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July 1st, 2008
Heart of Darfur
Aaron Brown Interview: Nicholas Kristof

WIDE ANGLE host Aaron Brown interviews Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who, in 2006, won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the crisis in Darfur.

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AARON BROWN:
Nick Kristof, welcome to WIDE ANGLE.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Thank you.

AARON BROWN:
It’s good to see you. The U.N. is on the ground in Darfur. Not all 26,000 are on the ground, but some are on the ground. Work is going on. Are you honestly hopeful?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
No, I’m not. There are lots of people who are alive today who wouldn’t be if the U.N. weren’t on the ground. But on the whole, I think the international community has been mustered to provide plastic sheeting to people who have been displaced– to provide gauze bandages, to provide occasional peacekeepers, but not to stop what’s going on. And, in fact, since the beginning of this year, things have gotten worse. A lot more people have been pushed out of their homes, and maybe, most critically, the whole north/south war seems to be at risk of breaking out again. My fear is that Darfur is going to be remembered just as a prologue to a far bloodier convulsion, which is the new war that shatters all of Sudan.

AARON BROWN:
But there was supposed to be north/south peace. What’s happening? What’s happened?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
That peace agreement was so fragile. That was one of the reasons, I think, why the Bush administration did not do more about Darfur. They didn’t want to use their political capital against Sudan over Darfur for fear that would unravel the north/south peace.

In fact, the opposite happened — that because of Darfur, the north/south peace has become unglued. There’s growing distrust, and at the end of the day, I don’t think that the north is going to allow the south to leave the country with the oil that Sudan has. And so I think a war is not inevitable, but if the international community doesn’t stand up, I think it’s very likely.

AARON BROWN:
Whether it’s the north/south war, or the tragedy of Darfur, to what degree does the international community actually have any leverage? To what degree have they been able to persuade the government of Sudan that it’s actually in its interest to stop this?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think that we actually do have leverage over Sudan. And I think often people look at the Sudanese government and perceive it as being these extremist nuts we can’t control. Sudan’s leadership — they’re not Taliban style extremists. They are pragmatists. In the case of Darfur, they were facing a rebellion. They weighed the costs and benefits of various approaches, and they decided that in such a remote area the most cost-effective approach was to slaughter black Africans who rule Darfur.

And to the extent that it is not based on some kind of ideological campaign, but on the costs and benefits, we can increase the costs. And I think that changes their patterns.

There have, in fact, been repeated cases where we wanted something out of Sudan. We wanted a cooperation on terror financing. We wanted Osama Bin Laden kicked out of Sudan. We wanted a north/south peace agreement. In each case, where we made it clear what we wanted and pushed hard, we got it. I don’t think we pushed hard enough — “we” meaning the entire international community — on Darfur.

AARON BROWN:
Why not?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think that there is a broad sense that Africa’s a mess. It’s too bad about those poor Darfuris. You know, look, we tried to help people in Somalia and didn’t get us anywhere. We just got troops dragged through the streets. You know, it’s really unfortunate, but that’s the way Africa is.

I think that kind of defeatism is part of it. I think we were also all distracted by Iraq– from the administration to the news media, all of us. And I think we think that it’s tragic but we don’t really have any interest at stake.

AARON BROWN:
There is an American interest, I suppose. But there’s also a U.N. interest. The international community has a stake, doesn’t it, in what happens in Darfur? It has a stake in its own reputation, doesn’t it?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
It does. But I think that any given official finds that it’s often more convenient not to talk about an issue. If you look back at Rwanda, for example, the Clinton administration didn’t really want to talk about Rwanda, for fear that if they put it on the agenda, then they’ll look weak if nothing happens. And the same, really, has been true, by and large, with U.N. officials — that if you talk about it, then you look weak if nothing happens. And when people don’t say anything, then we in the news media tend not to cover the issue as well. And so I think that the U.N. and international officials would be delighted if it were — their first choice would be to resolve this. But their bottom choice would be to talk about it publicly and then not see an improvement.

