Editor’s Note: Nicholas Kristof, an American journalist who is most well-known for his New York Times column, shares why he felt compelled to share the stories of Darfuri families.
When I first went to Darfur in early 2004, I never imagined I’d become a frequent visitor or a regular commenter on genocide. Frankly, genocide is a lousy issue for a newspaper columnist: you want to be stimulating, surprising, and counterintuitive in a column, and criticizing genocide in a remote part of Africa that no one cares about isn’t surprising at all. Indeed, it’s essentially a recipe for the reader to turn the page.
The problem was that the story just grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. On my first visit, I reached the Chad- Sudan border and was blown away by what I found. Darfuris had been driven from their villages and were in hiding, but they were in desperate need of drinking water to stay alive. The only sources of water were wells scattered across the landscape, and members of the Janjaweed militia were camped at the wells. When men showed up to get water, the Janjaweed would shoot them. When women showed up, the Janjaweed would rape them.
So I watched these Darfuri families sending their little children, ten- year- olds, with donkeys across the desert toward the wells to fetch water, because the Janjaweed often didn’t bother the children. The parents were terrified when they sent their children, and I couldn’t imagine sending my children into danger that way. But there was no alternative. Unless the little children went, the entire families would die of thirst.
I returned from Darfur to the comfort of America, but those scenes haunted me. I went on to writing about other topics—Iraq, domestic policy, and so on—but I knew that those Darfuri families were still in hiding, still sending their children on these crazy missions to get water.
Frankly, those Darfuris seemed to need my help more than other people I might write about.
People often think that newspaper columns are powerful, but in fact that influence is often overstated. If I write about topics that people already have thought about and have a view on—health care, capital punishment, abortion—I change very few minds. People who start out agreeing with me think that I’m brilliant, and those who start out disagreeing think that I’ve completely missed the point. Yet where we as journalists truly do have power is when we shine our spotlight on an uncomfortable truth and force the public and policy makers to take account of it. In other words, our power doesn’t lie in shaping the issues that are already on the agenda but in helping place certain issues on the agenda.
So as the months passed, and I grew increasingly frustrated that nothing was happening about Darfur, that others in the news media weren’t covering the story. I began to think that maybe I should make a return trip. Darfur nagged at me. So I returned three months later, and then again three months after that—and then I couldn’t shake the addiction.
People often ask if it isn’t incredibly depressing to go again and again to Darfur and talk to survivors. Yes, at times it is. You go to Darfur, or Congo, or similar spots, and you encounter the worst atrocities imaginable. But the worst of humanity also tends to bring out the best, in other people. In places like Darfur, I’m truly humbled and awed when I see local people, aid workers, and elders risking their lives on behalf of other people.
In New York, some people don’t want to comment on an issue because they can’t be bothered. In Darfur, I interview rape victims who allow me to use their names and show videos of them, despite enormous stigma and risk, because they say it is the only way they can fight back against the rapists. They express their humanity by risking their own safety and honor to protect other women— and that’s inspiring, not depressing. In contrast, I come back to the United States and see young people who can find no higher way to express their humanity than to have the hottest cell phone or coolest car. “And that’s what’s truly depressing.”
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens—known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad—who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.