Journalism As Activism: Nicholas D. Kristof and the Genocide in Darfur


Journalism As Activism: Nicholas D. Kristof and the Genocide in Darfur

By Or N. Rose, Contributing Editor, Tikkun Magazine

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times where he has exposed the atrocities of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan and the world's lack of response to this crisis. He has brought the plight of the people of Darfur into our lives, and led a call to action for the president and international community to take steps to help end the genocide.

American Jewish World Service will be honoring Mr. Kristof for his passion, conviction and moral leadership at a luncheon in New York City on December 6, 2005.

Or N. Rose: Over the last several few years you have emerged as a unique voice in the mainstream media, using your column as a vehicle for social justice. How did you cultivate this approach to writing?

Nicholas D. Kristof: My most formative journalistic experience was covering the rise of the student democracy movement in China and its subsequent suppression. Earlier in my career I attempted to remain objective in my reporting, but this story forced me to take sides; how could I not stand with the students in the face of government troops that were murdering these young people simply for expressing their opinions.

In truth, I sometimes feel like a fraud in the opinion business because I am not a strongly opinionated person. I tend to live in the gray; I usually react adversely to absolute truth claims. As you can imagine, this often makes my writing process somewhat difficult. Nonetheless, there are certain situations that require direct, unequivocal responses.

Darfur is one issue that you have pursued doggedly over the last two years. How did you learn about it and what moved you to pursue this story with such determination?

In early 2004, I heard both from Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee about a terrible situation brewing along the Sudan-Chad border. As it happened, there was another story I wanted to do in Chad, so I decided to look into this matter as well. I should say that I tend to be suspicious of long-distance reports; they tend to be much more complicated than one expects. In this case, it was just the opposite: when I arrived at the border, everyone I spoke with told me about how their villages were being destroyed by the Janjaweed and the Sudanese army, how men and boys were being killed and how women and girls were being raped.

What I found most powerful on that trip was a story that I heard from several people in hiding about their struggle to find drinkable water. When men would go to the wells the Janjaweed would shoot them; when women would go to the wells the Janjaweed would rape them. So they decided to send their young children, ages 6 or 7, to fetch water, hoping that the Janjaweed would ignore them. It made me wonder what I would do as a parent of three young children—would I send my kids to these wells knowing they would be met by gunmen… but if I didn't send them, how would we get water? To this day, I do not have a clear answer.

This was the first of several trips you made to Darfur. What led you back to western Sudan?

As a columnist it would have been tempting to say, "I have done Darfur and now I'll move on to the next interesting story in Venezuela, China, or Germany." But after I published a few pieces on Darfur and nothing much changed, I became frustrated and determined to continue to shine a light on this neglected subject. At first, I thought that if I pushed the genocide button the international community would respond in some way. When that didn't happen, I decided to return to Darfur two months later to see what had unfolded there since my first visit.

The image that has remained with me from that trip is the scene of refugees camped along the border, seeking shelter under trees. Under the first tree I approached were two orphans whose parents had been killed—a cute little girl about four years old sitting with her baby brother in her arms.

Under the second tree were two brothers, both had been shot, but the one with less severe injuries carried his sibling on his back for 49 days in search of safety.

Under the third tree was a widow whose husband and parents had been shot and her parents' bodies thrown into the village well to poison it.

Under the fourth tree was a woman whose husband and children were killed in front of her, she and her sister were raped and her sister killed; this woman survived but was mutilated.

These were just the first four of many trees, and underneath all of them were more refugees with horrific stories.

Why has Darfur received such little attention in the United States from the government or the media?

Historically, Americans have done very little about genocide, so Darfur fits into a larger pattern of inaction. In fact, one could argue that we've responded better to Darfur than we did to Rwanda. Part of the issue may be racism; the fact that it is black Africans being murdered doesn't help the situation.

But more so than racism, I think there is a widespread feeling among policy makers and ordinary Americans that Africa is a mess. While people agree that Darfur is a tragedy, they also feel that Africa is a wreck and will always be a wreck. We tried to help in Somalia and that was ineffective, so why get involved in Darfur? This has led many people to turn away. This seems to be President Bush's approach—why use valuable political capital in such a messy circumstance when it is easier to pretend it doesn't exist.

Related to this issue is the limited attention span of Americans. In the media, we tend to think that Bush can't walk and chew gum at the same time—he is so preoccupied with Iraq that other issues get neglected. While this is true, it is also true of the media: so much of our attention is dedicated to Iraq that we fail to pay attention to other issues.

What do you think our administration should do about Darfur?

I think the president needs to appoint an envoy to coordinate policy in the region, to work with other governments—especially other Arab and African governments—to put pressure on Sudan to make real change. The American government must use the bully pulpit more than it has to date. President Bush has to shine a light on Darfur and shame the Sudanese into changing their behavior.

I think we also need to apply sanctions against Sudan, not necessarily because the sanctions themselves will be effective, but to show Khartoum and other governments that this is an issue that is important to us. There should also be a no-fly zone imposed over Darfur. If monitors observe a Sudanese plane destroying a village, the plane should be destroyed. Soon enough, they will stop using their planes for this purpose.
What about a military presence in Darfur—American, UN, or African Union troops?

I don't think we should send American troops into Darfur. That would be perceived throughout the Arab world as yet another misguided neocon maneuver. There is, however, much more we can do to support the African Union troops, in terms of supplies and logistics. For example, the African Union forces are running low on fuel; it is ridiculous that they can't move more freely because they don't have proper supplies. If the ground forces need to be expanded, they should be African troops, but if this does not work then UN peacekeepers or NATO forces should also be deployed.

What can the average American citizen do to help stop the genocide in Darfur?

Fundamentally, I think it's a question of getting our government to respond with greater focus and determination. In the abstract it should not be so difficult because there is no political constituency in this country that supports genocide. It's just a matter of having enough people express their outrage before the machinery of the political system will click into place and things will begin to change. Sadly, this has not yet happened.

This article is republished with the permission of Tikkun Magazine (

Or N. Rose, a contributing editor to Tikkun Magazine, is director of informal education at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. Or will be serving as a scholar-in-residence for the 2006 AJWS Rabbinic Students Delegation to El Salvador.