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Mass Murder in Slow Motion—Genocide in Darfur

Nicholas D. Kristof, one of the most influential columnists for The New York Times, has written some truly wretched attacks upon evangelical Christianity and Christian conservatives. He appears absolutely puzzled by the fact that the vast majority of Americans indicate belief in the virgin birth of Christ and reject Darwin’s theory of evolution. Indeed, Kristof’s dismissive and condescending criticisms of evangelical Christianity appear to have become something of an obsession–but not Kristof’s only obsession, as it happens. For Nicholas Kristof is one of the few journalists to have covered the unfolding genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan with journalistic intensity and moral clarity.

Writing in the February 9, 2006 edition of The New York Review of Books, Kristof describes the disaster in Sudan as “Genocide in Slow Motion.” Hauntingly, Kristof begins with a bit of historical context. “During the Holocaust, the world looked the other way. Allied leaders turned down repeated pleas to bomb the Nazi extermination camps or the rail lines leading to them, and the slaughter attracted little attention. My newspaper, The New York Times, provided meticulous coverage of World War II, but of 24,000 front page stories published in that period only six referred on page one directly to the Nazi assault on the Jewish population of Europe. Only afterward did many people mourn the death of Anne Frank, construct Holocaust museums, and vow: Never Again.”

The history of the last century demonstrates that Western governments are exceedingly slow to respond to mass murder and genocide. This was true in 1915 when former President Theodore Roosevelt and American ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr. attempted to convince President Woodrow Wilson to intervene as the Turks were slaughtering Armenians. Western nations stood by and allowed Rwandans to slaughter each other in 1994. “The only thing President Clinton did for Rwandan genocide victims was to issue a magnificent apology after they were dead,” Kristof recalls.

Now, genocide is unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan, and Western governments still debate whether or not the atrocity should rightly be called genocide.

The word “genocide” was coined by Rafael Lemkin, a Polish attorney who devised the word in order to describe “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” Lemkin first used the word in 1943, and since then the term has often been abused and misapplied. Still, the experience of humanity over the last two centuries indicates that genocide is an essential designation for efforts to annihilate tribal and ethnic groups.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined the crime as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

As Kristof explains, this may mean “an attempt to exterminate an entire ethnic group.” Nevertheless, it can also mean the infliction of mass injuries, killings, and sexual violence. All of these are taking place in Darfur.

“In my years as a journalist, I thought I had seen a full kaleidoscope of horrors, from babies dying of malaria to Chinese troops shooting students to Indonesian mobs beheading people. But nothing prepared me for Darfur, where systematic murder, rape, and mutilation are taking place on a vast scale, simply based on the tribe of the victim,” Kristof writes. “What I saw reminded me why people say that genocide is the worst evil of which human beings are capable.”

In the 1990s, the world became aware of genocide in southern Sudan, with Arab militias massacring Christians. American evangelicals sought to draw attention to the mass killings in the south, but, as Kristof recalls, these atrocities “aroused relatively little international reaction.”

Kristof now draws attention to genocide taking place in the Darfur region, in the Western extreme of Sudan. Here, the genocide is not grounded in religious persecution, since all involved are at least nominally Muslim. The Darfur genocide is often explained in terms of Arabs killing Africans. Kristof acknowledges that this explanation may be overly simplistic, given intermarriage between tribes and the fact that all parties are in some way related to Africa. “But while shorthand descriptions are simplistic,” Kristof asserts, “they’re also essentially right.” As he explains, the murdering ethnic militias, mostly Arab groups known as the Janjaweed, have been set loose with the tacit permission of the Sudanese government, who would like to be rid of insurgent tribes in the Western region. The Janjaweed, along with the Sudanese government leaders, are Arabs, while most of their victims are members of non-Arab African tribes. As Kristof reports, the killers are frequently lighter-skinned than their victims and they routinely use racial epithets about killing and raping the “blacks.”

As expected, the political dynamics of the situation are difficult to untangle. Nevertheless, Kristof helpfully gets to the heart of the matter: “The Sudanese leadership therefore decided to adopt the same strategy it had successfully employed elsewhere in Sudan, using irregular militias to slaughter tribes that had shown signs of resistance.”

Thus, when the Sudanese leadership was threatened with unrest in Darfur, “their instinctive response was to start massacring civilians. It had worked before, and it had aroused relatively little international reaction.”

Kristof, who has traveled extensively throughout the region, reports that “the Janjaweed and the Sudanese army work hand in hand as they have in the past.”

