Monday, June 06, 2005

Genocide under our noses: What to do about Darfur?

Nicholas Kristof's column in the Times today is a must-read -- as I've mentioned before, he's at his strongest when he's reporting from faraway forgotten lands, and his work on Darfur is notably powerful.

Last fall President Bush declared the slaughter here in Darfur to be genocide, and then looked away. One reason for his paralysis is apparently the fear that Darfur may be another black hole of murder and mutilation, a hopeless quagmire to suck in well-meaning Americans - another Somalia or Iraq.

It's not.

We're again making the same mistake we've made in past genocides: as in the slaughter of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans and Bosnians, we see no perfect solutions, so we end up doing very little. Because we could not change Nazi policies, we did not bother to bomb rail lines leading to death camps; today, because we have little leverage over Sudan, we do not impose a no-fly zone to stop the strafing of civilians or even bother to speak out forcefully.

So what exactly is going on in, say, the town of Labado?

For months, Labado was completely deserted and appeared destined to become a ghost town. But then African Union forces, soldiers from across Africa who have been dispatched to stop the slaughter, set up a small security outpost of 50 troops here. Almost immediately, refugees began returning to Labado, followed by international aid groups.

Today there are perhaps 5,000 people living in the town again, building new thatch roofs over their scorched mud huts. The revival of Labado underscores how little it takes to make a huge difference on the ground. If Western governments help the African Union establish security, if we lean hard on both the government and the rebels to reach a peace agreement, then by the end of this year Darfur might see peace breaking out.

For now, Labado is only an oasis, and when the people here step out of the town they risk being murdered or raped by the janjaweed militia.

Refugees fleeing to Kalma from a village called Saleya described how nine boys were seized by the janjaweed, stripped naked and tied up, their noses and ears cut off and their eyes gouged out. They were then shot dead and left near a public well. Nearby villagers got the message and fled.

Aid workers report that in another village, the janjaweed recently castrated a 10-year-old boy, apparently to terrorize local people and drive them away. The boy survived and is being treated.

So what to do? Kristof is right on the mark:

Yet along with atrocities, there are hopeful signs. While Mr. Bush should do more, he has forthrightly called the killings genocide and heaped aid on Darfur, probably saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Indeed, aid shipments have brought malnutrition rates in much of Darfur below those of other places in Sudan, partly because donor governments have "borrowed" aid from other regions. So children are going hungry in southern and eastern Sudan as a consequence of Darfur.

If Mr. Bush led a determined effort to save Darfur, there would be real hope for peace here - plus, the international image of the U.S. would improve. And a new Zogby poll commissioned by the International Crisis Group found that Americans by margins of six to one favor bolder action in Darfur, such as a no-fly zone.

But Mr. Bush is covering his eyes. Last year administration figures like Colin Powell and John Danforth led the response to Darfur, but now neither Condoleezza Rice nor the White House seems much interested.

Darfur will never be a Somalia or Iraq, because nobody is talking about sending in American combat troops. But simply an ounce of top-level attention to Darfur would go a long way to save lives...

Mr. Bush values a frozen embryo. But he hasn't mustered much compassion for an entire population of terrorized widows and orphans. And he is cementing in place the very hopelessness he dreads, by continuing to avert his eyes from the first genocide of the 21st century.

One wonders what lessons we've learned. I understand that Vietnam and Somalia and now Iraq have justifiably scared many of America's even more determined hawks. And I understand that Darfur seems like an awfully remote place of little relevance to American national self-interest. And I understand that this isn't just an American problem that demands American unilateral action. After all, one could be equally critical of Canada, for example, or, more severely, of Europe. But let's keep this confined to an American context for now. Genocide is happening. Period. But nothing is happening. For all the rhetoric about the spread of liberty and the march of democracy, for all the talk of regime-change and nation-building, Darfur remains a distant thought, if a thought at all. Instead, we -- and I include myself here -- worry more about the Bolton nomination, or a few extremist judges, or the filibuster, or the European Constitution, or whatever -- often to absolute overkill, especially out here in the echo chambers of the blogosphere.

Look, I do no better. I sit here at my computer day after day and write posts on a variety of seemingly fascinating topics, linking to other sites and hoping for an occasional link in return, probably more concerned about my "traffic" than about thousands of anonymous deaths on a continent I've never even been to. And I comment and I comment and, from time to time, I wallow in my own self-importance and lust for recognition. Some of this is only natural. We live in our own worlds and what is our own -- ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbourhoods, our countries -- is most immediate and most important to us. There's no way around that, and even a healthy humanitarian perspective can't overcome that innate prejudice. And, too, opening our eyes to the horrendous events of some faraway forgotten land only brings shame. And who wants to feel such intense shame? But maybe that's exactly what we need. Maybe we do need to be shamed into doing something serious about what's going on in a place like Darfur.

And maybe we need to get angry. Why can't we all open our windows, lean our heads out, and shout, I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore? I'm not going to sit idly by while so many of my fellow human beings -- people I've never met but who, for all intents and purposes, are a lot like me -- suffer so horribly. Some such suffering may be inevitable. I'm enough of a realist about human nature, after all, to know that suffering and the infliction thereof won't go away. It's human, all too human. But it's also human, I think, to seek justice. The Greeks called it thymos, or spiritedness. It's that non-rational, non-erotic part of the human soul that underpins political action, preferably directed toward justice. It may to tough to muster that kind of spiritedness for the sake of justice across national boundaries and, indeed, across oceans and continents. But the world is smaller than ever before, and perhaps even flatter than ever before. We know what's happening in Darfur because people like Kristof are there, because accounts and images of the atrocities are available all over the media, not least on the internet, and because, in many ways, Darfur really isn't all that far away. The 20th century was marred both by totalitarianism and by mass genocide all around the world. The 21st century is already witnessing its first genocide. But there's time to do something about it, to put a stop to it.

If we learn anything from history, it's that we must act. And we must do so with a firm commitment to ensuring that justice is done. It's the right thing to do. Nothing less is acceptable.

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