Facing Down the Killers

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

Published: December 18, 2004
The new movie “Hotel Rwanda” is a gut-wrenching true story of a hotel manager who sheltered 1,268 people in his hotel during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, bribing, begging and bullying the killers who came to hack people apart with machetes.
One of the most powerful scenes comes when the U.N. commander admits to the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, that the West is allowing the genocide to run its course. “We think you’re dirt, Paul,” he says brokenly, adding: “You’re an African. … They’re not going to stop the slaughter.”
Against that backdrop of local butchery and Western indifference, the hotel manager summons the courage to stare down the killers, even as they hold guns to his head. The film is painful to watch not only for the slaughter it depicts, but also because it forces us, as viewers, to wonder what we would do in such a situation.
But we don’t have to wonder. We know, for a genocide is unfolding again, in Darfur. And rather than standing up to the killers, we’re again acquiescing.


The Darfur situation, after a few months of looking a bit more hopeful, is deteriorating sharply. The rebels have grown more intransigent, and security on the ground is getting worse. Save the Children has now had four aid workers killed in Darfur, and aid groups are pulling back.
“The present situation in Darfur is therefore that of a time bomb, which could explode at any moment,” Maj. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, the commander of an African Union force, said at a press conference yesterday. He said an “astronomical” amount of weaponry had been brought into Darfur, and suggested that the fighting was now poised to get much worse.
Early in his presidency, Mr. Bush read a report about Bill Clinton’s paralysis during the Rwandan genocide and scrawled in the margin, “Not on my watch.”
But in fact the same thing is happening on his watch, and I find that heartbreaking and baffling. Mr. Bush’s core constituency, the religious right, has been pushing him to be more active on Sudan, and some of the first people to jump up and down about Darfur were in Mr. Bush’s own Agency for International Development.
Mr. Bush did take modest action (much more than most Europeans), and even these baby steps halted the worst of the killing, saving tens of thousands of lives. So, in effect, Mr. Bush had the ball in his hands – and then fumbled it.
What should the president do?
Mr. Bush should travel to Sudan, as Tony Blair did. He should forcefully denounce the brutality – and also the misconduct of the rebels. He should convene a summit meeting to organize a larger international force for Darfur. He should push ahead with a U.N. resolution, even at the risk of a veto from China. And he should threaten targeted economic sanctions against Sudan’s leaders unless attacks stop immediately.
Finally, Mr. Bush should bar the Sudan government from using its aircraft to terrorize civilians. Imposing such a no-fly zone wouldn’t have to involve constant surveillance flights. As an American general, Charles Wald, whose command includes Africa, told me, “It would be easier to tell the Sudanese that if they do use aircraft for civilian attacks, bad things will happen to their planes on the ground.” After Sudan lost its first plane, it might stop strafing civilians.
What can ordinary Americans do? They can call the White House or their members of Congress to demand action, and they can reach into their pockets. Jack Weisberg, a New Yorker with no previous interest in such causes, asked me for the name of an organization doing good work in Darfur. I mentioned Doctors Without Borders. Saying he was suffering an “attack of conscience,” he then wrote the group a check for $500,000.
“Look, I love money,” Mr. Weisberg said. “But it’s time to share what I’ve made. … Our money is life to them.”
A lot of lives, in the case of his donation, although even a $20 contribution goes a long way in Sudan. But above all we need Mr. Bush to show some moral leadership – and, yes, some of his “moral values.”
Mr. Bush bemoaned Mr. Clinton’s use of the White House for sex with an intern, and he was right to do so. But it’s incomparably more immoral, and certainly a greater betrayal of American values, for Mr. Bush to sit placidly in the White House and watch a genocide from the sidelines.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times

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