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RAY SUAREZ: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has visited the Darfur region of Sudan four times in the past 18 months and has written dozens of columns about the Darfur genocide.
As many as 400,000 people have been killed or died in the conflict between the mostly Arab Janjaweed militia supported by the government of Sudan and the local black Africans. Another two million have been driven from their homes.
The African Union now has 3,000 multinational troops there. With support from NATO, approved Thursday, that number will increase to 7,000. Their mandate is to observe a shaky cease-fire in Darfur. Nicholas Kristof was most recently in Darfur a week ago. And he joins us now.
Nick Kristof, does the arrival of new heavy-lift capacity from NATO represent a greater investment on the part of the West in saving the people of Darfur?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, it does. It’s another few inches in a process that, you know, we need to go hundreds and hundreds of meters. The people of Darfur do need security. Right now, people who go out from any center get killed if they’re men, they get raped if they’re women.
And so, if you add more troops, more equipment, then that will help, but only at the margins. It’s really going to take a substantially greater investment to make a major difference.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve seen conditions on the ground; you’ve talked to diplomats, heads of state, the people suffering in the areas. Everybody says the right things — “yes, we have to do something”; “yes, change is necessary”; “yes, people are dying” — and yet, you write with a palpable frustration about how so little changes.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Last fall, when President Bush said that this is genocide, I was really delighted. I thought, now finally we’re going to do something. But in retrospect, President Bush’s description of that as genocide was not a spur to action, but was a substitute for it. And that’s what I find just so sad, that we acknowledge what is happening and yet we still allow it to unfold.
And, you know, all of those women I talked about there at the camp, every day they go out for firewood and they face the risk of gang rape, and this is in a camp under international protection to some degree and yet we’re allowing that to go on.
RAY SUAREZ: The African Union, it’s a small military force, unevenly trained, not very well-equipped, but there they are, between the militias and the civilians. Are they able to save people’s lives? Are they able to keep those who would attack civilians from killing them?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, they’ve done a great job. I mean, you can look at what they’re doing and you can complain that they’re not adequately trained, they don’t have adequate radios and other supplies; they don’t have adequate transport; they don’t respond quickly, but the difference they make is just astonishing.
I’ve been in parts of Darfur where there is no security whatsoever, and it’s terrifying. You just pass burned village after burned village after burned village. And, you know, anybody who is still out there hiding is terrified of me. I’m terrified of them; it makes interviews kind of difficult.
But when the African Union shows up in an area with just a token force, then people begin to trickle out, they go back to that village. They repair the well, which is one of the things the Janjaweed typically destroys. They begin to plant crops again. And, you know, it’s a reminder of just how little it takes in terms of security to begin to provide some new hope that Darfur can overcome this genocide.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, in your travels, in western Sudan, you’ve come across scenes of real carnage — a shot man, a freshly murdered person, piles of corpses. You and your partner, photographer, videographer, have documented these things. What does the government of Sudan say about them: that they don’t exist?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The government of Sudan says that, unfortunately, there has been fighting between Janjaweed militia and rebels, but you know it denies responsibility. In fact, it’s clear if you, you know, talk to these people, the Janjaweed have been armed by the Sudanese government; that they have uniforms from the Sudanese government, and that they were promised that they could go out and pillage these areas. And in addition, when villages are attacked, very often they’re attacked by the Janjaweed in conjunction with the Sudanese army and often with Sudanese military aircraft flying overhead and bombing villages.
In terms of rape, the official Sudanese position is that basically rape does not exist. And, you know, if you — and for that reason, they don’t allow the importation of rape kits, because if you don’t have rape, then you don’t need rape kits to reduce the risk of HIV transmission. But, you know, you just go out and talk to these women, and they are incredibly bold and brave about acknowledging that they have been raped. I mean for all the shame that attaches to it. I wish we could be as bold in speaking out against it.
RAY SUAREZ: You’ve gotten to choose as a columnist whether to tell the macro story in any individual column or get very small, take it right down to a village level, meet some of the people who are facing this kind of life every day. Tell us about some of the people that you’ve profiled over time.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: One of the people I met on this trip was a young woman I met in a part of Kulma camp for new arrivals. And so she did not yet have a tent, she did not yet have food distributions because the government of Sudan has been trying to keep the camp from growing and it hasn’t been registering new people.
So she was living under a straw mat on top of a few sticks. I mean, it was something that no American dog would ever want to live in. And she and all her children were living there. She told how she had lived with her husband. They seemed to have actually been a mildly prosperous family. They had first been driven out of their original village to a larger town for security, and that town was attacked. They fled off to the countryside. And then, finally, the Janjaweed found them a couple of months ago. Her husband was killed; she was gang-raped by eight men.
And she — her passion was to save her children, her five children. The youngest was a baby. And so she set off across the desert for the camp, you know, hoping, praying that this camp where there were international aid workers, where the world was providing some measure of protection, would help.
And she finally arrived at the camp to find that now no new people were being registered. And shortly after she got there, four days before I talked to her, her baby died. And, you know, this is two years into the genocide, and this is still happening. And, you know, everywhere as far as you could see in that camp there are people with similar stories.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, instead of just sort of hurling thunderbolts from Olympus, you climb out of the pulpit and talk directly with your readers. You ask them to write you, you provide your e-mail address. What are the kinds of things that Americans have been saying to you in reaction to these columns?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: There are a lot of different reactions. Obviously, there are some people who would love to help. But especially when there is some individual who is named, people identify with them. They don’t have empathy for 400,000 people being killed, but they have a lot of empathy for one particular young mother who has lost her child.
On the other hand, I must say I get an awful lot of e-mails from people who say, you know, that’s a real tragedy out there. It’s too bad it has to happen. But look, Africa is always a mess. It’s always will be a mess. We have a lot of other problems. We’re busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. You know, we gave already. Don’t ask any more of us.
RAY SUAREZ: So how do you answer that?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I say two things. First of all, we have a genuine national interest ourselves in trying to deal with this security mess in Darfur. If Sudan collapses, it’s going to be a haven for terrorists. It’s going to spread into Chad; Chad is already unstable because of this. Those are both oil-supplying states. And there’s a whole record of failed states not only supporting terrorism, but also being havens for disease, for refugees and so on. So I think we have a real national interest.
But beyond that, I think if you look at the history of genocide, then the clear message is in ten years we’re going to be looking at each other and say how can we not have done anything at all when hundreds of thousands of people were being killed in this way? And we’ve never been ashamed after the fact at having done too much in a humanitarian sense; it’s always been the opposite. I think that if we can understand that this statistic, this genocide, is being made up of individuals who we can relate to, who are just like us, then I think we would act.
RAY SUAREZ: Nicholas Kristof, thanks for joining us.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Thank you.