NICHOLAS KRISTOF: THE CRISIS OF OUR TIMES
"What I learned from him was that you could perhaps better tell the story of a place by writing of a tiny village as a sort of prism into the bigger issues the culture was facing."
Nicholas Kristof’s floor of the New York Times building is surprisingly quiet. “The third and fourth are where the activity is,” notes his assistant, who is calmly working at her computer while we wait for her boss to get off the phone. On her bulletin board is a bumper sticker that says “DEMOCRATS ARE HOT!” and a pack of Menudo collectors’ cards. “I worry that they were printed fairly recently,” she quips. Kristof ends his call, apologizes for the delay (though he is right on time), leads us into his office, and invites us to sit. Featured on his walls and windowsill are artifacts from Africa and Asia, and bright paintings in yellow and blue by his young children. Among rows of policy books on his shelves is a faux-tabloid newspaper cover with Kristof’s picture. The headline reads: “SEXIEST MAN ALIVE.” Our photographer, Jesse Chehak, admires a large photograph of JFK mounted over the sofa, signaling to it with a nod. The president’s back is to the viewer, his head slung down toward the desk in a posture of exasperation. “It looks like one of those moments,” says Kristof, “where Jack Kennedy is contemplating a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, but I think he was just reading the newspaper or something.”
In every way, Kristof seems a man driven. As an Op-Ed columnist and polemical figure, his star-power is huge (he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, shared a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1990, but if you Google him, you will quickly discover how much contention his columns cause on blogs). He is determined to report on the horrors of our decade, and even risks going beyond reporting. Earlier this year, for instance, he bought women forced into prostitution their freedom in Asia and returned them to their parents. Though his primary focus is on China and East Asia, Kristof has devoted a great deal of attention lately to the crisis in Darfur. In February, he released four photographs from a secret archive maintained by the African Union. The archive holds thousands of images of genocide victims accompanied by a memo allegedly announcing the government’s intent: to change the demographics of Sudan by eliminating non-Arabs from the population. Though Darfur is becoming a household word, the killings and rapes continue, so Kristof keeps going back, hoping his dispatches will resonate. We asked him about his efforts in the region, and why he risks crossing over from journalism into activism.
Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: How many men, women, and children have died in Darfur as a result of this conflict?
Kristof: We don’t really have any idea. The estimates that have been going around range from somewhere more than 100,000 to 400,000 or so. There are certainly more estimates closer to the 400,000 level. At this juncture, unless we get something more credible, the higher range is probably closer to reality.
Guernica: What is the single encounter with Darfur, its victims, or its survivors, that has impacted you the most?
Kristof: On my very first trip, one of the things that really got to me was talking to parents who had been burned out of their villages, had family members killed, and then when men showed up at the wells to get water, they were shot. When women showed up, they were raped. And so these parents were ending up sending their very small children, their five-year-old kids with donkeys, to fetch water because they were most likely to emerge unscathed. And these parents were embarrassed they were doing this, and horrified, but it was also the only way to get water and stay alive. I just thought about what I would do as a parent if I were in that situation. I found that choice so excruciating. That was one of the things that helped me to make a second trip, and a third trip, and more recently, a fourth trip.
Guernica: Among the survivors you’ve met, I imagine you must have encountered a mix of emotions. What comes through the most—horror, shock, or rage?
Kristof: There’s certainly a lot of, maybe, shock. This sense of people who’d been living perfectly happily in their villages, and then all of a sudden the first encounter they have with the modern world is helicopter gunships strafing their village. All of a sudden their husband’s dead and maybe a child is dead and they have absolutely nothing—and they’re heading through the desert at night. There is an element of anger among women who’ve been raped. There’s certainly a major element of humiliation. But it really does seem like a medical condition of shock and horror.
Another thing that you always see that is almost embarrassing, is how hospitable people are. Especially on one of my trips to the Chad-Sudan border last summer. These people were taking shelter under trees. I go and talk to them. Whenever I showed up under a tree to talk to these widows, people who’d been raped and mutilated, they’d always make sure that I had something, which would typically mean water—the only thing they had to serve. And it would be dirty water (laughs) in some old plastic bag, you know—totally horrifying to drink. The degree to which they were willing to share the little they had, the nothing they had with me, did make me feel rather guilty about not doing more for them.
Guernica: Do you hear direct appeals to Americans for help?
Kristof: Rarely. The more sophisticated Sudanese, the ones who’ve been more educated, who have some kind of notion of how the world works, they have. But it’s quite uncommon. Usually people are very much focused on keeping their kids alive.
Guernica: I noticed in your columns lately, you seem to be focusing on less pessimistic aspects of the crisis in Sudan. Is this because you’ve found that Americans disengage from the gloom and doom?
Kristof: I think they do. There seems to be this sense among even well-meaning Americans that Africa is this black hole of murder and mutilation that can never be fixed no matter what we do, no matter what aid is brought in. And so I’m finding lately that a little bit of attention can go a long way.