AARON BROWN:
Oh, but surely there has to be something between the two. If it’s in the international community’s interest to stop the slaughter of tens of thousands of people month after month after month — you hope to God it is in the international community’s interest to do that — what is it that hasn’t been done that needs to be done?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Well, historically, with genocides, there’s been no perfect solution. There’s been no great solution. And so because of that absence of any ideal solution, one government after another has done nothing, and I think that’s exactly what has befallen us today.

And in this case, there are a lot of steps that can be taken. They are somewhat problematic. We don’t know exactly where they lead. We have officials who disagree. And so, on any given day, it’s easier for the president or the secretary general or the prime minister of Britain or anybody else to do nothing. And so day after day after day, they do nothing.

AARON BROWN:
What could they do?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I don’t think the solution is to send in ground troops. I think, in the aftermath of Iraq, that is not feasible. But there are so many ways that we can apply more pain to the Sudanese government and change its calculations. And, indeed, if you look at Sudanese behavior, then whenever there’s even been more attention on what is going on, then their response is calibrated. They kill fewer people.

And that is something we can do– the president can give a primetime speech about Darfur. He can have a photo-op at the White House. He can have a summit meeting with other leaders. He can pay a visit either to Sudan, Darfur itself, or to Chad and Central African Republic next door. I don’t think that any of those steps have been taken. I think we can have a no-fly zone. One more avenue really to apply pressure on the Sudanese government and make them change their calculations.

AARON BROWN:
There’s a big leap from making a primetime speech to putting American air power in play in the region. Do you see any interest at all in putting American air power at play in the region?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
There’s been some discussion of it, and the military seems to think that it is entirely feasible. This would be a no-fly zone, as the plans that have been developed would not involve keeping aircraft in the air at all times.

This would not be like the Iraqi no-fly zones over the north and south. Rather, this would be in the form of having aircraft operate out of Abeche in Chad. And when Sudanese aircraft bomb civilians, straight civilians, then at some point, over the next week or so, U.S. planes would take off from Abeche and would destroy, on the ground, a Sudanese military aircraft.

And that is fairly cheap to do; Sudan doesn’t have anti-aircraft defenses. If it’s a military plane, then the chance of hitting the wrong plane is reduced. And Sudan values its aircraft; I think that would change its calculations.

AARON BROWN:
So all of a sudden there is a risk or there’s a price to be paid for continuing the bloodshed.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yes. And I think that is one of the problems — that for a long time Sudan slaughtered people in the south of the country in the north/south war. And, basically, we let them get away with it. We didn’t attach a price to that. And that was why it decided, in the case of Darfur, that it was best off slaughtering people. And, again, we really haven’t attached much of a price to that. I think that it‘s very useful to start raising the cost of that kind of behavior.

AARON BROWN:
The Chinese matter in this discussion. I think everyone agrees the Chinese have hardly done what they could and many would say should do. Explain China’s role here, and explain what you’d like to see China do.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Sure. I think that China could resolve this in a pretty simple way. That if China were to announce to Sudan that it is going to suspend all arms transfers — no more weapons and no more spare parts for military purposes until there is peace in Darfur — that would instantly, I think, completely change Sudan’s calculations, and would lead it to negotiate in a way that would enable us to achieve peace. Sudan needs those spare parts. It needs those weapons. It’s not a huge amount for China — it’s about $70 million a year, which is nothing in the large scheme of things. So the question is, can we get China to suspend arms transfers? We’ll see. China’s reluctance to intervene is twofold. Part of it is ideological. There’s a strong notion that you shouldn’t intervene in the internal affairs of other countries and they don’t want people doing that.

AARON BROWN:
Lest someone intervene in yours.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Exactly. And there is oil that, since 1993, they’ve been a net oil importer. They’re very nervous about getting oil supplies. And they get about six percent of their oil import from Sudan, which is a lion’s share of Sudanese oil exports, and they want that. They don’t want to lose that.

