Nicholas D. Kristof: Our least efforts save thousands of lives
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
ALONG THE CHAD-SUDAN BORDER In June I wrote several columns about
Magboula Muhammad Khattar, a young Sudanese woman whose parents and
husband had been murdered in Darfur and who had escaped by night to
the Chad border.
She was living under a tree there. One of her sons was then so sick,
probably from contaminated water – 20,000 people were living out in
the open without a single toilet – that he seemed likely to die. On
returning this month, I searched again for Khattar.
Now each time I write about the genocide in Darfur, I hear from
readers who say something like: “It’s terrible to hear the stories,
but face reality – Africans are always slaughtering each other.” Or:
“It’s none of our business, and anyway we don’t have extra troops to
send.” Or: “There’s nothing we can do.” If that were true, then
Khattar would now be dead.
So would the woman I met huddled under the very next tree, Zahra Abdel
Karim, whose husband and two young sons had been slaughtered by the
Janjaweed militia. She had been gang-raped along with her two sisters,
who were then killed.
Zahra was slashed with a sword and left to hobble away, naked and
bleeding – but determined to survive so she could stagger across the
desert to Chad and save her remaining child.
Yet I had a wonderful reunion here with Khattar and Zahra, who are now
fast friends. They and the other 200,000 Darfur refugees in Chad are
living in camps, with tents for shelter, purified water, medical care
and food distributions.
Even within Darfur itself, the UN World Food Program managed to get
food to 1.3 million people last month out of the 2 million who need
it. “It’s much better here now,” Khattar told me, flashing a beautiful
smile as her son – now recovered – played with other children a few
I also tracked down two lovely orphans, Nijah and Nibraz Ahmed, 1 and
4 years old, whom I had met in June after their parents were both
killed by the Janjaweed. Their grandmother sneaked back into Darfur
two weeks ago to try to find their older brother, so their widowed
aunt is caring for them. Her situation has improved enough that she
fed me a home-cooked breakfast on the ground outside her tent.
The improvement for the refugees in Chad underscores how easy it is to
save lives in a situation like this. Just a dollop of international
attention led Sudan to rein in the Janjaweed to some degree, and to
provide more humanitarian access. An international aid effort,
overseen by the United Nations, is saving countless lives by spending
as much in a year as Americans spend in Iraq in a few days.
I wish President George W. Bush had done more to help Darfur. But he
has done more than just about any other leader, and his legacy will be
hundreds of thousands of lives saved in Darfur – but also tens of
thousands of deaths that could have been averted if he had acted
Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization estimates that
within Darfur itself, 70,000 people have perished of hunger and
illness since March 1. Add the deaths from violence, the deaths of
refugees in Chad and the deaths before March 1, and my guess is that
the Darfur genocide has claimed more than 100,000 lives so far – and
the total is still rising by 5,000 to 10,000 deaths per month.
If a halfhearted effort can save hundreds of thousands of lives –
without dispatching troops, without a visit to the region by Bush,
without providing all the money that is needed – then imagine what we
could accomplish if we took serious action.
Sudan’s leaders are not Taliban-style fanatics. They are pragmatists
who engaged in genocide because they thought it was the simplest way
to end unrest among tribal peoples in Darfur. If we raise the costs of
ethnic cleansing with a no-fly zone, an arms embargo, travel
restrictions on senior officials and other targeted sanctions, then I
think they can be persuaded to negotiate seriously toward peace.
The history of genocide in the last century is one in which
well-meaning Americans were distressed as Turks slaughtered Armenians,
Nazis rounded up Jews and Gypsies, and Serbs wiped out Bosnians – but
because there were no good or easy options, they did nothing. Note to
Bush: This time, we can still redeem ourselves – but time is running
out, at the rate of 200 lives a day.