The violence, murder, and evil visited on these ethnic groups is beyond comprehension. Kristof carefully documents the strategic use of sexual violence against both males and females in Darfur. “Indeed, the mass rapes in Darfur have been among the most effective means for the government to terrorize tribal populations, break their will, and drive them away,” Kristof reports.

In the main, the sexual violence is directed against women. In Sudan, this means that a woman who has been raped is evicted from her family and is forced to live in her own hut, quite alone. She is shamed for life, and her extended family shares the burden of her shame. Adding insult to injury, the Sudanese government has repeatedly imprisoned women who have been impregnated by rape, charging them with adultery.

Beyond this, the practice of infibulation, common among many tribes, means that the rape of an unmarried girl or woman is especially violent and demeaning.

To a lesser extent, men and boys have also suffered sexual violence and castrations are “not uncommon.” Yet, Kristof acknowledges that “it is not clear that this is centrally directed policy.” Indeed, men and boys are usually just killed outright. Kristof tells of one villager who explained why women often are forced to go outside the camps, exposing themselves to the Janjaweed, in order to gather firewood. “When the men go out, they’re killed,” this person explained. “The women are only raped.”

Kristof praises the Bush administration for its relatively successful intervention in southern Sudan. “President Bush had given high priority to ending the war in southern Sudan (which is entirely separate from the war in Darfur, and he achieved a tentative peace agreement to resolve the north-south war after twenty years and the loss of two million lives. That is one of Bush’s most important foreign policy achievements, and this means that his administration–and the conservative Christians in his base–were particularly aware of events in Sudan.” Yet, Kristof accuses the Bush administration directly (and evangelical Christians indirectly) of being far less concerned with the violence against Muslims in Darfur. He describes the Bush administration as distracted while United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is “trapped in his innate politeness.” Annan “should be using his position to express outrage about the slaughter,” Kristof argues, “but he seems incapable of the necessary degree of fury.”

What about the news media? Kristof set off something of a firestorm last year when he accused American newspapers of ignoring the Darfur genocide. Some editors quickly responded with the argument that many regions of the world demand attention, and that Kristof’s criticism was unfair. The columnist is undeterred and unfazed by the criticism, arguing that the genocide in Darfur represents a unique challenge to the Western conscience and to the very character of democratic nations. Can we simply turn our eyes away from slaughter and brutality of this magnitude?

When it comes to television coverage, Kristof is particularly savage in his criticism. “A couple of decades ago, television provided genuine news about the world,” Kristof argues. “Today, it mostly settles for brief and superficial impressions, or for breathless blondes reporting on missing blondes.”

His comments about “breathless blondes reporting on missing blondes” underlines the fact that hundreds of hours of American television “news” have been devoted to a handful of missing Americans, while others around the world are dying by the millions. This is not to depreciate in any way the suffering and pain of those who have experienced the loss of a loved one–but it does indicate something of the lack of seriousness that lies behind much television news programming.

Of course, the underlying problem is not the inattentiveness of news organizations, but the general lack of concern found among the American people. In general terms, this “collective failure” is shared with others around the world, including international organizations, the United Nations, and other governments. The fact is that Americans, including most American Christians, are far more interested in domestic and personal concerns than in the fate of millions suffering slaughter and degradation outside our range of vision.

In her Pulitzer-prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power suggests that “American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil.” She continues: “Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge cease-fires and donate humanitarian aid.”

All that may be well and good, Kristof explains, but it is hardly enough. In a more hopeful sense, Kristof believes that intervention in Sudan, undertaken by an international force, could lead to a negotiated settlement, as was the case in the north-south war of the last decade.

Meanwhile, the death toll mounts and the suffering is multiplied. The United Nations estimates that if Darfur collapses completely, the death toll may reach 100,000 a month. Beyond this, Kristof warns that the instability in Darfur has now crossed over into Chad. “There is a real possibility that civil war will again break out there in the next year or two, and that could be a cataclysm that would dwarf Darfur,” he warns.

Here at home, most American Christians are busy taking care of their families, working in their churches, fulfilling their vocations, and attempting to pay some attention to domestic and international developments. A tragedy like the genocide in Darfur can all too easily escape our attention or fall between the cracks of our active consciousness.

Nicholas Kristof’s courageous and clear-headed reports from Darfur should awaken the Christian conscience to the evil of genocide and the necessity of doing something more than watching as millions are massacred. Merely knowing about the crisis does not solve the crisis–but it is a necessary first step.