AARON BROWN:
You spent a lot of time in China. Is the Chinese government sensitive to the kind of bad press or the bad attention that their reluctance to be good actors in this could bring? And if so, why not cause them some hurt?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah, they have been very sensitive to it. And I think that is a lever that we haven’t adequately exerted. The U.S. government, for example, hasn’t really tried to shame China on this. The person who has is Mia Farrow. And Mia Farrow has almost single-handedly been pushing the shame button on China with considerable success.

And I think, at the end of the day, the reason why we have U.N. peacekeepers right now in Darfur as a U.N. force is precisely that Mia managed to shame China into backing off. And pushing to get that through. Now, imagine what Mia Farrow could accomplish if she had Condi Rice backing her up.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. And this sounds just — kind of crazy, in a way. That a Hollywood actress has become a principle player in moving a government– and a big government, an important government, a government that matters — to do something. And doesn’t that reflect awfully badly on everyone else?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
But I think that has historically been the case in this kind of issue. That where our national interests are at stake, then the secretary of state has always been an important player. Where our national values are at stake, whether it’s genocide or humanitarian issues, then politicians have never been leaders. And that leadership has come from — whether it’s high school students, college students, churches, synagogues — that outside sector. And we’re seeing that again right now.

AARON BROWN:
So maybe this kind of pooh-poohing of Hollywood’s interest in Darfur or anything else, but Darfur in this case, is unfair.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think it’s very unfair. I mean, I wish that Condi Rice or the White House were paying half as much interest into Darfur as George Clooney and Mia Farrow were. I mean, they’ve really been leaders of this, and it’s not just them.

There are so many occasions where we’ve seen 12-year-old kids around the country who’ve had lemonade stands to support Darfur. There’s a little computer game that MTV had on Darfur that has been terrifically helpful. And I think that the government, and frankly to some extent, we in the serious media, have dropped the ball on this.

AARON BROWN:
Let me come back to that point in a second. If it were not Africa — if this were in Europe somewhere, would this go on? Does the fact that it’s Africa, does the fact that they’re Africans, they’re black, does that somehow play into what has played out over five years?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t help that the victims are Africans. That they’re black. That they’re Muslims. That they’re in one of the most remote parts of Africa. I think all that really hurts, and we haven’t always been great at covering genocide when it’s involved Cambodians or Bosnians, but we sure did better than we have in this occasion.

AARON BROWN:
Right. I mean, in the case of Bosnia, we may have been arguably late to the game. A lot of people died. But we did get in the game.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
And had we not gotten in the game, the numbers would have been far worse than they turned out to be.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Right. And I think it’s not just a matter of not caring about people if they have black skin. I think part of it is this sense of fatalism. That, you know, Africans are always killing each other. It’s too bad about that. But what can we do about it? That’s the way Africa is. And I think that’s deeply unfortunate. Because, in fact, there are plenty examples– like Sierra Leon, Mozambique– where the moment we did show some interest in intervening, then it was very easy to achieve a dramatic improvement.

AARON BROWN:
I want to talk a little bit about your own connection to this. All reporters — maybe not the most elegant way to put it — fall in love with stories over the course of their professional lives. This clearly has become, in this period of your life, the story of your life. Did you seek it out? Did it find you? Was it some weird combination of both?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I had heard, at the beginning of 2004, about a huge refugee build up on the Chad/Sudan border, and I didn’t really know what to expect. But I went out there, and I was really just blown away by what I found.

In particular, I was haunted by some families who were hiding out. And there wasn’t much water there; they had to go to wells to get water. And there were janajaweed by the wells, and if a man showed up at the well, they would kill him. If a woman showed up, they would rape her. And so these families were sending their little kids, who were approximately the age of my children, with donkeys for a couple miles across the desert to these wells to get water to bring back. Because the janjaweed, by and large, wouldn’t kill these kids.

