April 26, 2007

Kristof Critiques Darfur Crisis

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Nearly 600 Cornellians attended yesterday’s lecture by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof in Kennedy’s Call Auditorium, on the topic of the Darfur genocide. Kristof, who is currently a New York Times columnist, received a standing ovation for his report on the dire situation in Sudan and his proposals for what can be done to change it. In 2006, Kristof won a second Pulitzer for his coverage of the genocide.
“It’s obviously a little unusual for a columnist to harp on a … somewhat obscure area of the world,” Kristof said. “But I want to haunt you with some of these scenes.”
He then presented the audience with several pictures of the refugees he met in Sudan, sharing the stories he heard from them.
“You think you’ve seen the rock bottom of human behavior, and then you see this,” he added, referring to the image he showed of a man whose eyes had been gouged out by bayonets. He emphasized that the Sudanese government was undoubtedly orchestrating a plan to “de-populate rural Darfur” by terrorizing the local population.
Through his travels, he also saw “systematic rape of women,” which meant they were effectively exiled from the rest of society, if not eventually arrested for adultery. He added that women were afraid of seeking medical attention because they were tracked down at hospitals as well.
For Kristof, the Sudanese government implemented this genocide because it was the most practical route for them to take.
“[This means that] we can affect their strategy, and we can change their costs and benefits,” he added. It was for this reason that Kristof is against sending in ground troops, and instead hoped that the Sudanese government would be pressured into negotiating a peace agreement.
While he admitted that President George W. Bush was doing a “slightly better” job than former President Bill Clinton on the Rwandan genocide or previous conflicts, he still felt Bush’s performance was “appalling.” According to him, it was up to Bush and other leaders to “promote Darfur to the top of the agenda,” and for this, Kristof suggested delivering a prime-time speech on the issue, or orchestrating a photo op at the White House, among other possibilities. One recommendation he felt would have significant impact on the death toll was to place a no-fly zone over the area so that the Sudanese air force would be unable to bomb villages.
Despite the concrete steps that could be taken, Kristof felt that today’s political leaders would not move on them, and asked for “all sectors of civil society” to take up the call. He admitted that there existed other problems, including diseases such as malaria, that were killing far more people annually than in Darfur, but to Kristof, “genocide is special.”
“I’ve seen kids dying of malaria, of AIDS, but nothing moves me more than going to Darfur and seeing the consequences of a government policy that determines that people are selected on the basis of skin color and tribe and then being thrown into burning huts,” he said. “You go to Darfur and what you see is absolutely evil. … Genocide has to be central on any kind of human agenda.”
Kristof was also concerned about relief efforts in the area. While aid workers could provide minimal medical care to those who made to refugee camps, they are not reaching the rural villages deep within Sudan because the government prevents it. But even for those who are receiving medical care, Kristof mentioned that he felt it inadequate, especially for the survivors who lost their families to the cruel practices by the Janjaweed.
He also believed there may be a “mass evacuation” of aid workers soon because of the increasing banditry, chaos and lack of security in the region, citing that 11 aid workers have recently been killed. With fewer foreign witnesses, Kristof said the genocide could only get worse.
At the same time, however, Kristof “saw the best of humanity as well.” He finished his lecture with a story on a woman who saved her sister from being raped by distracting the Janjaweed. She ended up being gang-raped by eight of them.
”Her way of fighting — of getting back at — the Janjaweed,” Kristof said, “was telling me her story, and letting me use her name, despite the risks.”
When he took questions from the audience, Kristof criticized China for their role in supporting the Sudanese government, but believed that China was beginning to feel “deeply shamed” about it, and that they were now “somewhat helpful.” He also reasoned that today’s political leaders do not actively take up the Darfur issue primarily because they risk “looking powerless” when nothing gets done due to a lack of a clear solution.
On the topic of peacekeepers, Kristof said, “Sudan is stringing us along. … I’m skeptical whether we’ll see those peacekeepers [actually] get to Darfur.” He reiterated that the way to achieve peace was through pressuring Sudan to reach an agreement, similar to the one that was discussed but never finalized last year in May.
In a press conference prior to the event, the columnist admitted his articles had a “stock record quality to them.”
“I want to write about something that’s new, but it’s the same story [with Darfur],” Kristof said to The Sun. “The situation keeps dragging on and on.” He said there has been “modestly greater recognition” of the issue abroad, citing that Saudi Arabia has been helpful, but that more prominence was necessary to put pressure on Sudan.
At the lecture, he also answered a question regarding his support of sweatshops, arguing that the alternative for working in a sweatshop was worse than the conditions he saw while traveling in Asia. To them, the notion of a sweatshop is “just a factory” as Westerners may define it, Kristof said.
Kristof spoke yesterday as part of the Kaplan Family Distinguished Lecture in Public Service lecture series, which brings a speaker every year. He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn ’81, a Cornell trustee and a New York Times journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
Videography in this article by Sun Senior Writer Michael Morisy.