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Issue Date:  December 15, 2006

The tragedy of Darfur

Journalist Nicholas Kristof talks about genocide in Sudan and what can be done to end it


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof has written eloquently and often about the ongoing conflict in Darfur for The New York Times. NCR interviewed Kristof about his experience covering the genocide taking place in Sudan and what he thinks can be done to stop the killing.

NCR: Despite the reams that have been written on it, I think many people may not understand what the conflict in Darfur is about. Could you say briefly how the war began and what’s at stake? What do the different parties want?

Kristof: It’s an area that has been left out of Sudan’s development, and there have been some historic tensions there between Arab tribes and non-Arab African tribes. It’s also complicated because the Arabs tend to be nomadic herdsmen and the Africans tend to be settled farmers and so you have a traditional rancher vs. farmer competition. So you have some historic tensions between ranchers and farmers. Then some elements in the African tribes began a rebellion in 2003 and Sudan decided that the simplest counterinsurgency method was simply to wipe out the black Africans in the area.

The black Africans, what were they seeking?

The black Africans were seeking a little more autonomy, a little more in the way of natural resources and, maybe above all, a little more security. They had been the target of small-scale attacks before then. What they ended up with was a genocide targeted at them.

Were the tribes posing much of a threat to the government?

They were a genuine challenge to the government. They don’t want independence, and so it would be relatively easy to work out a political agreement.

You’ve been covering the conflict in Darfur for some time now. Has the conflict essentially changed since you began reporting on it and if yes, how so?

It’s depressing to admit as a journalist because I feel I should be covering news that is new, but essentially the story today is the same as it was in 2003, which is the government of Sudan shooting people on the basis of tribe and skin color and heaving them onto bonfires.

You’ve written passionately about the horrors of what’s happening in Darfur. Why do you think the world isn’t paying more attention to the genocide taking place there?

We don’t have a strategic interest in Darfur. We have our hands pretty full in Iraq, and I think there’s a feeling that it’s tragic but that Africa is always a mess. And so it’s always easier just to look the other way.

What do you think the international community and specifically the United States should do to stop the genocide taking place?

I don’t think there any single magic bullet. I don’t think that we should send U.S. troops into Sudan, but we could do much more to put the issue on the international agenda, to push Sudan to reach a peace agreement in Darfur and to prevent the genocide from spreading to neighboring countries like Chad and Central African Republic. My last trip was to Chad, and I saw women who’d been burned in huts and men who’d been blinded with bayonets because of their skin color, in effect by the same people, by the same militias who had been doing this in Darfur itself.

How would you like American citizens to get involved? What can they do to help end the violence there?

The single most important thing is to make a lot of noise, to make it a political issue. The standard response to genocide over the last hundred years has been to pay no attention at the time and express tremendous regret 10 years later and we need to change that around. If the public were to demand more action from President Bush, then he in turn would speak out. He would perhaps impose a no-fly zone, and he would work with allies to address the killings. The problems wouldn’t go away, but there would be hundreds of thousands of lives saved.

Is there any country or agency effectively addressing the problems?

Not really. The United States has done more than most countries. Those that really have been more active have been kind of marginal like Rwanda and Slovenia. Rwanda because it has some experience of genocide and Slovenia just because its president was really upset about it. Those two countries have actually tried to do a lot, and the United States has been pretty good about sending food and assistance while most of Europe has been oblivious and much of the Arab world has actually supported Sudan.

Is that just Arab support for other Arabs or is there something else involved?

Part of it is Arab solidarity. Part of it is a lack of knowledge about what is happening in Darfur. Part of it is that in the aftermath of Iraq, there’s a deep suspicion of anything that is wrapped in human rights language that comes out of the United States.

As a columnist, you obviously have wide latitude on what you can write about and yet in some ways it seems as if you’re modeling a different kind of journalism at The New York Times. That is, the journalist who is passionately involved with his subject and isn’t afraid to show that and has even come to be identified with it. Is that a stance you came to over time, one that simply reflects the urgency of the situation in Darfur as you see it, or have you always been so candid about your own responses to a story?

I’m not sure. Maybe readers are better able to judge that. I did come to the conclusion that columnists change very few minds on issues that are already before the public, so I think our power lies not in persuasion but in the ability to shine a spotlight on problems. And so I kind of feel that the most useful thing I can do is to ruin people’s breakfasts by telling them about something that they would just as soon not know about.

Has your reporting on Darfur changed you or your values or your understanding of the world?

Not really. People always think it must be incredibly depressing to run around Darfur and it’s certainly scary, but I wouldn’t say it’s depressing because you also see so many individuals, both local and foreign, who are incredibly inspiring.

What’s been the situation or incident that’s affected you the most in covering the conflict there?

One time the Sudanese at a roadblock tried to arrest my interpreter. I was really terrified that they were just going to kill him, and so I refused to leave. Then they detained me as well, but it’s much more complicated to arrest or kill a foreigner and they called in a commander, who let us all go. I really felt responsible for this young man who was interpreting for me. That profoundly scared me.

Margot Patterson is an NCR writer and editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2006

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