And so I would watch these parents sending their kids and just be so terrified of what might happen to them. And when I left Darfur and came back to the U.S. and hugged my kids, it was very hard to forget about that and move on. And it was thinking about those families that compelled me to go back and back and back.

AARON BROWN:
Do you know how many columns you’ve written on Darfur?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I am afraid I have no idea.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. I would never say to you “the one,” but there is a singular one, and it’s the one that had the pictures associated with it. Talk about that piece. First of all, what the pictures were, where they came from, and the decision to publish them. Because that’s not normally what columnists do.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Right. One of the problems that I find, as a writer, is if I write about Darfur, frankly an awful lot of readers, as soon as they see the column is about Darfur, they will tune it out. They’ve gotta be at the office in 20 minutes. They know that Darfur is a sad thing. And so I’m fighting that.

I had been in touch with a woman who was in the U.S. who told me that her brother was in Darfur as a military observer and was horrified about what he was seeing and wanted to talk about it. Wanted to share some photos. But, on the other hand, was also scared about getting in trouble; that he shouldn’t be doing this. And so I talked to her and I said I’d love to talk to him, love to get the photos. But he was cagey about it.

Well, he finally left that role as a military observer. His name is Brian Steidle. And then he came back to the U.S., and he came by my office and he had a hard drive full of pictures. And initially he did not want his name attached to them. Later he came forward and was willing to be associated with it.

But he has thousands of photos, and they are the most heartrending things. And he was there as a military observer, and he found himself not able to stop anything. But just watching kids– you know, huts being burned. Kids being bashed in. And he just became overcame by this, and he ended up being sort of a full-time campaigner on behalf of Darfur.

AARON BROWN:
And you took some of those pictures, a handful — four–

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Four pictures.

AARON BROWN:
Four pictures, and put them in the paper. Did that change the way readers saw the story? Saw the tragedy?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah. I think that those pictures had an enormous impact because you couldn’t tune them out. It’s easy to tune out one column. It’s a lot harder to tune out pictures of corpses, and I think they nagged at people.

We were actually very New York Times-ish about this. We didn’t publish the grotesque images of two-year-old kids with their faces completely gone. We published discreet pictures where the faces weren’t so visible, but it had a huge impact. And Brian Steidle, the fellow who took them, and who provided them — he went against his cohort, his training, everything else, and I’m a huge admirer of the courage he showed.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. Well, one of the points you made, and it is one of the truths, I think, of these sorts of stories, is that at some level, they become too big. The numbers are too large for any of us to get our arms around it.

That somehow, long ago, the starvation in Biafra — we could see a child with the descended stomach and we got it. To some extent, that was true of Somalia, and it moved people. Darfur, in a strange and sad way, has lacked that singular face or powerful image.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I wrote at one point that what we needed was a Darfur puppy that everybody could say, “Oh, that’s the Darfur victim.” This was at the same time that there was a hawk in Central Park, and all the New Yorkers were feeling for this hawk, Pale Male, and trying to help him. And, meanwhile, we had hundreds of thousands of people who were dying in Darfur. And so I said we had this desperate need for a very cute puppy who was endangered in Darfur.

Later, somebody wrote to me who had worked in Darfur, humanitarian worker, and they said that, actually, there was a Darfur puppy. And this person had found a puppy there. And had adopted him and brought him back to the U.S. So there is this real problem that we aren’t interested in helping 500,000 people; we’re interested in helping one.

AARON BROWN:
As a result of your work, have you seen change? Has it made anything better? Because no one’s shined the light on this as you have.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
There have been a lot of flashlights held up, there really have.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah, but you have been a consistent light for four years now.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Well, thank you. It’s true, I mean, I think if you had told me, four years ago, that now Darfur would be a household name, I would have been astonished. If you told me that Darfur would be a household name and people would know what is going on and the slaughter would be continuing, I would have been even more astonished and really depressed.

