Don Cheadle: A Leading Man on a Mission

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Cheadle at the 65th Annual Tony Awards in New York City, last week. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Tony Awards Productions).

Don Cheadle earned an Academy Award nomination for his unforgettable portrayal of a Rwandan hotelier trying to protect his fellow citizens from genocide in the 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda," and ever since, he's been a man on a mission, trying to prevent another genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

It was a chance meeting with California Congressman Ed Royce at a “Hotel Rwanda” screening that led to Cheadle joining a Congressional Delegation to visit refugee camps in Chad and Sudan, and what he saw convinced him that he had to speak out. 

"You have tribal leaders, and community leaders, and they get to these camps and live under makeshift blue tarp tents that the UN has provided, if they're lucky," Cheadle said. "Sometimes they're just living in whatever they can cobble together on their own, from mud and dirt bricks and whatever is available."

"These are people who have been taken out of their homeland and forced into these very unnatural living conditions, and their human needs are very taxing, and there are very limited resources."

From that moment on, Cheadle has thrown himself headlong into the fight for Darfur, producing the 2007 documentary Darfur Now about the genocide, co-authoring the book "Not On Our Watch," with activist John Prendergast, and even joining with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, to found NotOnOurWatch.org, which focuses global attention on ongoing rights abuses and atrocities in Sudan.

It hasn't been an easy fight, as the regime in Sudan has proven stubbornly immune to international pressure to halt violence in Darfur.

Just last week, the United Nations chief international war crimes prosecutor said that Sudan President Omar al-Bashir — who has already been indicted for war crimes — is committing new atrocities in Darfur, including new air attacks and killings of ethnic minorities. 

"Crimes against humanity and genocide continue unabated in Darfur," International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the Security Council. "These millions of victims displaced are still subjected today to rapes, terror and conditions of life aimed at the destruction of their communities, constituting genocide."

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Cheadle at a news conference on the genocide in Darfur on Capitol Hill with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., appears at right. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

The renewed Darfur violence takes place as government-backed militias carry out a campaign of violence aimed at oil-rich southern regions of the country, which may vote to join the newly independent Republic of South Sudan. 

Fighting in Sudan has forced more than 1 million people from their homes, according to the UN's refugee agency, with tens of thousands residing in camps in Sudan and across the border with Chad. 

Throughout the ups and downs of the struggle to protect Darfur — a 2006 peace agreement appears to have crumbled, and the violence is at its highest level since 2008 — Cheadle has remained a steadfast voice, even as other celebrities may have fled to causes that were more en vogue.

"Don has brought a level of credibility and seriousness that accompanies his fame," said Prendergast, the co-author of Cheadle's 2007 book, and the co-founder of The Enough Project. "That combination is crucial, I think, in getting the attention of policy-makers as well as expanding the popular movement of folks willing to act on the issue."

"He has made a real difference on these issues," he added.

In addition to traveling to Egypt and China — Sudan's largest trading partners — to encourage them to put pressure on the Sudan regime, Cheadle has found some more light-hearted ways to raise money and awareness, and still have a major impact.

His Ante Up For Africa poker tournaments, co-hosted with Annie Duke, have raised more than $3.2 million since 2007.

The actor says he is still hopeful that there will be an end to the violence, and he has seen small strides. But he refuses to single out any one accomplishment since he began his activism back in 2004.

"Maybe it's my own personality, my own makeup, but I will feel like we will have done something when it's over, and when human rights abuses have ended," Cheadle said.