs and part of the Arab world. Most of the people in the rest of the country think of themselves as Africans and part of sub-Saharan Africa. The Khartoum government has alienated all the African Sudanese. The conflicts in Sudan are not religious. The fact that the people of Darfur, in the west of Sudan, are Muslims did not prevent a decade of attacks by Khartoum and its Arab militias.
The Nuba Mountains are on the border between Sudan and the new country of South Sudan, which became independent on July 9, 2011.
South Sudan's independence was achieved after two civil wars that each lasted about 20 years and killed over two million people. The wars ended in 2005 with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Unfortunately, the agreement was not comprehensive enough and excluded three border areas that remain in dispute: Abyei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
The Nuba Mountains are in South Kordofan.
The civil wars in southern Sudan resulted in massive numbers of refugees, with more than 25,000 eventually coming to Australia. This is by far the largest group of black Africans in Australia.
Most South Sudanese came to Australia between 2001 and 2007, when they formed the majority of our refugee intake. Some were ''Lost Boys'', so wonderfully described in Dave Eggers' book What is the what? about the life of Valentino Achak Deng. These boys grew up wandering through southern Sudan and living in refugee camps before finally going to the US, Canada and Australia. I have met some of them here in Sydney and they are as fine a group of young men as you could ever hope to meet.
Australian South Sudanese are asking what they can do to help their new country. Some are returning, like Naomi Yar Paul Madutt, the Deputy Commissioner of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, who I met in South Sudan's capital, Juba, in November last year. Others want to remain in Australia, like Majak Daw who plays for the AFL club North Melbourne. But they all want to help build a secure and prosperous South Sudan and we need to develop mechanisms to facilitate this.
Among the many inter-personal links between Australia and South Sudan perhaps the most important one is with the President, Salva Kiir, who has family in Adelaide. These links make for a unique relationship between Australia and South Sudan. Most Africans don't know anything about Australia and confuse it with Austria. Not so in Juba, where every second person I met seemed to have a relative in Sydney or Melbourne.
While the George Clooney story was related to South Sudan's northern border with Sudan, the other big Africa story of the past two weeks, Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video, involves South Sudan's southern border. Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army left Uganda in 2006 and are now active in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. There are currently 90,000 people in refugee camps in South Sudan because of Joseph Kony, a major obstacle to development.
For me, the fact that there are so many Sudanese-Australians is a compelling reason for us to become more involved in that part of Africa. However, many Australians think Africa is just too far away. The Kony 2012 video, with its 100 million hits, shows that distance is of limited importance in the age of the internet. Australia's new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, may want to focus on China, Indonesia, the Pacific and the US but he needs to pay attention to Africa as well.
Robert G. Cumming is professor of epidemiology at the Sydney School of Public Health.