On the other hand, when I go to Chad, and I see these refugee camps, where there are a lot of kids who are alive who wouldn’t be if you didn’t have a lot of people on campuses with “Save Darfur” signs. That is, I think, there are a lot of people alive who have been saved by this interest. But there are also an awful lot of people who are dead unnecessarily.

AARON BROWN:
Well, I don’t want to make this about you, and it’s not about you. But I do believe that one of the things that people perhaps don’t understand is that, in fact, there are people who are alive because. That if all you see is this horrible tragedy, and a kind of sense of hopelessness, it’s hard to emotionally commit to that. And so I think it is actually important to understand that is it great? No. Is it even good? Hardly. But–

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
That’s true. And maybe we in the media too much focus on the horror stories. But, for example, right in the heart of Darfur there’s a city called Nyala. Right on the outskirts of Nyala there’s a huge camp called Kalma.

That camp is full of Darfuris. Maybe 80,000. And Sudan would very much like the people to leave Kalma Camp. They would like to empty that camp. There have been regular attacks on the fringes of it by the janjaweed. When women leave Kalma Camp, they’re raped by the police, by the security authorities.

But Sudan has never quite been willing to just attack it head-on and drive people away, and the reason that they have been afraid to slaughter those 80,000 people, basically, is that they don’t want to face the reaction of the international community and of all those kids with green armbands.

AARON BROWN:
You were talking earlier about– the continent, if anything, is rich with tragedy. People die of malaria. They die of AIDS. They die of all sorts of preventable things. Why ought we care more about what — well, I’m not sure we need to care more, but why ought we care about this tragedy as opposed to the others?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think that we should care more about this tragedy. And it’s not about numbers. If you look, the numbers in Darfur have been pretty tiny. A few hundred thousand maybe. Every year it’s a number between one million and three million people die of malaria, so the five-year death toll in Darfur is less than a margin of error each year from malaria. On the other hand, I think that our moral compasses are moved not just by the degree of suffering, but also — it sounds funny to say it, but by the degree of evil.

You go out to Darfur and what you see is evil. And that’s what gives Anne Frank her resonance. It’s not the story of one girl suffering. It’s the story of the evil of a regime, and I think that is what distinguishes Darfur and means that it should rise higher on the agenda than a lot of other terrible places and diseases. You know, that it’s an assault on the human fabric. The response of the rest of us, I think, should be to try to mend that fabric of humanity one little bit.

AARON BROWN:
How does it end?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
It’s so frustrating because it seems to me that there is an ending here. That if there were enough pressure, or if China were to suspend arms transfers, then you can imagine the Sudanese government making concessions and reaching a peace deal.

And that would be how it would end, with a peace agreement between the sides in Darfur. In the absence of that kind of pressure, and so far we don’t see much sign of that, I think that, unfortunately, one of the more likely scenarios is that the north/south war in Sudan resumes.

That east of Sudan may also fragment, want to go its own way, and we may remember Darfur just as the prologue to a much bloodier conflict that ends up costing another million or two million lives. And that would be utterly unnecessary, but a reflection of our own unwillingness to stand up right now and do more.

AARON BROWN:
And if we stand up right now, if Americans stand up right now, if the United States government stands up right now, if the international community stands up more than it has — 26,000 people, on the one hand, honestly is not a lot of troops on the ground — if all of those things were to happen would this, then, in a reasonable amount of time, end?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yes. I think it would. A couple years ago we came very close to a negotiated peace agreement in Darfur. And if there had been modestly greater concessions from the Sudanese government, if there had been modestly more money put in by the international government to buy support from each side, then I think this would actually be behind us.

And there would still be some killing. There would be some difficulties. You know, it’s a messy area and a nasty government. Chad is unstable. But is there a possibility this could be put behind us? Absolutely.

And you look at Mozambique, which had been completely falling apart, and then finally it got some security. Got a real international commitment. And it had one of the highest economic growth rates in the world for the next ten years. Sierra Leone seemed a complete basket case and, again, has been a great success because of a modest British effort to end that all.