Guernica: What’s the significance of the town of Labado?
Kristof: What I think we see with a place like Labado is that with just a small security force, the village has been able to rebuild. With just a tiny force, you would see people going back to homes that had been burned, putting thatch over their structures again, and a lot of optimism about getting back to their lives. They still couldn’t leave the area to go outside without the danger of men being killed or women being raped, but it was a start. Wherever you look in Labado, you see these large tins of food with “USA” written across them. I found that so inspiring and I was proud to see those emblems of our help. In fact, I saw one man had made a satellite dish out of them. I was very proud of that. It shows that you don’t need to invade a place, or install a new government, to help bring about a positive change. Just a little help, a small security force, a bit of food, can save lives.
Guernica: Tell me a little more about the secret archive of photos you revealed in February. You showed four photos. How many were there?
Kristof: There were thousands.
Guernica: How did you come across these photos?
Kristof: The photos were taken by African Union soldiers. Someone gave them to me to have a look at, and I showed them to some other journalists, and then people in Congress saw them. I thought it was really important that they be seen, because I thought if people could see them, then there would be public outcry. No one would be able to say, “We just didn’t know what was going on there.”
Guernica: I think you asked in your column that the rest be released, not just the four you had permission to show--
Kristof: Well, they didn’t give me permission to show any of them. I just did it. These are photographs that are still being taken but aren’t being shown. They’re in a secret archive and you’ve seen what they’re like. Just the four, which feature a little boy near his brother, who I cropped out because his face had been bashed away; another is of a skeleton bound at the wrists with pants still around its ankles; if it was a woman, she was likely raped, or if it was a man, he was possibly castrated—these show the nature of what’s happening there. As a writer, I hate to say this, but pictures, images really do say a thousand words—I mean (signals to interviewer) like the painting Guernica which caused such a stir when it first appeared. I am afraid these images are horribly inappropriate for a daily newspaper, but I wanted them to be seen so that there would be some public outcry. And of course, these pictures are still being taken, but they’re being stored away. I wish they would put them up regularly on their website so that people would know what is going on there.
Guernica: A recent International Crisis Group/Zogby International poll found that 80% of Americans think we should be doing more in Darfur. And many people are talking about Darfur: Samantha Power, you, people in Congress. Many even say a program to end the genocide wouldn’t be very difficult—beginning with sanctions, a no-fly zone to end the strafing, implementing the International Criminal Court to prosecute the perpetrators. So, what’s the missing ingredient? Why have the killings and rapes continued? It must be terribly frustrating for someone as engaged as you.
Kristof: Yes, it is frustrating. It really is quite remarkable that Darfur has become a household name. And I am gratified that’s the case. But I think the missing ingredient is that while Americans have heard of Darfur and think we should be doing more there, they aren’t actually angry at the president about inaction. While there is a certain degree more awareness than in past instances of genocide, that hasn’t translated into greater action. And I think it’s because there isn’t a political price to be paid yet for doing nothing. People need to get upset with President Bush. People need to get upset with their Congressmen.
Guernica: Does this mean that you are upset with President Bush? I mean, he’s the first United States president to utter the word “genocide” from the White House, and then he does virtually nothing, not even mentioning it again for how many days and counting? Some of your columns do seem to register some heavy emotions.
Kristof: Well, yes, I am upset. What I was counting was how long between mentions of Darfur, but if you count from when he first calls it genocide to when he mentions it again, that’s different. President Bush did help the region significantly by taking that initial step and condemning it as genocide and by helping to end the north-south conflict there. Likely those actions helped save hundreds of thousands of lives. But there are hundreds of thousands who’ve died while he said and did virtually nothing at all. Recently he struck down the Sudan Accountability Act, which would hold accountable those who perpetrated these atrocities.
Guernica: Is there anything to be optimistic about?
Kristof: I think it’s dangerous to be optimistic. Things could go terribly wrong there virtually overnight. The conflict could escalate to where we’re seeing 100,000 victims per month. But I’m not pessimistic, either.
Guernica: In the context of your career, how does this issue sit?
Kristof: Frankly, there are other issues I have felt more emotionally connected to. Like China, where I lived and worked for some time. I was living there when Tiananmen Square erupted--
Guernica: Which resulted in your and your wife’s Pulitzer?
Kristof: Yeah, yeah. And it is something that—quite frankly—I felt to be more emotionally… (thinks) charged, or that I’d internalized more, having lived there and having been immersed in the culture.
Guernica: When did you decide you wanted to be a journalist? Did you have a hero in journalism?
Kristof: I got my start because I was on the student newspaper and I missed a meeting (laughs) and was elected editor in absentia…
Guernica: And I guess it stuck?
