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Nicholas Kristof on the Sudan Conflict

April 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The Pulitzer Prize for commentary this year went to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The Pulitzer board cited Kristof’s personal courage for his on-the-scene columns about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, which has left nearly half a million dead and millions of refugees.

The board also praised Kristof’s columns for giving a voice to the suffering of individuals from Cambodia to Pakistan. This is his second Pulitzer. He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, received the award in 1990 for their coverage of Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Kristof, welcome, and congratulations to you.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, Columnist, New York Times: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you’re column last Sunday was titled “The Slaughter Spreads.” Tell us what’s happening in Sudan and Chad now?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Sure. Well, for the last two years and more, I’ve been covering the genocide in Darfur itself, as the Sudanese-sponsored Janjaweed militia goes around burning villages, throwing children into the bonfires, you know, killing men, women, and children.

Well, if that wasn’t bad enough, now it has been spreading into Chad itself, and the same Sudan-sponsored militias are rampaging across, first, the Chad border areas that I visited last month, and now have actually reached the Chadian capital.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about Chad so we understand the situation better, its political situation, economic, ethnic.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Sure. Chad has a corrupt, dictatorial president. And, you know, frankly, if he were overthrown tomorrow in a coup, nobody would shed any tears. But he is of the same ethnic tribe, the Zaghawa, as one of the tribes that is being slaughtered in Darfur. And so, as a result, he increasingly has been speaking up against the genocide.

And for that reason, the Sudanese have been trying to overthrow him and put in their own stooges in Chad. And, you know, the idea that we would let Sudan get away with, not only murdering hundreds of thousands of its own people in a most atrocious ways, but also to overthrow the government of a neighboring country just strikes me as unconscionable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there broader consequences to a spread to Chad, beyond, of course, the immediate horror for the victims?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: You can make a kind of a national-interest argument, that increasingly oil for the US and for the world is coming from countries in Africa, including Chad. And you can argue that the instability can ripple beyond Chad into Niger, a Central African republic.

But, fundamentally, the reason to act against this is that genocide is something that, you know, we can’t tolerate in this century. And when a government goes around choosing people on the basis of the color of their skin or the tribe they belong to and slaughters them, that is something that we should not tolerate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You ended your Sunday column, and I quote, “President Bush and millions of Americans today will celebrate Easter and the end of Holy Week, but where is the piety in reading the Bible while averting one’s eyes from genocide?” Very strong stuff.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, you know, it seems funny to me, as a columnist, to go out to the same places time after time, especially when it is a remote and, in some ways, insignificant place like Darfur, but when you’ve gone out there, and you’ve seen these people, and you visualize them.

I remember a 4-year-old girl and her 1-year-old baby brother on her back, and their parents had been killed by the Janjaweed, and these two kids are now alone in the world under a tree in a desert. You know, when you put a face on it, then suddenly it becomes a lot more important, and you just feel you have to do something.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have a very large megaphone, and you seem ready to use it. You criticize governments; you direct readers to Web sites and demonstrations. Do you see yourself as having an impact on events?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: One of the things that has surprised me since getting the column is that I think that we, as columnists, actually have less persuasive power than I had thought and than I think a lot of people think.

When there is an issue that is already out there on the agenda, then I think most people who start out agreeing with us think, “Ah, brilliant,” and most people who start out disagreeing with us think, “Ah, completely misses the point.”

But where I think we do have a little more power is the ability to help put things on the agenda and help kind of make people think about issues that they wouldn’t otherwise. And that’s why I’ve been trying to use the spotlight of my column, if you wish, to shine it on places like Darfur.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see yourself as something of a crusader? There are many issues that you write about, the rape cases in Pakistan and the sex trafficking in Cambodia?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Crusader has kind of a bad ring to a journalist. I mean, people keep complimenting me on being a great crusader, and I keep wincing.

Look, I’m trying to get attention to a lot of issues that I think we would all care about if we knew about them. And, you know, sex trafficking is a great example of that; genocide in Darfur is another. But “crusader” sounds a little bit too much like kind of a political operative to me, and I’ll stick to journalist.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things you often do is highlight an individual. Is that a way for you into a larger issue, or do you start with a large issue and find the individual, or does the individual lead you to the larger issue?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I start with a larger issue, and then I try to find an individual to relate the story.

Take sex trafficking as an example. This is an issue that I care a lot about. Americans may know intellectually that trafficking is something that affects millions of kids around the world, but it’s hard to get passionate about that.

But on my last trip to Pakistan, for example, I found and wrote about a teenager named Aisha Parveen who, at the age of 14, had been hit on the head, and kidnapped, and imprisoned in a brothel, had fought constantly against the brothel owner, had been beaten every day, finally had managed to escape.

And then, at that point, the police had arrested her, and charged her with illicit sex, and threatened to return her to the brothel owner, who was threatening, in turn, to kill her. And she was in that, you know, crisis when I found her and wrote about her.

And, you know, she moved readers. She moved me. And it’s so much easier to make people care about an individual and to build that bond of empathy than when you’re dealing with some kind of large, huge issue and impersonal people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I know — I read that, soon after you took the job of the column, you said that you were finding it difficult to be opinionated, to make the transition from reporter telling the facts, maybe giving analysis, but to actually giving opinion. You got over that now?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, you know, my dirty, little secret is that I’ve kind of always felt like a fraud, as a columnist, because I’m really not that opinionated.

And at a dinner party, you know, there’s always the people to my left and to my right who are, you know, banging the table and have firm opinions, and the professional weakness you get from a career in journalism is that you tend to have a weakness for nuance.

And I still feel that. And, you know, maybe it’s partly the fact that, you know, I was so desperate to find issues that I really was incredibly opinionated about that that made me go all of the way to Darfur and write about genocide.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nicholas Kristof, congratulations on the Pulitzer, and thanks for talking to us.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Thank you.