AARON BROWN:
One of the great things about the newspaper business, I always thought, is that columnist is a job description — is a job title. It’s not necessarily a job description. There are different kinds of columnists. Bob Novak’s a columnist. Nick Kristof’s — some columnists report, some don’t. And that you found yourself with a job at a paper that believed in a kind of journalism that doesn’t necessarily connect in the way that, you know, your life will be better, you’ll be able to buy a new car, a new house. People always say about international coverage, it’s imperative that we connect the viewers’ lives with the story. Honestly, sometimes there isn’t. It’s just a moral imperative. That’s the connection.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Right. But, I mean, one of the reasons, in all candor, why I focus on these issues isn’t some grand nobility of spirit. It’s simply that I want to change minds. I want to have power. And one of the things that I learned, fairly quickly, after getting the column, is that if I write about President Bush or if I write about Iraq, like, just now, in the Middle East, I don’t really change anybody’s minds.

But where I really do have the power is that power of the spotlight. And if I shine that on something that people don’t know about, that can make them uncomfortable, then it really is the power to put things on the agenda.

AARON BROWN:
What I like about that is that it actually shows a great deal of confidence in your readers, in your audience. That if you push them a little, and they will allow themselves to be pushed a little. If you make them a bit uncomfortable, and it’s hard not to be uncomfortable with this stuff, they will respond.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah. I think that that is, by and large, true of readers. And I’m gonna say I wouldn’t want to use– I mean, in a sense, I try to manipulate them. And — for example, I’ve been reading up on social psychology to see what does move people.

And there are some really interesting experiments where subjects in research were asked to contribute to Rokia, this seven year old girl from Mali who’s hungry. They contribute a lot. If they’re asked to contribute to 21 million people who are hungry in West Africa, they don’t contribute anything.

And even if they do mathematics problems and then are asked to contribute, then they contribute less. But essentially what moves people on these issues isn’t rational discussion. It’s the human connection you can build.

AARON BROWN:
But that’s the Darfur puppy.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yes, exactly.

AARON BROWN:
People, I think, and the journalists in my life have to believe that there can be — I don’t know if it’s exactly a happy ending, but a happier ending than what exists.

Otherwise, there are an enormous number of competing tragedies in life that grab your attention. So it’s the tsunami here, and it’s Katrina there, and it’s something else over here. And where does my emotional energy and political interest go?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think that one of the dangers in writing about Darfur, or any of these problems, is that we end up portraying people as these two-dimensional victims. And, in fact, one of the things that has struck me about Darfur is that some of the most compelling, most admirable saviors, if you will, aren’t the people writing in on white horses.

They’re the people who are there. And, in particular, there’s a young woman named Suad who I met in a camp called Goz Amer who just bowled me over. She had been driven out of Darfur, been in this camp. She knew all about the Darfur rapes, because her next-door neighbor is a 12-year-old girl who had been gang raped for a week by the janjaweed, and her legs pulled apart so much that she’s crippled. And Suad sees that girl every day. Shortly before I got to the camp, Suad’s younger sister Halima was out with her.

They were out collecting firewood and they saw the janjaweed approaching. And Suad told her younger sister, “Run back to camp. Just don’t pay any attention to me. Run back to camp.” And Suad ran very ostentatiously in the other direction. Made a diversion of herself.

And the janjaweed saw her. Eight of them gang-raped her. They brutally raped her. But she saved Halima. Halima got back to the camp okay. And boy, when you see people, that kind of courage and magnanimity– you know, in Darfur you see the absolute worst of humanity. The worst atrocity. You also see the very best.

AARON BROWN:
And is that, I mean, you’ve been there eight, ten times now; is that what keeps you going back? Because you know– the reporter in you knows this is this is a story of consequence. But it’s also you– you see the best and the worst in people.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah. People often ask me, “Oh, you know, how do you do it? It must be just so depressing.” And it is incredibly depressing to talk to parents who describe these things. On the other hand, the compassion of the aid workers, of some of the people out there. The resilience of these kids who’ve seen their parents killed. There is something that is immensely admirable about the human spirit that you see side by side with the very worst of the human spirit.

