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Can celebrities save Darfur?

Some say star power and awareness campaigns are not enough to resolve conflict.

Actors George Clooney (C) and Don Cheadle (R), along with athlete Tegla Loroupe, report on the situation in Darfur at the United Nations in December 2006. Despite an effective awareness campaign, the human rights crisis in Darfur continues to fester. (Chip East/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Five years after American activists began to call attention to the violence in Darfur, their movement has bloomed in size and sophistication, reaching out via the internet, enlisting Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney and Mia Farrow and touching everyone from presidential candidates to junior high school service clubs.

In its mission to raise awareness, the coalition to save Darfur has been “spectacularly successful,” said Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani. Yet if “you go to Darfur and you look on the ground, you find it very difficult to put the words Darfur and success in the same sentence,” admitted Rebecca Hamilton, a Darfur activist.

Hamilton, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, is now conducting research for a book, to try to understand what she says is the troublesome “mismatch between all the energy … and the outcome.”

“We still have thousands of people living in camps,” said Scott Gration, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Darfur, briefing reporters last week.

“We have women (threatened by rape) who are afraid to go out and collect firewood, and we have children that are not having the benefit of growing up in their homeland; they are growing up in these camps.” Meanwhile, violence in the nearby region is increasing, Gration said.

“The status quo is horrible,” said John Norris, a foreign aid expert with the Enough Project. “There is no effective peacekeeping on the ground.”

This spring, after being indicted by the International Criminal Court, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir expelled 13 international aid groups, who are still trying to work their way back. Prominent advocates, like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and actress Angelina Jolie, have recently voiced concern that the crisis is slipping from the public radar.

“The Save Darfur movement seems to be losing steam,” Kristof wrote in his blog June 9. “It is riven by internal debate, it is being ignored by the Obama administration.”

“I find it very sad that this administration should seem so uninterested,” he said. “Darfur has been allowed to fester.” The devastating north-south civil war in Sudan, which has been contained by a temporary peace agreement, could erupt again, Kristof warned.

Amid the self-examination, the Save Darfur movement has been bruised, as well, by Mamdani’s new book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror,” which accuses the coalition of a long list of sins, including religious and racial imperialism, hype, historical ignorance, and sentimentality.