Kristof: As soon as I was old enough to drive, I got a job at a local newspaper. But there was someone, though not exactly a hero, who influenced me. His name was, I think, Victor Zorza. I never met him. But he wrote a column for The Guardian from this tiny village in India. What I learned from him was that you could perhaps better tell the story of a place by writing of a tiny village as a sort of prism into the bigger issues the culture was facing. It struck me as a better way to learn about a place, or at least a different way, than just going to interview the president. So I have often tried to tell the story of a place through people there. But I’m just amazed. The fact that people will pay you to talk to people and travel to interesting places and write about what intrigues you, I am just amazed by that.
Guernica: How many emails do you get per day?
Kristof: Well, the bulk of the emails tend to come after a column. I can get about 2,000 after a column.
Guernica: Now I know some of your colleagues claim that they read all the emails they get. Do you?
Kristof: I try to be careful about the wording on that… Usually my assistant, Winter, reads them. It varies. If I’m writing about religion, for instance, the number might go way up. Recently I came back from a trip to 20,000.
I try to respond to typical ones. One of the things I’ve tried to combat in my blog, kristofresponds.com, is the notion that we [journalists] are arrogant and unconcerned with the readership—so I hope that answering some of the questions I get can help combat that notion.
Guernica: What are some of the worst emails you get?
Kristof: Well, when they call me an idiot or something terribly insulting, that’s not as bad as when they say… Actually, I am always perplexed by the ones that say that “columns like yours today are exactly why I never read your column.” (laughs)
Guernica: I imagine the most welcome ones are the ones where you get a story lead?
Kristof: Yes, when I was covering intelligence failures, for instance, I actually got a lot of helpful emails from members of the intelligence community. Or if I’m writing about something I don’t know much about but am very interested in, I can get some very informative letters.
Guernica: I gather that people sometimes send you money…
Kristof: Yes, that’s actually a big problem because sometimes they send cash and I always feel like I have to give them a receipt and then pass along the money. It’s quite a task.
Guernica: What was the largest amount you ever got?
Kristof: Someone wrote in to say he wanted to give a million dollars. He had earned quite a bit from Microsoft dividends and wanted to know of a good charity that would help in Darfur. So I suggested donating it to Doctors Without Borders; they do good work. He ended up only giving $500,000, but…
Guernica: And didn’t Bill Gates credit your articles for much of the philanthropy he does? He had had a plan to wire the third world, but after a series you did on poverty there, he said he decided to get more engaged?
Guernica: It seems like you created a monster.
Kristof: (laughs) Yes, he’s done some fantastic work. But I think one of my articles simply pointed him toward the issue and he did a lot of reading and research on his own. I don’t deserve much credit.
Guernica: If you had a direct line to everyone in America, not just the Times’ many million readers, but everyone, what would you say to them about Darfur?
Kristof: Write letters to your editors, write to your members of Congress, and write to your news stations.
Guernica: If you had a direct line to George Bush—and in a way you do, assuming he really does read the paper sometimes—and I assume you’ve met him?
Kristof: Yes, I covered him.
Guernica: What would you say to him if you knew it was the most open hearing he was capable of?
Kristof: You will be judged in years to come by how you responded to genocide on your watch.
Guernica: How will the response to Darfur go down in history?
Kristof: I think badly. It’s easy to keep issuing blame to Republicans or the president, and it’s important to note that when George Bush has taken action on behalf of Sudan, he’s saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. But in his silence, hundreds of thousands more have been killed and raped and traumatized, and it wouldn’t have taken much for him to stop it. But it’s also important to point out—and I think this is a criticism a little closer to home—that the news media haven’t done nearly enough. The news media’s silence, particularly television news, is reprehensible. If we knew as much about Darfur as we do about Michael Jackson, then we might be able to stop these things from continuing. And… (thinks) to be fair, we all might ask ourselves why we tune in to these more trivial matters and tune out when it comes to Darfur.
Guernica: Is there anyone in particular you think of when you get tired of talking about Darfur, or someone you haven’t written about that inspires you to keep focusing on the crisis?
Kristof: On an earlier trip I met these brothers, and the younger one was practically an infant and he wasn’t doing well at the time. In fact, it didn’t seem like he would survive. But when I went back more recently, he was doing really well and was healthy. That was gratifying to see. There was also this woman who had survived and had made it into one of the refugee camps, but her grandson was missing, and she was planning on going back into Darfur to find him. I’d be curious to know what happened to her. I suppose three possibilities are that she didn’t find her grandson, but made it back to Chad—this is the most likely—or that she now is missing, which is possible. But what I hope happened is also probably the least likely possibility, that she found her grandson and made it back out of Darfur. So I think of people like her. I think of that little boy who survived.
Guernica: Now I know you’re a journalist and not an activist, but in a case like this, in a career like yours, does the line separating the two get thin?
Kristof: You know, I worry about that quite a bit. I’ve gotten dangerously close to the line, or I’ve—I mean, I’ve leaned way over the line if not crossed it—by talking policy with politicians, by making direct appeals to readers to act. I’m actually quite concerned about that, and I’ve had many discussions about it. But I think when hundreds of thousands of lives are on the line, you might have to set aside some principles.