AARON BROWN:
Do you think people understand that about Darfur? Or is Darfur a bumper sticker in a way? You know, it’s “Save Darfur”. I mean, it’s a complicated political thing there anyway. And there’s not one rebel group, there’s several. It’s a long way away. It’s hard to find. Do people have an understanding of what it is?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I worry sometimes that Darfur becomes reduced to a bumper sticker. A cause. I worry sometimes that my writing becomes — well, you can call it sort of genocide porn. That it becomes this horror story that is sort of alluring, and people maybe read it for a moment, but I mean, after five years of this, it seems to me that is the way to connect.

And I’m willing to risk this sort of genocide porn effect, of showing horrific pictures, or describing horrific stories, if that will actually lead people into a story and make them care. And if people will put a Darfur bumper sticker on their car, or a lawn sign, then I think that’s better than the alternative of not caring.

AARON BROWN:
I described your work once to a friend as a kind of literary grabbing people by the lapels and shaking them. I’m not sure that when you sit at the computer keyboard you think of it that way. But–

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I try to get people to spill their coffee in the morning.

AARON BROWN:
Right. But there is that, “Look, there’s ethnic cleansing going on here. There is a group of people who are being slaughtered. Pay attention.” Do you want to scream it sometimes?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah, I do. I really do feel as if I’m shouting about it sometimes. But I think that one of the problems, especially now, is that people basically feel as if they know Darfur. In the same way that if I write about AIDS, people basically know that AIDS is killing a lot of people; that it’s very sad. And thus there is this tendency to tune it out as one more tragedy. And the challenge I find journalistically is how do I overcome that? And how do I, in the headline, or in the first half of the first paragraph, somehow surprise people to make some connection that is gonna lead them to go on a little bit? And then to call the White House or call their member of Congress.

AARON BROWN:
Are you going back?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I am. I’m not sure just when my next trip will be.

AARON BROWN:
What are you going back to find? What will be different when you go back this time?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
That’s one of the frustrating things about covering this as a journalist. That, essentially, what I’m writing about Darfur now is the same as what I was writing about it four years ago. That journalism is supposed to be about what is new.

And there isn’t a lot of new material there. It’s basically the same horrifying story as was unfolding four years ago. But I will go out to, in particular, look for those human stories that I think can connect with American readers and hopefully can impel them to action.

AARON BROWN:
Just one or two final questions, Nick. I mean, you’ve been at this a while. Do you ever say to yourself, “Man, I’ve written a lot on this. I have risked some on this. I have exposed a lot here. If they — readers, all of us — if we haven’t gotten it by now, we’ve kind of made a decision we ain’t gonna get it. You ever worry about that?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I do. And I see my role, essentially, as a spotlight. And a spotlight is most effective when it is shining on something that is dark. If you shine it on something that is already illuminated you have much less effect. And so that would be an argument for going to Somalia. Going to the Congo instead. And, I mean, there is also the risk factor, that you feel better about taking risks if you feel like you’re going to make more of a difference.

AARON BROWN:
There’s more — absolutely.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
So I do worry about all these things. And then, on the other side, there are those people out there that I think of who are still out hiding and have to send their little kids out to the wells to get water. And it’s very hard to weigh these things against each other.

AARON BROWN:
How has this changed you?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think that when you see how awful things can become then you become a little more accepting of our daily life. If you end up missing a train and having to wait half an hour, well, there are worse alternatives. Some militia could come through and grab your kids and throw them in a bonfire. And so I would like to think, at least, that I’ve learned a little more patience. Learned a little more context in which to place my own frustrations.

