Idea Festival: Kristof on Darfur

Nicholas Kristof has turned his column with the New York Times into a powerful tool to advocate for disadvantaged people around the world, especially in Africa. In introducing him to the Idea Festival stage, the moderator mentions that Kristoff has travelled to every American state, every Chinese province, 120 countries and every member of the axis of evil.

Kristof takes the stage and, almost immediately, tells us that we have a “moral obligation to stand up to the ultimate human crime: genocide”. We would expect moral leadership to come from Washington… but throughout the 20th century, leadership has come from the street, not from government. President Wilson looked the other way during the Armenian genocide; FDR ignored pleas to bomb the train lines leading to Auschwitz; the Clinton administration avoided even using the word “genocide” in Rwanda.

There was hope that George W. Bush might change this model – reading a report on Clinton’s inaction in Rwanda, President Bush scrawled, “Not on my watch” in the margin. Perhaps President Bush aspired to do better than President Clinton, but, in fact, it hasn’t happened. Samantha Power’s argument in her genocide book is that we don’t act on genocide because we don’t want to – we’ve got other priorities, other issues we think are more important.

Kristoff tells us that he was moved to focus his attentions on Darfur due to his travels to the region. Because we haven’t been there, he shows us a series of images from the Sudan/Chad border, an oasis that is normally uninhabited, but currently has 30,000 refugees. Kristoff went “tree to tree” talking to family groups who’d fled their homes. Under the first tree, he met a man who’d been shot in the neck, who’d nursed his brother for 49 days, carrying him to this refugee camp. The next tree featured a woman who’s sister who had been thrown into a well to poison it. Under the next, a pair of young girls who’s parents had been kiled. Under the fourth tree, a woman who’d been gang-raped and mutilated.

“What really got to me is that these were the first four trees where I did interviews. In all directions, there were more trees and more people. I realized the mass of the atrocities, the scale of it – it’s been very hard to move on and write about other things.”

Kristoff offers scenes from a DVD, a compendium of horrors:

He shows us the destruction of a village. Typically, villages are bombed by government planes, then hundreds of janjawid pass through with machine guns, shooting everything that moves, with a focus on men and boys.

In a village in Chad, two janjawid soldiers were camptured, and Kristof had an opportunity to interview one, a man who’d been shot off his horse and hit with a machete. He explained that he wasn’t attacking villages out of hatred, but because he’d been paid by the government.

He shows video of a young man who’d tried to flee a janjawid attack – his eyes had been gouged out with a bayonet. His daughter, at the foot of the bed, was looking at her father with an expression of utter revulsion, an image that Kristof said broke his heart.

An elderly man refused to leave the village when the janjawid came, because his wife was unable to run. The janjawid knocked him down and started a bonfire on his back. His wife jumped onto the fire and put it out with her body – the soldiers let them both go at that point.

How did we come to this situation? There’s a long-time tension between Arab and non-Arab populations, a tension between herdsmen and farmers, between lighter and darker-skinned people. In 2003, the African tribes formed an incipient rebellion, and the “Sudanese government went beserk and decided to wipe out the rural population in Darfur.” Kristof points out that the Sudanese government is not a group of extremists, but a fairly rational government – they simply saw a tremendous threat in Darfur, and unleashed attacks to neutralize the threat.

One of the dynamics of the conflict is mass rape as a weapon of terror. The attackers don’t just rape – they scar women after the fact in an attempt to mark them as victims.

The government acknowledges killings in Darfur, but says that these are tribal tensions and not something they can control. But Sudan has released people from prison and armed them to allow them to attack in the region. Kristof tells us about driving on a road controlled by the Sudanese military – he was stopped at each checkpoint, but the janjawid were waved through each checkpoint. At one checkpoint, his translator – a nineteen-year old boy – was stopped for “investigation”… “and it was very clear that investigation would consist of him being shot after we left.” Kristof and his photographer refused to leave, and they were detained along with their translator. “But having white skin and a blue passport is a certain amount of protection” – he, his photographer and his interpreter were released, but it underscored for him the involvement of the Sudanese government in the killing in Darfur.

Kristof offers a few skeptical questions that we may be afraid to ask:

– Is this a genocide? There’s an attempt to wipe out men over 13, but not neccesarily women and children. But under the definition coined by Rafael Lempkin, genocide doesn’t need to be an attempt to exterminate each person. The situation in Darfur, he argues, is similar to the Armenian genocide in this sense.

– Yes, Darfur is terrible, but so is malaria, and the death toll has been much worse. Kristof acknowledges that we need to do more about AIDS, malaria and other diseases. But nothing has personally effected him more than seeing a government killing civilians because of tribe. “If you go to Darfur, you cannot doubt the existence of evil.”

Kristof doesn’t think that sending US troops to Darfur is the solution – it would be percieved as a play for Sudan’s oil in the wake of Iraq. So Kristof recommends mobilizing international reaction and embarrasing Sudan on the global stage. France, the UK and the UN have started to press diplomatic buttons. And, while Kristof is critical of Bush, he’s at least had the guts to call the situation genocide and has supplied $2 billion in aid. This only affects Darfuris who make it out to Chad. “But you see doctors prying bullets out of kids like they were doing four years ago. It’s great that there are doctors. But we could be doing this in another ten years.”

He tells the story of an aid worker who was working in a village with a janjawid presence. The janjawid treated a family like slaves, demanding food and firewood, and raping the family’s daughters. The father broke down and begged the commander to let the daughters go – the commander cut off the fathers’ head in front of the daughters. The aid worker asked the girls if she could provide anything they needed – plastic sheeting, food. The daughters said, “There’s nothing you can provide – we just want to die.”

Darfur doesn’t feel unsolveable, Kristof says. While the situation is spiraling out of control, and while even the government seems to be losing control of the situation, it’s plausible to believe that the situaiton could change with more diplomatic effort. If we don’t make enough of an effort and get the government to make concessions, Darfur is going to continue to fragment, becoming more lawless and dangerous. The problem is growing – it now encompasses northern CAR and Chad, both of which might collapse under refugee and criminal pressures.

Kristof says the hardest question he gets is, “Why should we care?” Darfur is a long way off, there are problems at home. He answers that we know that failed states harbor terrorism, diseases, destabilization around the world. Instability in Chad will damage oil supplies. We’re paying billions in relief to Darfur. A study found that the cost of a failed state is $100 billion – if we can make a modest investment, we benefit fiscally from preventing state failure.

But “we don’t only have interests, we have values.” We should focus on AIDS, malaria, the chaos of eastern DRC. But our values require us to stand up and respond to genocide sponsored by a state. Kristof urges us to join the movement for greater action in Darfur because the leadership won’t come from Washington, but from people who are moved to try to change the situaiton.

Kristof ends with the story of Sewad, a woman he interviewed in a camp in Chad. She’s a Darfuri whose village was burned, and who fled to a refugee camp in Chad. She knew how dangerous the situation was in the camp for her and for her daughters, since the janjawid now surround the camp in Chad, and threaten women who collect firewood to cook food. Collecting firewood with her younger sister, they saw janjawid – she urged her sister to run to the camp, and she ran in the other direction, sacrificing herself to a brutal gang rape. Kristof points out that the stigma associated with rape is a profound one, but that Sewad was letting Kristof use her name and story as her way of fighting back against genocide.

There’s a string of questions from the audience, mostly centered on the question of how more pressure can be applied on the Sudanese government and onto other global governments. Kristof points out:
– the trade between China and Sudan, selling oil and buying weapons
– the unwillingness of Chirac to address the genocide while pushing through legislation to criminalize denying the Armenian genocide
– the risk of peace in the Sudanese north-south war decaying under the pressure of Darfur
– the power of naming and shaming against China – Kristof argues that Mia Farrow was singlehandedly able to get the Sudanese government to accept peacekeepers and wonders what the Bush administration might be able to accomplish.

Kristof leaves with a parting shot at Chinese bloggers, wondering why 11 million Chinese bloggers haven’t pressured their government on Darfur. I’m sitting with Georgia and Amira, and they’re as surprised as I am – given the state of filtering in China, the consequences for some bloggers and the controlled media environment, it’s hard to imagine Chinese bloggers being as active as American bloggers on this issue, for instance.

Then again, it’s a rough session for bloggers – my liveblogging evidently antagonized the gentleman in front of me, who berated me for my rudeness. I have high hopes that the conference organizers will explain liveblogging to the audience in one of the future sessions, otherwise I will need to either stop transcribing, or find some way to separate myself from the rest of the audience.

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8 Responses to Idea Festival: Kristof on Darfur

  1. joshua wiese says:

    Ethan, if it’s any constellation, I really appreciate you bringing the idea festival to me and all your other readers.

    This was a very powerful piece. Thank you.

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