AARON BROWN:
Has it made you more or less a believer in contemporary journalism?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
I think it’s maybe made me a little more of a believer. This, to me, has been so frustrating. It’s been a complete failure of the political system. A complete failure of the U.N. system. Utter failure of the international community.

There are so many people who talked a good game, like Tony Blair, and then did nothing about it. And, on the contrary, I think those who did stand up tended to be people in journalism. In universities. And often it was the students. In churches, in temples. And it was the civic community that I think really came out of this looking better. And I think journalism is a part of that.

And it’s a terrible business model for journalism right now. But there are times I think a lot of us went into journalism hoping we could do some good. And this was an occasion when it does feel like we did help.

AARON BROWN:
You mentioned Tony Blair and others. Politicians are allowed to talk a good game but not do anything because their constituents allow them to do that. I mean, to some degree they only reflect –

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Absolutely.

AARON BROWN:
–their constituents. And so while it is fair, I think, to condemn the lack of leadership from places like the White Houses, or condemn Downing Street. It is fair to condemn the United Nations. We’re doing far too little far too slowly.

The rest of us do not get a pass. Because we have hardly held their feet to the fire. We could talk about consequences for the government of Sudan. But we don’t, apparently — or we’re not prepared for consequences of our own political leadership, where they’ve failed.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
No, absolutely. And, I mean, if more people would call the White House, for example, or call their member of Congress, that would make a huge difference. Because nobody is calling the White House from other points — from other perspectives.

Nobody is saying, “Oh, we should support genocide in Sudan.” And so it does give one more leverage, you know. On the other hand — and I agree with you, that I wish the American public and foreign public could be a little more exercised about hundreds of thousands of people being slaughtered.

On the other hand, I must say that I go out and I see a university campus, and I find there really to be something inspiring about hundreds of thousands of American college kids going on fasts. Or donating money in support of people of a different skin color, of a different religion, in a part of the world that they had never heard of a few years ago. And that is a little bit reassuring about the common bridges of humanity that tie us all together again.

AARON BROWN:
Just describe, a bit, the place. Is it as sort of dry and barren and foreboding as it always seems in the pictures? We don’t see a lot out there. The few pictures we see?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
One of the principles of international relations is people will always fight most intensively over areas that seem least attractive. And that is true of Darfur. You drive for mile after mile after mile, and it is this barren, dry landscape, and then you come across a village. A thatch-roofed village, an African village, and it’s been burned. And there’s nobody inside, and you drive for another hour and see another such village. And then maybe you’ll drive and see an encampment of Arab nomads, and they’re still there, intact.

But maybe what is most striking about the place, and doesn’t come through in the pictures, is just the fear. Everybody you talk to is just scared. And while I’m driving through there, I’m terrified as well. There is a real fear that just permeates that whole region.

AARON BROWN:
And it is the fear that they’re next?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yeah. That it’s — everybody knows people who have been killed. Everywhere you go there is a reminder. There are wells that have been stuffed with bodies of people who are living there, so the water isn’t potable. There are burned villages. There are bodies of people and of carcasses of animals. And you think that if, I mean, you’re scared that if, just over the hill, there’s gonna be some janjaweed and that’s it.

AARON BROWN:
And actually, fear is one of the weapons.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Yes. I mean, that is what has made rape so effective in Darfur. In some places, rape is about sex. In Darfur, rape is about terrorism. It’s a military strategy. And the idea is to not only violate the women, but then mutilate them afterwards so that they are marked as rape victims.

And then that will quite effectively drive everybody in that village, drive them away. And it works. So whether it’s killing children, or raping children, the most abominable things tend to be most effective at terrorizing people and driving them away. And so that is what the janjaweed has turned to.

AARON BROWN:
It’s good to see you. Thanks for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF:
Thanks for having me.

  • Christopher X. O’Connor

    Is anyone trying to help rehabilitate that girl from the Goz Amer camp who, in saving a younger girl from being raped, had her legs pulled apart by rapists “so much that now she is crippled”? How can we help HER?

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